For over 100 years, the International Olympic Committee has sponsored official documentaries celebrating both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Most of these originate within the country hosting the games. Visions of Eight (1973) was brought to the organizing committee of the XXth Olympiad by Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning American documentary producer and filmmaker David L. Wolper. It was Wolper's idea to present the 1972 Summer Olympic Games as a mosaic seen through the lenses of respected filmmakers from around the world for an anthology film. Like the games themselves, the directors would represent an international collaboration.
Wolper's original wish list of directors included Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski, all of whom initially expressed interest but ultimately declined. Ten directors from 10 different countries were finally signed to the project and the completed anthology presents, in the words of the film itself, "the separate visions of eight singular film artists." In order of presentation, the contributing filmmakers are Yuriy Ozerov from the Soviet Union, Mai Zetterling from Sweden, Arthur Penn from the United States, Michael Pfleghar from Germany, Kon Ichikawa from Japan, Miloš Forman from Czechoslovakia, Claude Lelouch from France and John Schlesinger from England. However, of the original 10 signed, Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli dropped out in protest of the " politicization of the Olympic spirit" when the apartheid country of Rhodesia was excluded from the games; and Ousmane Sembène of Senegal never completed his sequence, which was intended to follow the Senegalese basketball team from training camp to the games.
The filmmakers were given complete creative freedom (within budget limitations) to bring their own personal perspective to a 10-to-12 minute short film on one dimension of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games. Once the filmmakers and producers agreed upon an event, the directors went to work with their own crews for their segments. With only a couple of exceptions, the athletes are not identified onscreen and the medal ceremonies—a standard part of most Olympic documentaries and TV presentations—are all but absent. The filmmakers focus on the athletes, the events and culture of the Olympic Games.
"I realized that the most exhausting, endeavoring and dramatic contest is the decathlon," said Miloš Forman in an interview featured on his official website. “Therefore, I chose it as my theme. Almost each event has its own special rhythm which I emphasized with specific music." Musical performances of German beerhall brass bands and Bavarian folk music featuring bell-ringing and alpine horns are intercut with the athletic competitions, culminating with an orchestral performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in the final events as Forman focuses on the exhaustion of the athletes.
Arthur Penn, whose use of slow motion brought out the brutality of the violence at the end of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), used even more dramatic slow-motion imagery for his look at pole vaulters in action in "The Highest." A high-speed technical camera designed for scientific use photographed athletes at 600 frames per second. Oscar-nominated film editor Dede Allen, who also collaborated on Bonnie and Clyde, edited the sequence. Kon Ichikawa, who previously documented the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo Olympiad (1965), also turned to slow motion to analyze the sprinters of the 100-yard dash, using 34 cameras and 20,000 feet of film to draw out the 10-second race.
Mai Zetterling was initially interested in focusing on the women athletes, but after screening documentaries on previous Olympic Games she changed her mind and chose to take on the weightlifters. "I knew nothing about them, and cared less, but as I watched the film I became intrigued by the apparent obsessions that motivate men to distort their bodies so," she explained to journalist George Plimpton. Michael Pfleghar took on "The Women" in his segment and Yuriy Ozerov cast his lens on "The Beginning," which begins with the arrival of the athletes at the Olympic village and ends with preparations for various events. Claude Lelouch chose not an event but a theme. He trained his cameras on athletes in defeat in "The Losers."
The 1972 Summer Olympics were the site of perhaps the most tragic event in Olympic history: the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage in the Olympic Village, all of whom were killed in a rescue attempt. Only one sequence acknowledges this assault on the spirit of the games and the lives of its athletes. John Schlesinger chose the marathon and followed British runner Ron Hill, a scientist who trained on his own before and after work in Lancashire. "The nature of the film about Hill changed personally for me after the Israeli killings," remarked Schlesinger, who was still in London at the time and scheduled to fly to Munich the next day to prepare shooting his sequence.
Schlesinger considered canceling entirely after Wolper refused his request to change subjects and focus on the attack and its reverberations, but he changed his mind after speaking with Hill, who told him, "If I allowed myself to think about what had happened, I would have become emotionally involved and thus not able to run." That single-minded focus intrigued Schlesinger, and he flew to Germany to complete his segment. "That's what I made my film about—that statement." The film ends with the dedication: "In memory of the 11 slain Israeli Athletes, tragic victims of the violence of our times."
The film screened out of competition at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival before it was released in theaters around the world, opening to generally positive reviews. It won the Golden Globe award for best documentary in 1974.
"Olympic Visions of Eight," George Plimpton. Sports Illustrated, August 1973.
Milos Forman's Official Website
AFI Catalog of Feature Films