May 1, 1997 in Features

First-Run Films Not All Running Movies Will Get You In Bloomsday Mood

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Every Bloomsday, at the foot of Doomsday Hill, I’m usually - heh-heh-heh - running on empty.

Quick note to grammar police: My use of “running on empty” is not the mindless passing on of another absurd cliche. Besides being the name of a fairly decent Jackson Browne album, it is the title of a 1988 movie starring Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix.

And it’s a convenient segue into a discussion of Bloomsday ‘97 and running-themed movies.

So if you’re looking for inspiration before undertaking that annual 7.4-mile exercise in self-torture, or if you’re seeking an alternative way to spend Sunday morning, consider watching a movie that allows you entry into the world of running without actually having to break a sweat.

Many such films exist. What you choose depends on availability (all films mentioned in this story have been released on video, though a few may be hard to find locally).

More important, however, your choices depend on how narrowly you define “running.”

For example, there is:

Running as a concept

We’re talking here of running in a larger sense, even euphemistically, as in the phrases “My tank is running low” or “Now, there’s a jerk who really likes to run off at the mouth!”

“Running on Empty” is the story of two ‘60s-era Vietnam war resisters. Years after committing a serious crime, they and their two children are still hiding out from the FBI (Get it? They’re “on the run”). Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti portray the parents, and the late River Phoenix plays their elder son whose love of family is matched only by his passion for music.

The film centers on the dilemma caused when Phoenix is accepted at the Juilliard School of Music, and he decides that he wants to stop to smell the … well, not roses but sheet music.

Running as a concept also is exemplified by the 1972 Michael Ritchie film “The Candidate,” which features Robert Redford as an idealistic young lawyer named Bill McKay. Fresh-faced, blond and handsome as only the 35-year-old Redford was, the beach-boy Californian “runs” for the U.S. Senate and in the end compromises just about every belief he’s held dear.

His sell-out comes post-run when, after winning, he turns to his handlers and asks, “What do we do now?”

They should have put that line on his T-shirt.

Running as a metaphor

Sometimes the link between the act of running and character intention is more abstract. Dustin Hoffman proves that in John Schlesinger’s 1976 film “Marathon Man” in which he portrays a young graduate student pulled against his will into the dangerous world of a former Nazi (Laurence Olivier).

Though it has little to do with the film’s overall storyline, Hoffman’s obsessive pursuit of running ends up helping him survive several attempts on his life. It is his struggle - to discover himself, to reconstruct his past, to figure out how to wake up from the nightmare that has become his existence - that represents his true marathon.

And his ultimate triumph begins with the familiarly haunting words delivered by Olivier with snake-like precision: “Is it safe?”

Running for a reason

Whether we do it to achieve something, to feel better, because we have to or just because it reflects our best traits, running is seldom an empty exercise.

Often it is a means to an end.

In 1976’s “Rocky,” punchy Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) runs because it is the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of getting in shape to fight for the world heavyweight crown. (Trivia question: Who won that first fight?)

In contrast, from the moment that he breaks out of leg braces and escapes from his adolescent tormentors, the title character of 1994’s “Forrest Gump” (Tom Hanks) uses running as a means of self-protection. This holds true even during his three-year run across America.

Football films such as “Everybody’s All-American” (1988) and “Jim Thorpe, All-American” (1951) portray running as an expression of their protagonists’ desire for freedom. Nothing reflects the loss of that freedom better than an aging Thorpe (Burt Lancaster) as he breaks clear of his tacklers on a final run - only to be pulled down from behind.

And then there are the films in which running is particularly goal-specific.

In Spokane’s own “Vision Quest” (1985), Loudon Swain (Matthew Modine) runs drone-like through the city in an attempt to lose weight. His goal is to challenge the best wrestler in the state (note: Terry Davis’ book is better).

Meanwhile, in “Rapa Nui” (1994), Pacific islander Jason Scott Lee agrees to participate in an annual swimming, boating, mountain-climbing and running event because he wants not only to marry his lover but to force his chief into early retirement.

Of course, he’s anxious to avoid the fate of all losers, who are put to death.

Talk about incentive.

Running away/being chased

Incentive, of course, tends to be high when your only choices are to run or die. Fear is certainly what empowered King Arthur (Graham Chapman) when, in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1974) he yelled, “Run awaaaaay!”

So much for comedy. In terms of drama, Alfred Hitchcock knew how to create suspense better than any other filmmaker who ever sketched a storyboard.

He made them run. Hitchcock films from “Saboteur” (1942) to “Frenzy” (1972) portrayed wrongfully accused men fleeing from the police while at the same time trying to capture the true culprits.

One enduring image is of Cary Grant in “North By Northwest” (1959) running for his life as a deadly biplane, machine guns blazing, swoops down upon him.

Straight mysteries that feature running include everything from “The Defiant Ones” (1958), with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis portraying escaped convicts whose only bond is the chain that links them, to “The Fugitive” (1993), the film adaptation of the television series, starring Harrison Ford as the doctor falsely accused of murdering his wife.

Film noir is especially concerned with pursuit. This dark-souled genre, which reigned in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, worked out its principle theme of paranoia through films such as Nicholas Ray’s “They Live By Night” (1949, remade by Robert Altman in 1974 as “Thieves Like Us”), Rudolph Mate’s “D.O.A” (1949, forget the 1988 version) and many more.

Even science fiction has gotten into the running act. Two particularly apt examples are 1987’s “The Running Man,” which stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man condemned to participate in a run-or-die television quiz program, and “Logan’s Run” (1976), which stars Michael York as a policeman running from the law that decrees all citizens to die at age 30.

One sub-genre, which centers on using humans as prey, is particularly popular. Choices range from “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) to “Run For the Sun” (1956) and, more recently, John Woo’s “Hard Target” (1993). The various remakes of “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” first filmed in 1933 as “Island of Lost Souls,” also qualify.

But as far as running for your life goes, nothing beats “The Naked Prey” (1966). Picture Cornell Wilde, director and star, naked and barefoot, pursued across the plains of Africa by a tribe of warriors intent on killing him. The bulk of the movie’s 94-minute running time chronicles Wilde’s wild race against the elements.

Believe me, there are no handy water stops for this guy.

Just running, period

Just running, period? Of course, there is no such thing.

In his recent novel “Bunker Man,” Scottish writer Duncan McLean’s main character thinks of nothing as he jogs along. Thoughts pop into his brain only to be pushed out with the slap of each foot on the road. For him, running is purely a physical endeavor.

And how true is this? In film after film, runners push their bodies to the limit for a number of reasons - escape, ambition, fear, rage. Only a few do it for the pure and simple joy of putting one leg in front of the other.

In the 1962 film version of Alan Sillitoe’s story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” the main character (Tom Courtenay) is a reform-school kid who uses running as a relief from the pressures imposed by forced captivity. It becomes the means of a moral lesson, too.

Morals lessons go hand-in-hand with inspiration, which is the central theme of “Running Brave.” This 1983 film features the improbably cast Robby Benson as Billy Mills, long-shot winner of the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics.

“On the Edge” (1985) is a tale of redemption. Bruce Dern portrays an aging runner who, years after being disqualified for the Olympics, seeks to win a grueling race against the best the world has to offer. Director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) probed much the same message with “Prefontaine” (1997), his film about one-time University of Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine.

In most pure running films, the Olympics are seen as the ultimate goal. That’s true for “Personal Best” (1982), which asks us to see Mariel Hemingway as a potential Olympics hurdler. It is equally true for “Wilma” (1977), a made-for-TV film that stars Cicely Tyson as American sprint star Wilma Rudolph.

“Running” (1972) is a minor look at Olympics distance-running dreams that features Michael Douglas as an aging athlete who wants his one last chance. And “The Games” (1970), which stars Michael Crawford and Ryan O’Neal, tells the stories of four very different competitors for the Olympics marathon.

But the classic film about Olympics running is - no surprise here - “Chariots of Fire” (1981). A study of the 1924 Olympics, during an era in which amateur athletics were still the province of gentlemen, it centers mostly on two sprinters - Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) - and their respective desires to be the world’s best.

Abrahams, who ends up running the 100 meters, seems fueled for victory by inner demons of pride and presumed bias (being Jewish is his source of personal power). It is Liddell, however, who represents the pure spirit of the run.

Whether his strength comes from God, or merely from his own faith melded with great genetics, Liddell is portrayed as a virtual running machine - one whose final-stretch kick provides him a spiritual high.

I’m pretty sure I saw his equivalent one Bloomsday in the recent past - sprinting past me on Doomsday Hill.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SETTING THE PACE With Bloomsday only days away, Dan Webster reveals his list of the best movies involving running.

Running as a concept “Running on Empty” (1988) “The Candidate” (1972)

Running as a metaphor “Marathon Man” (1976)

Running for a reason “Rocky” (1976) “Forrest Gump” (1994) “Everybody’s All-American” (1988) “Jim Thorpe, All-American” (1951) “Vision Quest” (1985) “Rapa Nui” (1994)

Running away/being chased “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1974) “Saboteur” (1942) “Frenzy” (1972) “North By Northwest” (1959) “The Defiant Ones” (1958) “The Fugitive” (1993) “They Live By Night” (1949) “Thieves Like Us” (1974) “D.O.A.” (1949) “The Running Man” (1987) “Logan’s Run” (1976) “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) “Run For the Sun” (1956) “Hard Target” (1993) “Island of Lost Souls” (933) “The Naked Prey” (1966)

Just running, period “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962) “Running Brave” (1983) “On the Edge” (1985) “Prefontaine” (1997) “Personal Best” (1982) “Wilma” (1977) “Running” (1972) “The Games” (1970) “Chariots of Fire” (1981)

This sidebar appeared with the story: SETTING THE PACE With Bloomsday only days away, Dan Webster reveals his list of the best movies involving running.

Running as a concept “Running on Empty” (1988) “The Candidate” (1972)

Running as a metaphor “Marathon Man” (1976)

Running for a reason “Rocky” (1976) “Forrest Gump” (1994) “Everybody’s All-American” (1988) “Jim Thorpe, All-American” (1951) “Vision Quest” (1985) “Rapa Nui” (1994)

Running away/being chased “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1974) “Saboteur” (1942) “Frenzy” (1972) “North By Northwest” (1959) “The Defiant Ones” (1958) “The Fugitive” (1993) “They Live By Night” (1949) “Thieves Like Us” (1974) “D.O.A.” (1949) “The Running Man” (1987) “Logan’s Run” (1976) “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) “Run For the Sun” (1956) “Hard Target” (1993) “Island of Lost Souls” (933) “The Naked Prey” (1966)

Just running, period “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962) “Running Brave” (1983) “On the Edge” (1985) “Prefontaine” (1997) “Personal Best” (1982) “Wilma” (1977) “Running” (1972) “The Games” (1970) “Chariots of Fire” (1981)


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email