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MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Ask the average American to name the greatest U.S. athletes that ever lived and Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali would top the list. Not usually counted among this exalted company is Jim Thorpe, the gifted, extraordinarily versatile Native American phenom. A triple threat who excelled at baseball, football and took home Olympic gold in track, it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do in sports. Off the field though, despite his considerable fame and athletic prowess, he was a second-class citizen. He never quite escaped the stereotypes of his time.
The resurrection of a nearly forgotten sports hero coupled with the exploration of a shameful chapter in American history — the cruel treatment of Indian children at the turn of the 20th century and the pernicious racism that followed them into adulthood — would seem natural ingredients for a scintillating film but Tom Weidlinger’s uninspired documentary, “Jim Thorpe, The World’s Greatest Athlete,” rolls out these parallel yet connected narratives in a linear, perfunctory fashion.
Granted, sports docs such as the “More than a Game” and “Hoop Dreams” have set the bar high. They’ve shown that truth can be as exciting as fiction and that the appeal of sagas about athletes confronting formidable odds can transcend a sports fan base. Devoid of dynamism, “Thorpe” plays like a history lesson and, other than garnering a small audience on educational television won’t draw cheering crowds.
Weidlinger, who wrote and narrates, recounts the events of Thorpe’s life through archival footage, old photographs and interviews with family and historians. Less effective are phony dramatic reenactments to portray Thorpe’s early life and the crackly audio recollections of school chums and teammates that threaten to bring the film to a halt.
From Oklahoma and a descendant of the Sac and Fox tribe, the independent-minded, self-reliant Thorpe landed at Carlisle, a government-run Indian school that functioned like a prison. The deleterious effects of its unofficial motto, “To save the man you must kill the Indian,” are manifest in a class picture of dazed kids ripped from their families, deprived of their language and culture and groomed for the servant classes.
But it was at Carlisle that Thorpe became a star football player under the tutelage of Glenn “Pop” Warner, the coach and mentor who nurtured and exploited him, led him to glory and later betrayed him. Thorpe went on to successful dual careers in professional baseball and football; alcoholism and the Great Depression took their toll; and then Burt Lancaster starred in a romanticized Hollywood movie based on his life.
Thorpe had a bit part in “They Died with Their Boots On.” In one the documentary’s juicier anecdotes, we’re told he punched out Errol Flynn, who played General Custer, after the actor insulted him in a bar. Apparently, Flynn shared some of the same prejudices as his character.
Venue: Mill Valley Film Festival
Production company: A Moira Productions Film in association with Dateline Productions
Cast: Ted Draper, Victor Medina, Giovanny Espinoza, Lukas Ferreira, Clayton Lawson, Bruce Thompson, Paul Kohler, Terry Rodriguez
Director: Tom Weidlinger
Screenwriters: Tom Weidlinger, Joseph Bruchac
Executive producers: Michael Sherman, Rose Shirinian
Producer: Tom Weidlinger, Joseph Bruchac
Director of photography: Tom Weidlinger
Music: Ed Bogas
Editor: Tom Weidlinger
No rating, 86 minutes
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