(Warning: some movies may not contain actual rugby)
Unlike some sports, like, say, baseball or boxing, there have been precious few decent rugby movies. Granted, making a decent movie about anything is a difficult task, and then making a decent sports movie that doesn’t descend into cliché or follow a pat formula is even harder. Why are good rugby movies so few and far between? Honestly, I have no idea, but I thought I should mention it as a way of apologizing for the amount of cheating I do on this list. To wit, I included two movies that don’t even mention rugby at all, and several others that mention or show rugby only fleetingly, while leaving the awful “Forever Strong” off the list entirely, even though it’s actually about rugby and rugby players.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s a terrible movie, and I’d rather forget it was ever made. I’d much rather discuss movies that embody the spirit of rugby and are actually good, even if they aren’t, technically, about rugby or even sports. So yes, I’m cheating; but as you can see from other sections of this site, I’m no stranger to cheating. And yes, this is a subjective list; all “top 10” lists are. Feel free to weigh in with your own choices below.
There really is no choice or argument about the movie that has to be number one on this list. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation” is actually a decent movie about rugby, although of course it’s about much more than that. “Invictus” is a characteristically Eastwood movie: a long, leisurely-paced meditation on manhood, violence, and heroism with a fanatical attention to detail. In this case, Eastwood focuses on the 1995 Rugby World Cup, how new South African president Nelson Mandela used the South African national team and their success in the tournament to unite a fragile nation emerging from apartheid. Damon plays Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (or, at least, a miniature version of him) as he undergoes the typical Eastwood hero’s journey from failure and ignorance to triumph and understanding. Unlike most of the other movies on this list, there is a lot of rugby in “Invictus” and Eastwood makes sure viewers understand just how physical the sport can be; most of the time, just running five feet with the ball before getting pummeled seems to be a major accomplishment. Eastwood also capably shows how important rugby is to the South African character, what the 1995 RWC (hosted by the South Africans) and its victory by the first racially-mixed Springbok side meant to the newly-reconfigured state, and what role Mandela had in guiding the Springboks to this place in history.
2. The Departed
Really only about two minutes of rugby in Martin Scorsese’s fantastic adaptation of “Infernal Affairs” (itself a pretty great movie), but it’s an effective two minutes: an informal match between Boston policemen and firefighters in a leafy park gives us a look at Colin Sullivan as he scrums down as a flanker, runs with the ball, and later taunts his opponents for being fire fighters. The rugby scenes are parts of a montage showing Colin’s development from a child spent in the shadow of mob boss Frank Costello into a police officer, and Colin’s derisive comments toward the firefighters at the end of the match suggest that maybe Colin’s not an ideal public servant. Colin is played by Matt Damon, marking the first time we see Damon play rugby on film, but not the last….
A brilliant documentary spotlighting the members of the US wheelchair rugby team and their journey to the 2004 Paralympics, as well as their heated rivalry with the Canadian team. The movie is about what it means to be an athlete, what meaning sports gives to the subjects’ lives, how quadriplegia does not have to mean the end of life, and how real heroism can arise merely from accepting mistakes and setbacks and moving on with your life in spite of them. It’s also an exciting movie, almost entirely devoid of cheap sentimentality and melodrama. Caution: may make you feel almost unbearably guilty about just hanging around on the couch.
4. The Closet
A funny but slight comedy from Francis Veber, the director and writer who doubles as a living refutation of the idea that the French are somehow intellectually superior to the rest of us. As the auteur responsible for giving the world “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Dinner Game” (as well as its American remakes), Veber has worked his entire career to provide schlocky, middle-brow cinematic entertainment in both France and Hollywood. So why is “The Closet” number four on this list? Because it’s not a terrible movie, it succeeds in being funny and not overstaying its welcome, and it costars Gerard Depardieu as Felix Santini, aka “Monsieur le Rugby.” Felix is a rugby-playing coworker of the main character Francois, and Felix’s bullying is one of the elements contributing to Francois’ misery. When Francois creates a rumor about himself implying he might be gay as a way to improve his life, Felix’s attentions become something quite different. Comedy ensues. There are a few reversals, a happy ending, and enough references to rugby to warrant its placement on the list.
Granted, not one of Monty Python’s best movies, but the only one with a rugby skit, in which a boy who is caught daydreaming through a sex education class at a British public school is punished by having to play rugby “against the masters.” There follows about a minute’s worth of grown men gleefully running roughshod over a team of little boys to the strains of Bach’s “Toccata und Fuge in d-Moll, BWV 565.” The end of the skit segues from the ritualized combat of rugby to the actual combat of war, clarifying in no uncertain terms rugby’s place in the English public school system, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Really, there’s only the slimmest of reasons for the Robert Downey, Jr. "Sherlock Holmes" movies to be on this list, other than that they’re enjoyable (see previous entry for counter-example). But somewhere along the line in producing these movies, Guy Ritchie (also responsible for “Snatch”) and his writers decided Dr. Watson should be a rugby player. An historically accurate choice – somebody with Watson’s background in London in the 1890s probably would have played rugby if his war wound hadn’t been too serious – but one no other interpreter of the stories has ever mentioned. Needless to say, it’s not in Doyle’s stories either, but Watson mentions rugby twice in each movie, and Jude Law does manage what looks like a convincing tackle during a later scene of “Game of Shadows,” so it’s a conspicuous enough thread through the plot to justify me putting it on this list.
This Richard Burton vehicle from the early 60’s is the story of a young Yorkshireman who finds an outlet for his anger on the local rugby league club, and features many actual rugby players in its cast (not least of which its Welsh star), as well as a healthy dose of more-or-less-realistic rugby action. So why isn’t it higher on the list? Because when he’s not playing rugby, Burton’s Frank Machin is going through the motions of a particularly tedious kitchen-sink drama with his landlady (played by Rachel Roberts) that drags the movie relentlessly downward. Look, I get that post-war Britain was a depressing place, and I happen to like movies shot in black-and-white, and I understand the “Look Back in Anger” mandate to portray the lives of quiet desperation of ordinary Britons. All I’m saying is it makes for a boring and sad viewing experience in this case.
No rugby in Guy Ritchie's follow-up to "Lock, Stock...", but this movie is much beloved in the rugby community, partly for its eminent quoteability, but also for its portrayal of the pikeys, a group of travelers that closely mirrors rugby’s own “gypsy” subculture. While not literally members of the Romany clan, rugby gypsies are members of a rugby club who are usually talented but not terribly reliable, much like Brad Pitt’s Mickey. The gypsy may or may not have a job or a permanent residence, and it falls to the rest of the club to make sure they make it to the match in time for kickoff with the proper clothes and equipment. Bonus points to “Snatch” for realistically portraying onscreen what it feels like to get knocked out and regain consciousness.
So,to finish off the list, this one doesn’t have any actual rugby in it either, but the second “Austin Powers” movie had a huge impact on the rugby community when it first came out. The club I was playing for at the time went to see it en masse on the first night, and for at least a year afterwards you couldn’t go 50 feet at a match without hearing one of the fat guys yelling “I’m dead sexy” (occasionally, he would also be massaging his nipples, if he was really committed to providing the entire Fat B*stard experience).