Invictus no match for the real thing
There are two fundamental problems with films based on real sporting events. First, you know what's going to happen. Second, the story is never going to be as dramatic in the retelling as it was first time round.
Which explains how Michael Mann's "Ali" managed to make the most charismatic sportsman who ever lived seem a little bit dull, and why "This Sporting Life", the largely fictional account of a rugby league player in the 1960s, remains the best film ever made about rugby (sorry, union fans...).
Invictus, Clint Eastwood's film about South Africa's triumph at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, is what you might call prosaic. No-frills, pretty realistic, for the most part truthful. And therein lies the problem.
Eastwood, hamstrung by having to provide a potted history of apartheid as well as a crash-course in rugby union for his American audience, didn't have space for cinematic flourishes. Not that Eastwood has ever been big on cinematic flourishes.
Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon takes on the role of Francois Pienaar
But there are times, especially as the film limps towards its denouement like a wounded Springbok, when you're crying out for some Oliver Stone-style visual grandstanding, a la "Any Given Sunday". But, and I had to keep reminding myself of this, unlike most of Eastwood's American audience, I knew what was going to happen.
The best sports films aren't really about sport at all. "Raging Bull", Martin Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece about the boxer Jake LaMotta, succeeded because the director, who didn't like boxing and didn't want to make the film in the first place, played fast and loose with the facts and the rules.
The studio thought they were getting another "Rocky". What they got was the sordid, painful tale of an almost entirely unsympathetic character - self-destructive, obsessive, violent, jealous and insecure - filmed in black and white and imbued with an operatic score.
The boxing scenes - stylised rather than naturalistic, as in "Invictus", and all the better for it - are riveting, yet ultimately incidental. Sugar Ray Robinson, who LaMotta fought six times, twice in the film, doesn't utter a word. Instead, it's Robert De Niro's tortured monologue, lifted straight from "On the Waterfront", that hogs the memory: "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody - instead of a bum, which is what I am." Did it happen? Of course not, but then who really cares?
There are those who argue that "Raging Bull" isn't even the best film about boxing. "Fat City", directed by John Huston and starring Stacy Keach as yet another fighter who's hit the skids, gets many peoples' vote.
But whether it's "Raging Bull", "Fat City" or "Rocky", the point is this: When it comes to sports films, the grittier the better. And when it comes to sport, it doesn't get any grittier than the fight game.
There will never be a great film about Premier League football or Premier League footballers because the life of your average Premier League footballer is about as gritty as the bonnet of one of his 200 grand Bentleys.
Premier League footballers may be rich, but that doesn't make them compelling. Struggle is compelling, tragedy is compelling, suffering is compelling. All round Rio's mock Tudor mansion for a Fifa 2010 tournament and a couple of bottles of Cristal? I'm not sure what that is.
Elsewhere in modern sport, Andy Murray spends his time away from the court winning Wimbledon on his Playstation; Lewis Hamilton, who moved to Geneva primarily for tax reasons in 2007, declared a year later that he "didn't have much of a life"; and Tiger Woods... well, maybe there's a film in him after all.
Francois Pienaar accepts the World Cup trophy from Nelson Mandela
Americans, admittedly, are more adept at mythologising their national pastimes than we Brits. Maybe they're just better at making films. They got "Field of Dreams", we got "There's Only One Jimmy Grimble"; they got "The Longest Yard", we got "When Saturday Comes"; they got "Hoosiers", we got "Mike Bassett: England Manager".
"Bend It Like Beckham" and "The Damned United" are decent enough, but arguably the best film about football (excluding documentaries) is "Escape to Victory", and any film that has Sly Stallone between the sticks can't really claim to be about football at all.
While "Invictus" has rugby at its heart, it might have been a better film if the actual rugby had been more peripheral. A more daring director might, for example, have delved into the food poisoning that struck down many of New Zealand's players on the eve on the final.
All Black coach Laurie Mains went on to claim, although not in the immediate aftermath, that his team had been sabotaged by a mysterious waitress called "Suzie", while Nelson Mandela's former head of security reinforced those claims in a recent book.
Shady waitresses and poisonings can make for gripping cinema, but they're unlikely to get the audience a whoopin' and a hollerin'.
Instead, Eastwood attempts to crank up the tension by expecting us to believe a low-flying jumbo jet might crash into Ellis Park seconds before kick-off.
Americans are often accused of being ignorant of the affairs of the outside world, but a few thousand people killed in a terrorist attack at a major sporting event in Johannesburg? Had it happened, I'm pretty sure they 'd have got wind of it.
It is interesting to note that the gift Mandela gave to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar before the tournament wasn't the poem "Invictus", which was written by William Ernest Henley and which provided succour for Mandela during his incarceration on Robben Island, but an extract from a Theodore Roosevelt speech, "The Man in the Arena".
The speech includes the line: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood."
If you still remember the men who were actually in the arena during that extraordinary World Cup final of 1995, faces marred by dust and sweat and blood, then it's likely your heart will be unconquered by this Hollywood retelling.