Here is a list of films that I often use and think about in terms of the varied interconnections of religion and sports. If there are films that are “missing” – that may be important to include but are missing here, please let me know. I am trying to keep to commercial feature films that would have appeared in theaters.
Religion and Sports in Antiquity
There are a lot of films about the ancient world that include religious themes and some elements of the arena. Here are some of the better known:
Ben Hur (1959 version) – a wealthy Jewish man in first-century Jerusalem is betrayed by his Roman friend and sold into slavery. He eventually works his way up to become the adopted son of a Roman noble. Turns out he is also a pretty good charioteer, so you get to see the ancient circus.
Spartacus (1960 version) – about the famous slave revolt led by a former gladiator, Spartacus. So, you get to see some gladiatorial training.
Gladiator (2000) – again, a lot of the ancient arena with a focus on the Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum) in Rome. Get to see the various types of gladiators and some of the sense of spectacle involved, even as great liberties are taken with historical events.
Religions, Modernity, and Sports
Bend it Like Beckham (2002) – the story is of a Sikh girl whose parents expect her to get married to a nice Sikh boy, but all she wants to do is play soccer. See the conflict between traditional religious gender roles (here Sikhs, but this issue comes up in every religion) and athletic competition.
The Chosen (1981) – the story of two boys (Danny and Reuben) from two different worlds of Judaism (Hasidic Judaism and a modernized, yet religious Zionism) in New York City in the 1940s based upon the novel by Chaim Potok. The exposition is all about baseball, though this is dropped once the parameters of the film are established.
Angels in the Outfield (1994) – my students really like this film, but basically (real) angels help the baseball team, the Angels, win.
Ali (2001) – a biopic of Muhammad Ali, mostly showing his personal life and his professional career, but, of course, blending in his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
Munich (2005) – based upon the 1972 Olympics and its aftermath, in which Palestinian operatives attacked Israeli Olympic athletes. The athletic elements only show up in the exposition, however, providing the catalyst for the plot.
Chariots of Fire (1981) – the story of Eric Liddell, a Rugby player and Olympic runner who refused to compete since his race was held on the Lord’s Sabbath (Sunday).
Embedded Religious Elements in Sports Films
Field of Dreams (1989) – Ray Consella (Kevin Costner) hears a mysterious voice and begins to have visions that leads him to build a baseball field to the mockery of his neighbors. Ghosts (if that is what they are) begin to appear on his field, beginning with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and ending with Ray’s own father. Yet only those with the eyes of a child/faith can see the players. This eventually puts him into bankruptcy, but the farm/field is saved at the last minute (literally the last shot of the film). There is no singular religion presented in this film – it is not a film about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, etc. – but religious themes provide the symbolic structure of the film: visions and especially having faith. The film even goes out of its way to not refer to a deity – though speaks of the “forces of the universe.” Ray is also clearly a Noah-like figure.
Sports as Religion in Film
Bull Durham (1988) – the opening narration by Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about the “church of baseball” sums up much of her attitude in this film – and the attitude of many athletes and fans – of sports as a kind of religion or spiritual experience. There is also an eclectic assemblage of religio-athletic practices throughout the film.