Just in time for this week’s return of the Olympics to the United Kingdom, Going For Gold: The '48 Games recounts the unlikely, more or less true story of the country’s last great Olympic triumph on home soil. The BBC-produced TV movie (which aired in the UK as Bert and Dickie) follows a pair of British rowers, upper class Richard “Dickie” Burnell (Sam Hoare) and working class Bert Bushnell (Doctor Who star Matt Smith) as they are forced to form a doubles sculling—meaning they have oars in both hands, as the movie helpfully explains—team just five weeks before the 1948 London Olympics kick off. While both are world class athletes, the two have to navigate their vastly different backgrounds and athletic philosophies, a pair of domineering fathers with their own obsessions with rowing, and the tiny fact that the UK is pretty much broke in the aftermath of World War II. The main story is pretty much your standard underdog sports story with a bit of costume drama thrown in, but there’s enough of interest happening on the edges to make up for Going For Gold’s all too predictable center.
In particular, the movie gets some good mileage out of Britain trying to rebuild its shattered national identity just three years after the end of World War II. The war had forced the cancellation of the previous two Summer Olympiads, and it wasn’t at all certain whether the 1948 Games would go ahead, or whether the UK could afford to host them. The behind-the-scenes efforts that went into pulling off the 1948 Olympics on a budget of effectively nothing probably deserves its own movie. Going For Gold gets a taste of this side of the story in by including a series of semi-comic asides, in which the two Olympic main organizers, Lord Aberdare (British comedy elder statesman John Bird) and Lord Burghley (Adrian Lukis), explain to Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Clive Merrison) and cabinet minister (and future prime minister) Harold Wilson (Thomas Arnold) the latest barely averted catastrophe. While the government officials struggle to keep the Olympics British—lest they fall into the hands of the dreaded Americans, who volunteered to “help” host the games—everyone else in the UK struggles with the strict food rationing. British bodybuilders can’t bulk up on one egg a week, Bert’s father (Douglas Hodge) has to go to the black market just to get a bit of extra bread, and, in Going For Gold’s most comically pathetic scene, a large English family has to look on longingly as they give their one choice chop to a visiting American rower.
All this connects back to the class divisions between Bert and Dickie, as the privileged, “pure” amateur has to decide whether his social inferior’s unorthodox strategies and commitment to winning above gentlemanly honor have a place in a sport like rowing. Going For Gold tries to give each of these two positions an older advocate, with their coach and five-time Olympic medalist Jack Beresford (The Cape’s very own James Frain) arguing for innovative strategies that offer the best chance of victory, although Beresford gets a bit lost in the shuffle as Dickie and Bert gel as a partnership. More effective is Dickie’s father, the even more ridiculously aristocratic Don (the great Geoffrey Palmer), who castigates his son for “showboating”, which apparently means winning by slightly more than the absolute minimum amount. Palmer gives a gloriously dickish performance, and for the first hour or so of the film it seems like Don only exists to appear suddenly in front of his son and remind him of all his inadequacies while passive-aggressively reminding him how damn gentlemanly rowing is supposed to be.
Of course, Dickie ultimately decides to accept Bert’s ways, even if it means walking barefoot through his stuffy rowing club, but not before each rower gets to give a abig speech calling out the other for his preconceptions and for the sins of his background. Since Matt Smith’s day job calls for him to give big, passionate, thematically loaded speeches on a regular basis, he manages to just about pull off his deconstruction of the aristocratic obsession with athletic purity, but it still feels all a bit rote, something the movie has to cross off its checklist before getting to the big dramatic race. It doesn't help that, once these two speeches are out of the way and the two spend a night refitting their boat, their entire conflict melts away, making the earlier class war stuff seem all the more perfunctory. As for the races, it’s clear the BBC didn't have a big enough budget to show much actually competitive sculling, using a jump-cut and some tiny TV footage (which may or may not be footage from the actual 1948 race) to cheat around the two races before going all-out with the final race for the medal. It’s easy to see even then how a cinematic budget would have allowed director David Blair a chance to open up the scene a bit more and give a better sense of how the Brits were doing relative to the rival Danes—and I’m really not sure about the climactic mid-race close-ups on Bert and Dickie—but under the circumstances, it works about as well as one could reasonably expect.
Going For Gold’s neatest narrative trick is how it resolves the strained relationships Bert and Dickie have with their fathers. Neither of the two scullers ever really directly confront their fathers; instead, they each seek out the other’s father for advice and reassurance, indirectly jumpstarting each other’s reconciliation. John Bushnell offers himself as a confessor to Dickie for all his insecurities, as a working class nobody to whom the young aristocrat can reveal himself without risking embarrassment. What makes the scene work is that Bert’s father is just as limited and closed off in his interactions with Dickie as he is with his son. He doesn’t suddenly break character to offer an inspirational speech, instead only giving Dickie the small comfort of briefly revealing his fears of losing before discussing his own failed Olympic dreams, dreams that clearly never even came close to fruition. In trying to connect with Dickie, John inadvertently reveals to the younger man why Bert is who he's become.
Bert’s later discussion with Don Burnell goes much the same way, except now the older man is able to walk over to his club’s display case and produce his gold medal. Bert’s father can’t help living through his son for a tiny taste of glory, while Dickie’s father silently demands his son prove himself an equal by winning his own gold medal. Their encounters with each other’s father helps them better understand their teammate, to become one in a way that lashing out at their own father wouldn’t accomplish. This is all rather cleverer and more elegant than I honestly expected, although Bert’s big speech just before the finals does rather telegraph what we're supposed to take away from all this: “We are one already because of our dads… Trying not to let them down, hating them one minute and loving them the next… It’s just us in the boat, it’s just you and me, and that’s enough. It’s more than enough, because we’re a bloody good team.” It undoes some of the movie’s prior subtlety in building up these relationships, but this is offset by the post-victory moment in which Bert gives his medal to his father, effectively accepting his father for all his faults and not asking anything more. I’m inclined to feel much the same way to Going For Gold as a whole. It’s far from perfect, and it never really finds a good way around all the sports movie clichés, but its largely effective portrait of Britain’s precarious, tentative recovery in 1948 makes it compelling enough to be worth a try.
- As a Doctor Who fan, I'd say it took me a good thirty to forty-five minutes to really accept that Matt Smith wasn't actually playing the Doctor, with his big speech about the faults of upper class feeling particularly Doctor-ish. How did other fans fare?