The Four Minute Mile

The Four Minute Mile


Reviewed by: Gary Duncan

The blurb tells us this is about the "thrilling global race" to break the four minute mile barrier. It's a sporting whodunnit and the prime suspects are the four leading milers of the 1950s - Oxford educated doctor Roger Bannister, laid back Aussie John Landy, American student Wes Santee and dashing Finn Denis Johannson.

All well and good, but the problem when turning these real-life events into drama is that everyone knows it was Bannister who broke the four-minute barrier. Not only that, but most people with a passing interest in sport or current affairs could probably tell you where and when he did it (Oxford, May 6, 1954). It's a bit like Titanic. We know what happens - the boat sinks - so where's the dramatic tension?

Even with the benefit of hindsight, however, The Four Minute Mile is an exciting ride, with David Williamson's unflashy, well-researched script focusing on the rivalry between Bannister (Richard Huw) and his main rival Landy (Nique Needles).

Bannister is shy, impeccably mannered and ever so English and though Huw bears a striking resemblance to him, he occasionally overplays the foppishness and veers dangerously close to Bertie Wooster territory. Bannister trains hard and studies hard and he's obviously a jolly nice chap, but he's a wet fish. The kind of guy who breaks the four-minute mile - the holy grail of sporting excellence - and then celebrates by ordering a glass of water with a pinch of salt.

Landy, on the other hand, gets drunk, sleeps in and scoffs a couple of meat pies, en route to one of his record-breaking attempts, and still manages to clock a world best four minutes, two seconds.

They're chalk and cheese, the English gentleman and the brash Aussie, and this is reflected in their running styles - Bannister with the tactical nouse and killer sprint finish, Landy the all-or-nothing front-runner who starts off fast and runs his opponents into the ground before the final bell.

It's all about pacing and director Jim Goddard is no slouch, either. I thought he'd seriously misjudged it at first - when Bannister finally runs himself into the history books, there's still almost an hour of the film to go. Far from being anti-climactic, however, Goddard cranks up the pace, as we follow Bannister and Landy to Vancouver for the 1954 Empire Games, for their first head-to-head meeting, the so-called "race of the century".

This is not meant to be a biography of Bannister, so perhaps it's churlish to complain that his character is the least interesting of the main players. We don't learn too much about him that we didn't already know at the start, and, while he earns our respect, he's too aloof to win our affection.

The supporting characters are more rounded. Santee, the American champion, is prohibited from challenging Bannister and Landy, after being found "guilty" of accepting prizes for competing. For the crusty old committee men of American athletics, this is a betrayal of the amateur ethos. They know their days are numbered, but they're going to make an example of Santee anyway.

This is a recurring theme in Williamson's script and even Bannister wasn't above controversy as the sport entered a new era of professionalism and commercialism. One of his early record attempts was revoked because he'd used pacemakers - a common enough practice today, but in 1954 as unethical as Santee's "illicit" payments.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2004
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The Four Minute Mile packshot
Sporting whodunnit about the breaking of the famed racing barrier.
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Director: Jim Goddard

Writer: David Williamson

Starring: Richard Huw, Nique Needles, Michael York, Adrian Rawlins, John Philbin, Robert Burbage, Adrian Dunbar, Richard Wilson, Lewis Fitzgerald, Ralph Cotterill

Year: 1988

Runtime: 152 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK/Australia


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