THE GAMES OF THE V OLYMPIAD STOCKHOLM, 1912
It is a fascinating thing to see how much has changed in a century, whether it is on filmmaking or sports. The Games of the V Olympiad Stockholm 1912 gives us a glimpse into a now-vanished world, one that seems downright amusing at times.
Who knew that tug-of-war was once an Olympic event?
Culled from newsreel footage shot originally shot by a Swedish company, The Games of the V Olympiad covers many events in a remarkably standard silent film format, the camera not moving and merely recording the events. However, what events both athletic and cultural that the film records provide both interesting athletic events and most interesting historic information.
Divided into four main parts, The Games of the V Olympiad is a restoration of newsreels that were probably not meant to be seen as one large film. This would explain why the running time lasts close to three hours. Even more extraordinary is that only two-thirds of all the newsreels have survived. As such, the actual choir concert that was teased when we see the parade that was taking the various choirs to their event may be among the lost films.
As stated, the overall structure of The Games of the V Olympiad is made up of four general 'chapters': Official Opening of Olympic Stadium by HRH King Gustav V, Events Before the Games Began, Olympic Week, and Riding, Rowing and Sailing. The films are presented in chronological order.
There are many sporting events, including some that were introduced in the Stockholm Games such as women's diving. The coverage of the sporting events is quite fascinating and even those not into sports will soon get caught up in the various races, such as when one runner falls during the hurdles.
One of the curiosities of the film is the tug-of-war between the British and the Swedish team. The idea that a game usually played by children was once something that could get one an Olympic gold medal is almost sweet. However, as tempting as it might be to almost mock how sports was played a century ago, The Games of the V Olympiad were still built on athleticism.
During the marathon, we see the winner, South Africa's Ken McArthur, clearly exhausted, slightly stumbling and requiring men to hold him up on either side when being filmed for a formal pose. We also see the women's diving taking place during a rainstorm, showing that the swimming events took place in the outdoors.
We also see some extraordinary moments that are now unthinkable but at the time were quite natural. For example, one high jumper participated wearing a hat. The gymnastic display from the Russian Empire looked more like a ballet performed for an Opening Ceremonies. The title cards during that marathon inform us that at the turn, runners stopped for water, lemonade, and tea.
The Games of the V Olympiad chronicle a surprisingly historic Games that took place mostly in July of that year. Among the competitors were future legends Jim Thorpe, Duke Kahanamoku, and most curiously, future General George Patton. It was also the first time that an Asian nation participated in the Games with Japan's entry. Some of the details are surprisingly endearing, such as seeing the Canadian team with Maple Leafs on their shirts.
We also see that at least at this point, the Olympic Games were more relaxed and less cutthroat. It's almost as people did not take them as seriously as they do now. The Parade of Nations, for example, while impressive had a very curious element in that the nations had no uniform language. The Belgian team's sign read 'Belgique', while the Chilean team's read 'Chilenos' and the Greek's read 'Hellas'. It looked as if the Olympics were still getting their act together.
We can see the more relaxed nature of the Stockholm Games and of society at the time when the Royal Family went to officially open the Games. As the monarch and his family paraded through the streets, we see the streets generally open as the carriages pass by, with bicycles and pedestrians able to weave past and around and with a modicum of security. We also see that athletes did not just get medals, but cups and even busts offered by various monarchical houses.
However, for the most part, The Games of the V Olympiad is more interesting as a historic document to a time where the Olympics seemed a jollier, more convivial affair. It looked like everyone participating, athletes and spectators, were actually having fun. His Majesty King Gustav V seemed to be having fun, his method of essentially slapping on the laurel crowns on the male winners proving quite amusing.
While we see most people photographed for the film cameras standing still, as if they were posing for still pictures, we see that others could be as cheeky then as they are now. One member of the American Clay Pigeon shooting team blew the camera a kiss. The French relay team was having a lot of laughs, culminating with one of them pushing the others in a domino fashion.
There was even an early example of photo-bombing when we are introduced to three émigrés from Ireland who competed for other nations. As South Africa's McArthur and the United States' Ralph Rose and Pat McDonald look on and converse, we see a man behind them smiling and waving his straw hat behind them, with none of them aware of the hijinks going on.
We also see the true Olympic spirit of amateurs competing. As I watched the tennis finals between Harold Kitson and Charles Winslow of South Africa, I grew a little sad. Today, the Olympics are played by professionals, so this event could have Spain's Rafael Nadal versus Switzerland's Roger Federer, which to my mind is no different from seeing them at any Open. In my opinion, there is nothing special in that.
The most impressive thing about The Games of the V Olympiad is the clear picture and sharp quality of the print. The restoration of the various films to create this long film is among the best I have ever seen. It is a wildly impressive restoration, with the images so clear and focused it almost looks as if it were shot today versus over a century ago.
If there are any flaws, is that as the title cards give us names of the athletes, they almost never indicate who is whom. The Donald Sosin score gives the film a silent film feel with a primarily piano-driven score, apart from a few moments where more instruments are used when the Royal House is shown. This at times can feel monotonous, especially since at nearly three hours it can almost lull you.
As a document of this long-ago event barely remembered except by hard-core sports/Olympics enthusiasts, The Games of the V Olympiad is more a time capsule of a time when women and men wore much more demure bathing costumes and women played tennis in dresses and hats. It should be of great interest to those who love both sports and history, and the restoration work on it is nothing short of spectacular.
Seeing everything from a heavyset Rose win in the shot put to other winners such as Sweden's own Bror Fock (a name to be played with), we are given a record of a world before the horrors of World War I swept away that sense of joy and optimism, where the Olympic Games could be something to enjoy as both fan and participant rather than something to use tricks to win. It's a fascinating journey well worth the visit.
Next Olympic Film: Chamonix 1924: The Olympic Games Held in Chamonix 1924