Jim Thorpe – All-American (1951)


A young Native American, Jim Thorpe (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry), discovers his aptitude for sports while attending college. Thorpe’s fierce determination culminates in a historic victory at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe is, however, far less successful at overcoming personal calamities.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’m not in this for glory; I just want a chance to prove myself.”

Although it plays fast and loose with the facts, Jim Thorpe – All-American does a fair job capturing the essence of Thorpe despite glossing over some of the athlete’s darkest episodes. Swiftly directed by veteran Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca), this biopic might be too shapeless to be completely satisfying, but Thorpe’s life story is remarkable enough to merit a movie.

By all accounts, Jim Thorpe had a troubled life. Like boxer Jake LaMotta (immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull), another great athlete whose personal life was a total mess, Thorpe was bogged down by personal demons. In fact, Jim Thorpe – All-American is how Raging Bull would have looked had it been made in the ’50s.

As expected from a movie made during the studio era, Thorpe’s turbulent real-life story was cleaned up quite a bit. The film omits Thorpe’s multiple marriages, and there is hardly any mention of the racism the Native American Olympian encountered throughout his entire life. Viewers still get hints of Thorpe’s pugnacious personality and long battle with alcoholism — it’s as honest as a Hollywood movie from the ’50s could be.

Even though he didn’t have any Native American blood, Burt Lancaster was ideally suited for the title role (in all fairness, like Lancaster, Thorpe was part Irish). Lancaster was in top physical shape, so he was able to recreate many of Thorpe’s athletic accomplishments (needless to say, the acrobatic Lancaster rarely used a stunt double).

Lancaster is even better during the second half, where Thorpe is shown as a bitter and penniless alcoholic making a living as a sideshow attraction. Lancaster received advice from the real Thorpe, who served as a consultant in the film (the Olympian also has a small role in the movie as an assistant coach). Phyllis Thaxter (Richard Donner’s Superman) plays Thorpe’s first wife, and Charles Bickford (The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell) plays famed college football coach Pop Warner.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Jim Thorpe – All-American is a well-intentioned, but incomplete biopic of a truly fascinating athlete. In hindsight, the ’50s wasn’t the right time to make a movie about such a complex person, so I hope some producer out-there decides to try again. That said, Burt Lancaster is very good and since I don’t know anything about sports, the film inspired me to read more about Thorpe’s achievements. B&W, 107 minutes, Not Rated.


9 responses to “Jim Thorpe – All-American (1951)

  1. Even though they tried their best for the time, this is definitely one of those films that could be remade, like you said, into something even better, with more accuracy and honesty and, of course, an actual Native American. I saw a documentary about him once and he had a truly fascinating life, albeit in many ways tragic.

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  2. One I’ve always wanted to see, due to it starring Lancaster and being a sports movie. Sad to hear it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but it sounds like it’s still worth a watch. Never knew it was directed by Michael Curtiz, either!

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  3. I’ve heard of this movie, but never seen it. I’m always intrigued by biopics, regardless of the flaws.

    Your review inspired me to read more about it and about Jim Thorpe. According to Wikipedia, he actually sold the rights to his life story to MGM during the Great Depression – several years before the movie was made. I wish his own life could’ve ended on a hopeful note like the film. However, his Olympic medals were reinstated after his death, which I guess is some consolation.

    I’m going off topic here, but I wanted to make sure you were aware: Stephen Sondheim passed away on Friday. 😦 (I recall you mentioning you’re a theatrephile when we were chatting about Hermann’s influence on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in the comments for your post on Hangover Square.) He was my favorite, and my heart broke a little bit when I read the news. 😦 But he was 91, healthy (his death was unexpected), enjoying appreciation for his work through recent revivals of Assassins and Company and the film remake of West Side Story – and his last day was Thanksgiving, which he spent with friends. Not a bad finale to such a full, creative life. ❤

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    • Yes, I’m sad to hear of the passing of the legendary Sondheim. West Side Story is one of my favorite musicals. I also want to mention the brilliant whodunit The Last of Sheila, which he co-wrote with actor Tony Perkins. R.I.P.

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      • Yes, I’ve seen The Last of Sheila! 😀 And West Side Story is a favorite of mine, too. ❤

        But if I had to pick one all-time favorite (which is very difficult to do), it would have to be Sunday in the Park with George. ❤ And my favorite Sondheim-related project is actually the one that introduced me to him, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (from 2010). I have no idea what drew me to it when it was on PBS several years ago, but I was floored. It’s a sample of Sondheim’s greatest hits and hidden gems, performed by the best in Broadway at the time. I bought my own digital copy (which I still revisit once a year or so) – and I’ve loved him ever since. ❤ (If you haven’t seen it, I assume it’s still available to rent or purchase. The individual musical numbers are also on YouTube – though not the full concert itself, as far as I know…His 90th birthday virtual concert, put together by broadway.com, is available on YouTube in full – but there’s just something extra-magical about the earlier one. It’s still the best concert I’ve ever seen.)

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        • Funny, but Sunday in the Park with George is the only Sondheim musical I haven’t seen (it’s on YouTube, so I have no good excuses). And The Birthday Concert sounds like a must-see event! Thanks for the recommendations! 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

          • You’re welcome! 🙂 And, ohhh, yes – as a creative, you’ll love (or, at least, appreciate) Sunday in the Park with George. I think it’s something that will resonate with any artist. If you watch either of them, I’d love to know what you think! 🙂

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