I trust I’m not ruining the surprise for anyone here in letting the cat out of the bag: the four minute mile – a track and field mark believed, throughout the early to mid-20th century, to be unbreakable- – is in fact broken in the course of (the imaginatively titled) The Four Minute Mile, a made for television British film from 1988. It’s broken four times actually, in quick succession, twice each by the major players gunning for it, Roger Bannister and John Landy.
What is surprising is how relatively early the first instance happens in the film – when Bannister breaks through, there’s still an hour to go of this three hour movie. One of the seminal sporting moments in the 20th century, and here it almost seems anticlimactic. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Dramatic necessity, and the dictates of the sports film genre, mandates a mano-a-mano (or team versus team) test of will, a showdown where the main competitors clash directly, a clear victor emerging at the end. When Roger Bannister – an Oxford medical student and amateur athlete – ran his record breaking 3:59.4 mile on 6 May 1954, he was basically running a glorified time trial masquerading as an officially sanctioned race (which it had to be, to be ratified). He was paced through the race by two teammates, each of whom was in charge of setting the necessary pace for Bannister to get through the whole race under four minutes, but neither of whom was strong or fast enough to run the whole mile himself at such a pace.
It all feels like a setup, a controlled experiment, and it is. While breaking what really is, at the end of the day, an arbitrary barrier is impressive in the abstract, on the ground it seems a bit too calculated – a monumental achievement in testing the limits of human physical endurance, it’s lacking, as presented here at least, a certain rousing verve that one should feel from seminal sports moments.
The big showdown comes three months later, when Bannister and his rival, Australian John Landy, square off at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. Landy and Bannister had for years each been gunning for the four-minute mile, and each lived in fear that the other would beat him to it. Bannister breaking it first seemed to finally spur Landy over the hump, because a month and change after Bannister’s historic run, on 21 June in Finland, Landy broke both the four minute mile and Bannister’s record, streaking through at 3:57.4 (which, a second and a half doesn’t seem like it would be a huge difference – but it is. If I learned one thing running four years of high school cross country and track, it’s that time becomes rather elastic when you get down to the last stretch of such a race, and the effort and difficulty involved in trying to overcome the ever more minute distances between oneself and the finish line actually seems to increase exponentially).
So the stage is set for what should be an epic battle of wills. The race, as portrayed in the film, delivers the goods, even if neither runner bests Landy’s previous record from June. The dramatic build up to the games, the friendly rivalry between Bannister and Landy, and last-minute set backs due to illness and injury, only ratchet up the tension, and the race – recreated here quite effectively with both the actors in the film and footage of the actual race – does not disappoint.
I guess what disappointment I do have with the film — aside from its unnecessary length — is that it never makes any grabs at profundity, at linking the breaking of the four-minute mile into the great stream of human endeavor, sporting or otherwise (though there is repeated mention of Sir Edmund Hilary’s contemporaneous ascent to the summit of Everest). Content with the superficial chain of events, it never really probes into questions of what drives and motivates these men to push themselves past the breaking point.
Bannister comes across as a bit of a wet fish, humorless and at times whiny. The film never makes any attempts to assess the psychological motivations and trials of the man – surely if you are driven to push your body to such physical extremes, there must be something more than pride of country at work. That, however, is the only real reason Bannister ever seems to admit to – he wants to get there first, for England.
Landy is more likeable, an aw-shucks kid from the “backwater” of the Commonwealth whose modesty disguises a ruthless killer instinct. He seems to take it all much more personally, the very core of his being tied up in getting there first, and his disappointment when Bannister beats him to it ignites the spark he needs to go over the top himself, and take the record with him.
I am in no way disparaging these two men’s achievements. Their rivalry, and their quest to break the four minute mile, represents a high water mark of the spirit of amateur sports, a spirit that seems to have vanished with the ascension of professionalism, sports celebrity and corporatism. I think that is the greatness on display here, and ultimately the film’s elegiac point: the portrayal of a quickly vanishing world where two ordinary men – amateurs training on their own, with all the other exigencies of life piled up around them (Bannister, the whole time he was training for the mile, was a medical student), and without the coddled life that athletes enjoy now – could become the stuff of legends from almost out of nowhere. It was something, this much is certain, even if the actual obstacle was, ultimately, not quite the Everest it was made out to be.
Bannister himself has admitted in recent years that the whole notion of the four-minute mile being forever unbreakable was a myth, one propagated perhaps to spur himself and Landy, and others, on towards greatness. It was never a question of if, but merely when, since so many runners started closing in on it around mid-century. The fact that it was immediately broken again, so soon afterwards, seems to undermine the significance of the achievement. Someone had to be first, and to the first always goes the spoils: the fame and the legacy.