One reason why film of football prior to the 1960s is so consistently awful is that the Football League wanted it that way. At the outbreak of World War II, most clubs kept their season ticket receipts despite fans taking them to court (as we’ll see in a forthcoming short film here). After the War, live radio commentary was hindered by clubs’ fears that it would induce fans to stay at home. At the time, the hospitals were still full of the war injured, and the League’s attitude was felt, rightly, to be mean and insulting to the pain and sacrifice endured by so many of their most loyal customers.
Boxing in the United States enjoyed excellent coverage right from the start. Here’s a medley of clips featuring Max Baer from the early 1930s. There is no football film of this quality or interest from the same period.
To the best of my knowledge, not one full pre-War league match survives on film. I’m not even sure that any FA Cup Finals from that era exist in the form of a full ninety minutes.
Again, boxing shows the way. Here is the entire Baer-Braddock fight that was made the subject of Cinderella Man, one of the better sporting films of modern times. (The DVD extras feature analysis of this fight by Norman Mailer, should that float your boat).
Before going to the films, some reflections on the problems facing filming football over boxing. Boxing can be filmed with one or two cameras, in controlled lighting conditions, and the only real sound requirements are a mike for the commentator – everything else can be hashed up easily as special effects (I wonder if the sound of punching in these films is real or added later). Before floodlights – before the sixties, realistically – football often took place in dark, foggy conditions. More cameras are required, in different places, and editing is difficult – you have to cut your film together before interest in the game drops, so you don’t really get time to compose a masterpiece. Good enough is enough. Nor is there any call, in the 1930s, for the film to be of a quality that will survive: the idea of football tradition and history was in its absolute infancy then, and the kind of interest I have, in changes in the culture, style and performance of the sport, simply didn’t exist in the same way. No Simon Inglises or Simon Kupers then. It can’t just have been lack of interest that’s responsible for the paucity of decent football film – it’s that combination of low Football League enthusiasm and the sheer technological demands of filming football that was to blame. Now, Baer v Braddock: