True Blue film review

Review written and copyright to Rachel Quarrell, 1996.

"True Blue", based on the book by Daniel Topolski and Patrick Robinson.

Blues' Truth and Dare.

By any standards, the Mutiny Boat Race of 1987 was a remarkable occasion. Sitting at the eye of an unprecedented storm of press and public interest, the race itself contained the heaviest stroke-man ever, a huge gap in proven form between the two crews, and some of the roughest weather ever known for the event. The rowing world was poised on the brink of huge changes in accepted training techniques and racing equipment, of creeping professionalism in the coaching and support infra-structure. And yet the Boat Race was still a publicly-displayed private contest. For Oxford President Donald Macdonald and coach Dan Topolski, the Dark Blues' unexpected win was a dream ending to their nightmare year of media attention, challenges and legalist maneouvring. The Cambridge crew of 1987 are still pinching themselvesto see if they imagined their loss. The annual race between the two universities is always a maelstrom of emotion and hype, but the eventsof 1986-7 are notorious for re-igniting acidic disputes and sharp differencesbetween groups of rowers worldwide. "True Blue" will add fuel to those flames.

The film of Topolski's account of the Mutiny, opening as a Royal Premiere on 15th November, is prefaced by a strategic disclaimer that the depiction "was inspired by real events" and that "some names, events and dialogue" have been altered.I hope for the producers' sake that this is enough to forestall lawsuits. Topolski's book was always unashamedly the story of _his_ side of the affair, and as a contemporary of one of the mutineers at college, I know that the other protagonists had equally valid points of view, particularly at the time. The makers of "True Blue" deserve great credit for bringing out the subtle differences in expectation and background between the central figures which caused the disastrous public split, while faithfully portraying Topolski's story of his final year as sole head coach.

But what a story. You can see that Topolski would have been mad not to write the book. Ambition, dissent, struggle, hope, despair, exultation, all for a wholly amateur ideal: participation in one of the "Grand Slam" events of the rowing world. How can audiences resist the promise of the private details and inside story behind a highly-publicised sporting occasion. It even has the fairytale/Chariots of Fire ending, a gift to film-makers. For once, cynical Brits can hardly complain of an overly "Hollywood" ending, since the Oxford upset of the favourite Light Blues was seen live by millions.

Director Ferdinand Fairfax begins a year before, slowly describing the seeds of disaster sown in the 1986 Oxford defeat. He portrays with accuracy the peculiarly nonchalant procedures of such ancient institutions as the Oxford University Boat Club, where Presidential bargains are struck in a few careless phrases or over pints of beer in a college bar. Film-watchers who know the story will experience a frisson of foreboding at these casually fateful words, which set the scene for an unexpectedly large influx of top-quality American oarsmen to the beleagured Oxford squad the following autumn. The shock of the college rowing hopefuls is clear, and the film begins to gather speed as the tensions mount into conflict. We flash through winter training, racing, and selection: the body's triumph over the adversity of mist, fog, ice, snow and total exhaustion, and the clash of the coach's will against equally stubborn oarsmen. The action is swiftly paced and enlivened by a symphonic score: National Velvet without the horses perhaps, but rather appropriate. The exclusivity of a virtually all-male cast is alleviated by some "aren't rowers' bodies great" shower shots which will be drooled over by the women's magazines. All very justified: all carefully judged for the non-sporting audience.

The rowing is good. The cast of actors playing the leads were taught to row over the six months of filming, and in the end they were competent enough, particularly in body actions, to use in many more shots than had been expected. The bladework of the actor-crew leaves a lot to be desired, however, and once or twice perfectionists will be annoyed by long-distance shots which make this apparent, rather than using the expert oarsmen brought in to do such clips. Where the two are intercut, there are ragged edges and continuity mishaps which tweak at the critical observer and detract from the film, but only for the knowledgeable minority. The camerawork makes the most of the excitement of such a fast sport, getting close to the water and using the noise and proximity of the coaching launch to deliver the sense of speed. There are other minor glitches, mostly to do with deliberate factual inaccuracies: it was simpler to disregard the presence of modern "hatchet" blades and ubiquitous plastic boats to shoot atmospheric background at the 1995 Four's Head, than to fake the entire scene from scratch to make it tie up with 1987 clothing and equipment.

Soon we move from rowing to political in-fight, the easy cameraderie of squad training broken up by conflicting ambitions and the rivalry of seat-racing. It became difficult to identify minor characters at times, and then it occurred to me that for all but a few rowing insiders, such precision will be unnecessary. You only need to know whether an oarsman supports the "traditional" view that the amateur coach and President are in charge, or the American champions, bred in a environment of consultation, discussion and paid professionals. Characters are stereotyped and painted in broad strokes. Snippets give clues to the driving obsessions: "You're 20 years out of date" snarls a world champion American to 10-times victorious Boat Race coach Topolski, and "People will do a great deal for a Blue" observes Macdonald's patient wife Ruth, perspicaciously. One of Macdonald's friends passes acute comments over late-night chips: "Rowing isn't a team sport - it is full of individuals. You never see the face of the guy in front. If you win, you did it: if you lose, it's his fault." But the shadowiest figures of the film are the Old Blues, Topolski's friends, and advisors, wielding great influence, as they still do in both universities. Reason flies out of the window, as neither side can bring themselves to accept the other's compromises. A crew is chosen from the reserves, Isis, and finally gathers the pride and courage to face Cambridge while the mutineers pack to go home.

And so we come to race day. This is where Topolski should acknowledge the existence of his own personal deity. Suddenly everything started to move in his favour: the weather, Oxford winning the toss, the tangled network of contacts and supporters who put all his last-minute plans into action. While Boat Races have been rowed in all sorts of conditions, rough weather does level the chances for crews of differing abilities, and his added fortune in winning the toss gave his inexperienced crew almost the only chance they had. Spirit and will can do a lot, but if Cambridge had been given the Oxford advantages of station, the race could have been over in the first two minutes.

The Boat Race is rowed on the fastest water of an incoming tide, and normally follows the line of deepest stream. The storm which broke over Putney on xth March 1987 made that course impossible, and instead the expertise of boatmen, coaches and coxes was paramount, as the calmer water on the outsides of the bends became the wiser choice. However, another little-known facet of the Boat Race was also employed: a cox who has moved _outside_ their "official" line on a corner may move back at any point and force the other crew back on station, if they have the nerve. By enforcing the right of the Oxford cox to plunge back into the perilous centre stream, the umpire (Colin Moynihan, played by Dan Topolski himself) avoided a boat-stopping clash and potential disqualification. Oxford seized their chance to take the lead, and after surviving a massive crab from their huge stroke-man, were able to stay ahead of their rivals to the finish-line. Cue rollercoaster emotions and swelling crescendo, real footage cut with the elated actors. The victorious Macdonald finally stands in the boat under Chiswick bridge, arms raised to heaven, a scene caught by thousands of cameras. Corny? Yup..... but it happened.

1987 had a vast effect on both Blues rowing communities. In Oxford, one of the leading mutineers took over the Presidency the following year, and then proceeded to overhaul the entire constitution in an attempt to prevent such a problem ever occurring again. In Cambridge, the current squad have undoubtedly learnt the primary lesson that it must be clear even champions go through the same selection as everyone else. Beefeater Gin's sponsorship, kick-started ten years ago with the most controversial race ever, has seen the profile of the Boat Race swell to gargantuan global proportions, and head coaches are now paid a professional rate, with a business-like contract. The same tensions still apply though, of previous form versus current ambition, in-boat rivalry and the vast pressure of training for a single race against the hated opposition. Many of those behind the scenes are still peripherally involved at Oxford. Therowers of today will shiver at some of the similarities they see, and the DarkBlues in particular may feel uncomfortably close to the action. There is atradition that they watch a film the day before the race: for their sakes, I would suggest they see this at an earlier date.

Is it the real story? None but those directly involved will ever know, and they will only tell you their version. But this film is certainly true toTopolski's account, and while some of the dialogue is invented, all of it hasat some time occurred to at least one rower, and much is in fact documented. If I have one major criticism of both the book and the film, it is that neither really shows the bizarre type of media attention lavished on this race every year, nor the part the press played in stirring the mutiny to boiling point. But this is the inside story of how the universities reach their public date, and gives a flavour of what it is like to be involved. Unlike every other rowing grudge match, the crews involved are not necessarily selected for any other race, and so every scrap of pressure is focused on one day of the year. Watch "True Blue", and you will never see the Boat Race in the same light again.

This is the rowing film from Britain, certainly of the century, probably of all time. "True Blue" is competently filmed, pacey and interesting; the acting is strong, particularly Macdonald (Dominic West) and Topolski (Johan Leysen), and the film works for several levels of audience. I think it will arouse interest, and building on an Olympic year when rowing briefly became a pre-eminent sport in the UK, will get an enthusiastic response from the public. It will be interesting to see if another rowing film, "The Amateurs", filmed in Canada last year and on release in North America soon, can show similar power. This could be a good year for our sport.

This article is copyright to Rachel Quarrell, Oxford, September 1996.It may not be reproduced or republished in any form without the express consent of the author. This web page may be linked but not mirrored.