A suave British superspy is rescuing a captive from a mountain hideout. Leaping on a snowmobile, the secret agent races down the slopes with daredevil brilliance, dodging bullets, leading his pursuers towards the mountain’s edge. “Don’t worry,” he tells his terrified passenger with a cocky grin, “I’ve done this before” – and off they fly, over the cliff.
It’s the opening scene from the comic book of Kingsman: The Secret Service, co-written by Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons and Matthew Vaughn. The snowmobile chase never made it into 2015’s film version directed by Vaughn, which was a shame, because it robbed it of one of the comic’s blackest jokes: the sight of snowmobile, spy and rescuee all smashed to pieces at the bottom of the cliff, with the union jack parachute that had failed to open lying apologetically alongside.
This is the image that came to mind when Vaughn first announced he would be producing a movie about Michael “Eddie” Edwards, Great Britain’s best known and least competent ski jumper. Vaughn had built his producing career on uncompromising films like Kick-Ass, Layer Cake and Snatch. He was not a man who shied from nasty characters or onscreen violence. Would his Eddie the Eagle be the story of a naive kid who stumbled into an Olympic underworld and found himself owing thousands to drug-running coaches? Would Eddie have 24 hours to come up with the money before Scandinavian masseurs turned up to break his legs with ski poles?
No: the biopic, which comes to cinemas this month, turns out to be a family friendly and rather endearing comedy drama – the heartening, slightly bonkers tale of a young man with limited athletic prowess who decided that he was going to compete in the Olympics anyway. Perhaps Vaughn was drawn to the surprise hero of the 1988 Calgary Games because – like the mutants of Vaughn’s X-Men films – Edwards led a double life. At home in Cheltenham he was Eddie, who wore inch-thick glasses and did plastering work for his father. Out on the slopes he became The Eagle, with superpowers that enabled him to soar through the sky (with admittedly little grace or distance).
What’s noticeable is that Vaughn – and director Dexter Fletcher, better known to many of us as the curly-haired one from Press Gang – are pitching this story of stereotypical British sporting failure to a US audience. They’ve bought one of the highly prized and expensive advertisement slots in Sunday’s Super Bowl. As part of the trailer, a selection of NFL players offer their earnest endorsement; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees compares it with favourite American sports movies like Hoosiers and Remember the Titans(ignoring the fact that, in those films, the protagonists do actually win their events).
With their comic but never condescending take on Eddie, Vaughn and Fletcher have, essentially, reframed what we Brits have tended to view as a slightly embarrassing and foolish episode, and magnified its hidden glory. It’s an interesting time to do so. Take their own lead actor, Taron Egerton, the 26-year-old Welshman who made such a splash as Kingsman’s Eggsy. Egerton wasn’t even alive when Edwards assumed his place in British folklore.
It’s probable that those of Egerton’s generation, who employ Eddie’s name (if at all) as a shorthand for ungainliness and ineptitude, will know nothing of his real life. They will have little idea what Edwards put himself through to reach his one and only Olympics. How, with no funding or coach, he took to the European ski circuit in his mum’s car. How he wore second-hand boots – and six pairs of socks to make them fit – plus a helmet held on with a piece of string. How, at his most penniless, he had to sleep in a Finnish mental hospital and bind up his broken jaw with a pillowcase.
And it’s hard to imagine, in these days of never-ending doping scandals and institutional corruption, that Eddie the Eagle caused so much controversy simply by having the temerity to compete. That his presence in the field – way, way back in last place – was considered, by the men in blazers, an affront to their noble establishment. Or that his popularity with the crowds, who cheered his loopy celebrations at the end of each jump, caused jealous competitors to send him hate mail.
The film quotes Baron de Coubertin’s foundational ethos for his modern Olympics: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle.” It’s an idea that certainly struggles for air in the highly monetised, strictly ranked world of professional sport today; and one even less observed on the tracks and fields of the USA, a country that loves winners above all.
So it’s pleasing, the thought of an NFL player enjoying Eddie’s story, finding something to learn from an extreme loser – a lad who never wanted to be a contender, just a contestant. Maybe it will encourage us to celebrate everyone who takes part in the sporting arena – the golfer who rarely makes the cut, the tennis player ranked No102. After all, most of us have more in common with them than the Messis, the Federers, the Ennis-Hills. Don’t we all just want the chance to have a go?
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