Greg Denieffe writes:
It is said that Hitler demanded a German victory in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, and he got it. He also demanded a record of the victory for propaganda purposes, and he got that, too. Released in 1938 Olympia produced by Leni Riefenstahl turned out to be a magnificent documentary of the Games.
After a military victory that Hitler demanded but did not get, and a war that led to the cancellation of the XII and XIII Games of 1940 and 1944 respectively, sport and the Olympics took centre stage again in 1948.
Olympia was a striking piece of Nazi propaganda, but by 1948 it was an embarrassment and rerunning it as originally cut to stimulate public interest in the London ‘Austerity’ Games was not an option. The Office of Alien Property Custodian became stewards of Olympia and the rights were acquired from them by Westport International Films and United Artists, which set about producing a trimmed down, propaganda-free version for American cinemas.
At the end of April 1948, United Artists released Kings of the Olympics which according to the New York Times “has been reassembled to cast the recently defeated Nazis in as unflattering a light as possible (in the original film, Riefenstahl treated the contestants with impartiality and equanimity – much to the dismay of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels).”
On the 3 May 1948 Time Magazine reported:
Gone are the long, fawning close-ups of the Führer, gone the Wagnerian surges on the sound track to underline every German victory. Gone is any suggestion that the Germans (even hard-working Leni) had anything to do with the film; the distributors are taking no chances with U.S. public opinion. By shrewd editing, a 260-minute heil to German athletic prowess has been reduced to a 92-minute rah-rah for the All-American boy.
The release was accompanied by a movie poster featuring athletics, gymnastics and sailing, and a series of eight lobby cards, one of which shows a close up of two German rowers. This appears to be a duotone of a black-and-white promotional photograph of Ernst Gaber and Paul Söllner, the stern pair of the German coxed four that claimed the gold medal in Berlin.
In the original movie, the rowing races move from right to left and are cut with close ups filmed before racing began by Gustav Lantschner from within the boats. The photograph used for the lobby card has the boat moving left to right; Gaber and Söllner can be clearly identified from a couple of collectors’ cards issued after the Games.
The rowing sequence of Olympia concentrates on the finals of the coxless fours and the eights. It appeared in the film at 1.2 times normal speed and can be seen here. The following slow-motion video shows the eights race and the American crew during their victory ceremony. The medal ceremonies were held later in the Olympic Stadium, when in addition to their gold medals, the winners were presented with oak saplings.
A recent addition to YouTube is a wonderful ten-minute video called If There’s No Wind, Row | A 1936 Historic Story. It documents the true story of the Washington Huskies quest to qualify to represent the USA and eventually win the gold in Berlin.
Considering the amount of editing carried out by Westport International Films and United Artists to eliminate any trace of Nazi propaganda from Kings of the Olympics, it is surprising that they allowed the German rowers to feature on the lobby card, especially when they had the true Kings of the Olympic regatta right on their doorstep: one can only wonder if prejudice against the working class crew from Washington played a part.
Like London Busses …
Three weeks after the conclusion of the 1948 London Olympics, a 130-minute film called XIV Olympiad: The Glory of Sport was released. Filmed in colour, sixteen different versions were prepared in as many languages for simultaneous release. The title was taken from the Olympic Oath:
In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.
Many posters and lobby cards accompanied the release including this Trade Card in Australia.
In the video below, the rowing starts at 61 minutes and shows parts of the medal races for the eights, coxed fours and coxless pairs. The contrast in the reaction of the crowd watching the racing in 1936 and 1948 is quite remarkable. It’s like they were different worlds, which I suppose they were.