THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE (1973)
Directed by Robert Scheerer, it’s Tarzan Does the Olympics with the Help of His Tiger Friend! Actually, that would make a somewhat better title than the fairly bland The World’s Greatest Athlete. But while the title may be lackluster, there’s much more pep in this bizarre film than you might expect.
Coach Sam Archer (John Amos) is having trouble guiding the athletes of Merrivale College to success. This might have something to do with the fact that one man is responsible for coaching every sport the college participates in: football, baseball, basketball, rowing, competitive diving, track and field, and possibly the marching band (which isn’t a sport, but is included in the opening montage of failure). He is assisted by his friend Milo (Tim Conway), who spends a good chunk of the movie standing behind him and making funny faces.
I get the feeling that Tim Conway was just getting bored.
Naturally, Coach Archer takes a trip to Africa to get back in touch with his roots. Wait, that’s kind of odd. And maybe a bit racist? I mean, Archer is from Cincinnati. But whatever. While there, he meets the world’s greatest athlete.
Run, Nanu, Run!
But Nanu (Jan-Michael Vincent), a dashing Tarzan type, doesn’t want to leave his home. What’s a coach to do? Fortunately, there’s a local custom which declares that if you save another man’s life you become responsible for him, and must follow him around forever (despite this running counter to every other example of this trope). Fake peril for Coach Archer ensues, as he tries to trick Nanu into saving him.
Also, tiger butt-touching.
Dr Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne), the local witch doctor, sees through the Coach’s plans, but doesn’t really give a shit.
“My hair is a bird, and I give no shits about the validity of your argument.”
So Nanu ends up back in America with the Coach. He spends his time kicking ass at sports, artlessly flirting with his tutor Jane (Dayle Haddon), hanging out with his pet tiger, and generally having a decent time.
That tiger seriously steals every scene it’s in.
But wait! Jane’s shitty boyfriend (Danny Goldman) isn’t happy about Nanu horning in on his dame, so he arranges for that witch doctor from earlier to come fuck shit up. Upon his arrival, he somehow uses his magic to shrink Milo, which doesn’t really have any effect on the plot whatsoever.
Honey I Drunk the Kids?
Everything culminates in a giant track and field event in which Nanu attempts to win every event, while dealing with curses Gazenga is hurling at him.
I love how the refs just take this shit in stride.
Can Nanu overcome the witch doctor’s curses? Will he win all the sports? Will that weird shrinking sequence be relevant at all? The answer to that last one is no, but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out the rest.
God. Why do we as a society like sports? What are we really in it for? I feel as though, in its own bizarre way, The World’s Greatest Athlete is grappling with these questions. The protagonist of this film isn’t its title character, the kid actually competing. It’s Coach Archer, the man training him, watching him, and rooting for him. And as the film begins, Archer has lost his love of the game. He repeats over and over again that sports are his life, yet somehow they’ve lost their spark.
There’s no crying in baseball… or basketball… or football… or any of those other ones!
His first step in rekindling his love of sports is to return to nature, where man’s physical energy is used primarily for survival. Upon discovering Nanu, the embodiment of primal athleticism, he discovers that there is a massive disconnect. To Archer, the rewards of the contest are fame, money, and glory, but Nanu doesn’t give two shits about these things. He runs for the sake of running.
And does whatever this is for the sake of whatever this is.
But Archer needs this injection of raw wild muscleman in his life so badly that he repeatedly lies to Nanu and others to get him on his various teams. Because sports! And it works. Archer feels great about sports again. Everything’s wonderful. Until Nanu realizes he’s being used, that is. He expresses how the Coach’s deception has made him feel about sports, saying,”If it is so important it makes you lie, Nanu want no part of it.” To which Archer just blathers something about how life is complicated and Nanu will understand when he’s older.
“Nanu smell bullshit.”
Archer can’t explain why he needs sports. He just does. And he’s willing to lie and take advantage of anyone in his path to get his fix. Is our love of sports like Archer’s? Do we push young athletes to compete out of our need for entertainment? If we do, that ought to make us feel pretty small.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
Well, it’s pretty damn stupid, but when did that stop anything from becoming popular in the ’70s? Honestly, I have no idea why The World’s Greatest Athlete hasn’t retained at very least a cult following. I defy you to dislike a movie heavily featuring a tiger wearing a silly hat.
Seriously, whose cup of tea is this not?
And yeah, the film is disjointed. It doesn’t really flow particularly well, but any given five-minute chunk has something to laugh at. Ah well, I guess it was just too scattershot to stick in our cultural memory.
- The opening credits contain a number of gags that look like they would be funny, if you could see them through all the text on the screen.
Wait, is that just an outtake from The Boatniks?
- The DVD release comes with a disappointing set of “Bloopers” that aren’t so much bloopers as pieces of unedited footage, most of which made it into the actual film. On the plus side, all those obscured gags from the opening credits are there (turns out most of them aren’t very funny after all).
- Howard Cosell appears as himself, but is sadly much less enjoyable than Paul Lynd was as the announcer in Son of Flubber.
Uhhhhhh. Sports joke?
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
This movie expects us to buy that some pasty white guy is the greatest athlete in Africa. I’ve got nothing else to say.
I know they’re going for a Tarzan thing, but still.
Dammit, this was an unexpectedly good time. Sure, the premise is terrible, and the plot veers off in bizarre directions, but it’s undeniably good dumb fun. Also, that tiger is fucking adorable, while simultaneously looking like it’s about to murder the shit out of everyone. I love it. It’s also worth noting that the frantic track and field sequence that the film culminates with is simply amazing (something I never thought I’d say about any track and field movie). Chariots of Fire can suck it. I totally recommend checking this shit out.