Jim Thorpe (1951)



Director:  Michael Curtiz.

Starring:  Burt Lancaster (Jim Thorpe), Charles Bickford (Pop Warner), Steve Cochran (Peter Allendine),  Phyllis Thaxter (Margaret Miller), Dick Wesson (Ed Guyac),  Jack Big Head (Little Boy Who Walk Like Bear), Sonny Chorre (Wally Denny), Al Mejia (Louis Tewanema), Hubie Kerns (Tom Ashenbrunner).

Leading athlete (Lancaster) of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden with coach Pop Warner (Bickford).  He was latter stripped of his Olympic medals for having played semi-pro balls for a very brief period.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

At a huge banquet for induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Governor Turner of Oklahoma introduces native son Pop Warner, the famous football coach, who in turn talks about the great native American athlete, Jim Thorpe, who is being inducted. 

Flashback.  Jim Thorpe grew up on the Sac and Fox Reservation in Oklahoma.  He did not want to go to the Agency Schools and he would run back home the first chance he got.  So his father took him to a school some 15 miles away from the Thorpe home, so that Jim would not be able to run back home.  But as soon as his father dropped Jim off and had disappeared from sight, Jim ran all the way back home beating his father's return; a distance of 12 miles (considering he took short cuts).  Mom wanted Dad to spank Jim for not attending school, but his father had never hit him and just talked to Jim instead.  He tells Jim that he can make something of himself with the help of the white man's educational system.  Inspired by a desire to please his father, Jim decides to go to school. 

When Jim is older he is sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  Students from all the different tribes attend the school.  Coming from life on a reservation, Jim was pretty green when he arrived on campus.  And he came with an attitude.  Jim was always a bit defiant and this was true at Carlisle too.  He reacts very badly to some harassment from the seniors at Carlisle, which doesn't make him very popular.  The assistant coach wants Jim to meet Glenn S. "Pop" Warner and Jim responds:  "I'm not sure I'm going to stay here."   

Studying was not easy for Jim.  To take a break from his studies, he would run around campus.  One day he ran along with the track team and beat all of the runners.  Pop Warner timed the race and says to his assistants:  "Either my watch is wrong, or we've got a new runner."  Pop speaks with Jim and asks him to come out for the track team.  But Jim is skeptical.  Pop says:  "Don't like it here, do you?"  He then asks Jim to "Give Carlisle a chance."  Jim joins the team and proves himself the best trackman on the team. 

In a meet with Lafayette, Pop only enters two runners: Jim and a long-distance runner.  Jim virtually single-handedly wins the meet for Carlisle.  The newspaper discusses an "amazing one man exhibit".  Jim gets a letter in track for his sweater and a young student named Margaret Miller sews it on for him.  Thorpe is very taken with her and keeps an eye out for her. 

Jim tries to impress Margaret with his track performances, but she seems much more interested in the captain of the football team.  So Jim joins the football team, even against the wishes of Pop Warner.  Later Jim tells Margaret:  "I think I'm in love with you."  At the game Jim makes the winning touchdown.  He then goes out for baseball and performs very well. Jim tells Pop that he wants to be a coach.  He also tells Pop that he wants to marry Margaret. 

On summer vacation Jim goes home to the farm in Oklahoma.  He accepts a job playing for a semi-professional baseball team for the summer for room, board and expenses. 

Back at school for the fall semester, Jim seeks out Margaret.  It is then that he learns that Margaret did not enroll in the school because she is not Indian.  They had made an exception for her because she had gone to schools on the nearby Indian reservation, but now the exception has been withdrawn.  Jim is shocked at the news, but still loves Margaret. 

Jim plays football again and make All-American.  Pop gets Margaret a job as a nurse in the Carlisle student infirmary, then walks Jim into the clinic.  Jim is very surprised and happy.  He asks Margaret to marry him and she says yes.  The big game against Penn is made even more important for Jim with the news that Allegheny is looking for a coach.   On the Penn side there is also an All-American who is also competing for the coaching job.  Jim played better than his rival, but the other fellow got the coaching job.  Jim asks Pop:  "The reason why I didn't get it is because I'm an Indian, isn't it?"  Pop says he doesn't really know the reason for the decision, but that this is just only another hurdle over which  Jim will be able to jump.  

Jim decides to prove himself once and for all by going to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.  There he wins both the Pentathlon (5 events) and the Decathlon (10 events.)  He meets the King of Sweden, who tells him:  "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."  Back home, Jim receives a great Welcome Home celebration.  President of the US William Howard Taft sends Thorpe a telegram congratulating him on his achievements. 

Jim gets an offer for a coaching job in Virginia.  He gets married in preparation for moving to Virginia.  But suddenly, he is charged with accepting money for his athletic prowess, because he was given room, board and expenses for playing semi-professional baseball one summer in Oklahoma.  All of Jim's records would be deleted and he would have to return all his Olympic medals.  And because of the scandal, Jim didn't get the coaching job in Virginia.

So Jim decides to turn professional and really get paid for his athletic prowess.  He plays baseball for the New York Giants.  He is fined $50 dollars by the coach for hitting away when he was signaled to bunt.  So Jim switches to professional football.  Thus he became one of the pioneers of professional football and ones of its greatest stars.  Off the field his life revolved around his son Jim Thorpe Jr.  But during an epidemic, Jim Jr. dies.  This devastates Jim and his wife.  Jim switches from the Bulldogs to join the Tigers.  Then he moves from one team to another. 

One day his old college football friends surprise Margaret with an unannounced visit.  Before Jim gets home, Margaret tells one of the friends that she is very worried about Jim.  He seems almost to blame himself for the death of his son and has lost a lot of the old drive for which he was famous.  Jim arrives and is very pleased to see the guys, but he is very worried about an article by a new sports writer saying that it was a shame to have to watch the break-up of the greatest athlete in football.  Jim denies that he is breaking-up.  Later Jim visits the sports booth and slugs the new sports reporter.  The Cardinals release Jim and he goes to the Spartans. 

Jim is becoming an alcoholic.  His wife wants him to take the 160 acres of land in Oklahoma to which he is entitled, but Jim refuses to return to Oklahoma.  His bitterness and resentment over problems associated with his ethnic heritage come out in such a rage, that he terrifies his wife.  One morning she just simply leaves Jim.  Jim is now on his own.  He tries to get back into football, but is rejected as too old.  He is only accepted by a football team when they learn he is Jim Thorpe.  But Jim does not last long on the field anyway. 

We next see Jim dressed in an Indian chief costume hosting a dance contest.  He is fired from this job too.  Pop Warner comes to see him.  He is coaching the Stamford Indians.  He tells Jim that Margaret remarried and is fine.  Pop offers Jim a job, but Jim refuses it.   Jim finally tells Pop:  "Get out of here and leave me alone."  Pop tells him that somewhere along the line he went completely haywire.  Adding insult to injury, he also says that the Great Jim Thorpe turned out to be a powder-puff. After Pop leaves,  Jim softens and attends the Los Angeles Olympic Games with Pop.  After the games he sits alone in the empty stadium, reviewing his happy but painful past. 

Driving a truck, Jim runs over the football of a group of boys playing sand-lot football.  The boys are so upset that Jim buys them a brand new football and gives it to them.  They are very happy indeed.  He starts to give the boys some good football tips and they ask him if he would coach them.  Jim agrees to the idea.

Back to the present. Pop tells the sports audience that  Jim found himself when he agreed to coach young people.  It was his greatest victory.  Pop ends by saying that Jim Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the past half century.  Then Jim takes the stage to thunderous applause. 


Good movie.  It was interesting reviewing the accomplishments of the great American athlete Jim Thorpe. Burt Lancaster gave a good performance as Thorpe.  A bit of good news:  Thorpe's Olympic  records were later reinstated. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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