Everybody loves an underdog and while the odds may be stacked against the him, his victory is all the sweeter when he triumphs. Here are some of our favourite films celebrating the underdog. What are some of yours?
Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
This go-to underdog movie has an equally compelling back story. Sylvester Stallone’s first screenplay was his desperate last ditch attempt at making it in Hollywood. Written when he was stone-broke to the point of having to sell his dog for USD25 in order to get by, Stallone doggedly (pun intended) pitched his script to producers Irvin Winkler and Robert Chartoff and fought to play the lead role himself (they famously wanted Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal). The plot of Rocky itself is nothing more than a Cinderella story of a local journeyman boxer who gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship. Its surprise ending, however, is the real reason why this movie remains the best boxing movie ever made, second only to Raging Bull. Rocky’s overwhelming success shot Stallone to instant stardom, allowing him to buy his dog back–for USD15,000.
Two Days, One Night (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014)
In a Belgian industrial town, a woman comes back to work after medical leave for depression, only to find out that she has been voted out of the factory by her co-workers, effectively making her redundant. Her colleague Juliette manages to convince the manager to conduct a second ballot, arguing that the workers–some of whom are immigrants –were coerced by the foreman into forcing her friend out. Sandra must now go door-to-door in two days and one night to try and convince the 14 co-workers who voted her out to overturn their initial decisions, an uphill battle considering that all the workers were promised a bonus of 1000 Euros each if they were able to effectively cover Sandra’s shift. This simple premise drew a powerful performance from Marion Cotillard who gained Best Actress nominations at the Oscars and Césars, thanks to a tight direction from the Dardenne Brothers. The movie was nominated for a Palme D’or at Cannes.
On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
This master stroke from Elia Kazan was nominated for a whopping 12 nominations at the Oscars, winning 8, including one for the inimitable Marlon Brando who plays a former boxer trying to right a chain of events he unwittingly set off when he took the fall in a fight for his mob-related union boss. Brando is aided by a strong cast including Eva St. Marie who won for Best Supporting Actress, Karl Marlden and Lee J. Cobb. The movie’s championing of worker’s rights may well have been Kazan’s plea for atonement– Kazan’s name is forever marred for implicating eight fellow members of the filmmaking community in “un-American” activities during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. The initial screenplay of On The Waterfront was written by Kazan’s friend Arthur Miller who was promptly replaced with ties cut when he had criticised Kazan’s participation in the hunts.
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
The story of a boy who can’t seem to get out of trouble or catch a lucky break is a personal one for Truffaut who loosely based his movie on his own childhood. The boy, Antoine, is constantly playing truant, sneaking into cinemas, getting into scrapes and being sent home to a barely functioning family unit forced to live in a matchbox-sized apartment. When Antoine is sent to a centre for troubled youths, we finally discover the reasons for his constant need of attention. Truffaut intentionally leaves the ending ambigious–does Antoine make it? If indeed the film mirrors Truffaut’s life, then the answer is a resounding yes, given that Truffaut found a mentor in the film critic André Bazin and went on to become one of France’s acclaimed and prolific auteurs of cinema. To this day, The 400 Blows, remains his best work.
Not One Less (Zhang Yimou, 1999)
Zhang Yimou’s ninth endeavour is a departure from the historical epics he had started to make prior. It is an unblinkered look at China’s urban-rural divide and the country’s sometimes callous approach to the rights of the child in rural areas. The movie follows the 13-year-old Wei who has been hired as a substitute teacher in a village school with the express instruction by the teacher she is replacing to not let any student out of her sight. Recognising that she is no older than them, the class pays her no respect, and when of them disappears to look for work in the city, Wei must track him down and bring him back to the village. Zhang’s deliberate casting of non-professional actors was essential to his neorealist direction in this movie. Not One Less won several awards including at the Golden Lion and Unicef awards at the Venice Film Festival.