Visions of Eight (1973) was the brainchild of producer David L. Wolper, whose film The Hellstrom Chronicle won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1972. Other notable credits of his include Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and the television miniseries Roots (1977) and The Thorn Birds (1983). Wolper, who died in 2010, also produced the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
In 1970, Wolper was in Germany working on Willy Wonka when he met officials planning the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Wolper pitched them on a fairly loopy project—an omnibus film made up of artistic, idiosyncratic short films about the Games, made by different directors from around the world—and they loved it. The German officials were happy to adopt Wolper’s inclusive, international idea, as they were trying to shed the image of Germany’s Nazi past and its Olympic association with the 1936 Berlin Games.
The first director Wolper approached was the great Federico Fellini from Italy, figuring that Fellini’s inclusion would open the gates to other directors’ participation. Fellini declined, as he was in preproduction for his film Amarcord, but he said that Wolper could use his name as a recruitment tool, by telling other directors that Fellini would be involved in the film. Wolper agreed, they shook hands on this somewhat shady bargain, and the producer went about rounding up the contributors to what he originally conceived to be Visions of Ten.
The project originally included Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (Black Girl, Mandabi). Sembène went to the Munich Games and shot a segment about the Senegalese basketball team, but Wolper ultimately opted not to include this film, changing the project from Visions of Nine to Visions of Eight (a tenth director, Franco Zeffirelli, had pulled out before the Games began). It is not known at this time whether Sembène’s short still survives.
After unsuccessfully trying to recruit Ingmar Bergman, Wolper turned to Bergman’s fellow Swedish director Mai Zetterling (The Girls, Loving Couples), who, not being a sports fan, twice turned down Wolper’s offer. But Zetterling changed her mind after witnessing the obsessive commitment of weight lifters, and she went on to make The Strongest, a beautiful film chronicling these devoted athletes.
Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn did not set out to make a film about pole-vaulters, as eventually seen in Visions of Eight. Penn originally planned to make a segment about the American flyweight boxer Bobby Lee Hunter, who was imprisoned for manslaughter but allowed to leave prison to compete in amateur boxing matches. Penn filmed a few of Hunter’s fights in Las Vegas and went to Hunter’s hometown in South Carolina to film his grandfather’s funeral, but the film project had to be abandoned after Hunter surprisingly lost his qualifying match for the Munich Games. Penn said that he chose pole-vaulting as his replacement subject because it was the only competition that was vertical, rather than horizontal.
Japan’s Kon Ichikawa, who had chronicled the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo Olympiad, used thirty-five cameras to film his movie The Fastest, about the 100-meter dash, in order to capture the race from every possible angle. Because there were not thirty-five cameramen present in Munich to film the race, his fellow director Claude Lelouch volunteered to be one of Ichikawa’s cameramen, and Lelouch can briefly be seen in the film running alongside the winner after the race, camera in hand.
Lelouch was the only Visions of Eight director to shoot his own film, hence his ability to help Ichikawa. Lelouch, whose A Man and a Woman won the Palme d’Or in 1966, started as a news journalist in France and has always shot his own movies throughout his career, eager to control every aspect of his films. He has said that directing a movie without also being its cameraman feels like being a painter without a brush.
If you look closely at the still pictures that introduce Miloš Forman’s film The Decathlon, you might notice that Forman, then only a few years removed from leaving his native Czechoslovakia, is wearing a faded T-shirt from the famed New York delicatessen Zabar’s.
Visions of Eight was a commercial and critical failure upon its release in 1973. Critics could not forgive Wolper’s decision to de-emphasize the terrorist attack against Israeli athletes that occurred during the Games, and audiences had a hard time connecting with the film’s unhurried, nonnarrative approach. Hopefully, viewers in 2021 will be able to look with fresh eyes at these eight films and appreciate their curious and kaleidoscopic visions of this historic competition.