Categories Dream Horse Poll Print Media

5 Transformative Sports Films Based on True Stories

Dream Horse: Community and Togetherness

by Shahnaz Mahmud | Sundance Institute | August 29, 2023

Major moments in sports history remain long in the memories of fans. But, often it’s the off-the-field narratives — the behind-the-scenes stories of how those major moments came to be — that are transformative, with the power to change how we live our lives for the better.

Enter the sports film based on a true story.

When we follow the lives of athletes and their true personal stories as told through the narrative lens, their resonance is amplified. These are deeply human stories, ones that reach into our everyday lives.

Consider the original Brian’s Song from 1971. Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers were the first interracial roommates in the National Football League; the beloved TV movie reflects the friendship that developed between the two.

And what about Chariots of Fire? The 1981 film won four Oscars, including the award for Best Picture. The film follows two British athletes who won gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Liddell, a devout Christian, famously refused to run the qualifying heats for the 100-meter race — his preferred event —because they were being held on a Sunday.

Sports films — particularly those grounded in true stories — are so special because they are transcendental, reaching our core humanity. And in some instances, they inspire us to be courageous in our very own pursuits. Here are five sports films based on real stories that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival throughout the years.

Dream Horse (2020 Sundance Film Festival)

The true events that inspired Dream Horse as a narrative feature had previously been depicted in the documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award. It’s astonishing to read the documentary’s description and not view it as a narrative film. In a small community nestled in one of the poorest mining valleys in Wales, Jan Vokes, the barmaid at the village men’s club, decides to breed a racehorse. She gathers a group of locals who each agree to contribute 10 pounds a week. They raise a foal to maturity, name him Dream Alliance, and watch him become a champion.

For Dream Horse, Welsh director Euros Lyn deepens the drama of this true-to-life story, both on and off the racetrack. Lyn got involved in the project because he knew the story well, and he focused a great deal of the narrative on the community of people surrounding Dream Alliance.

But, Lyn also says he wanted to make the film in response to certain world events at the time, like the U.K.’s departure from the European Union and Donald Trump winning the 2016 U.S. presidential election — the film’s underpinnings would become a sense of community and togetherness. Lyn notes screenwriter Neil McKay’s efforts to spend quality time with the real people who comprised the horse syndicate.

Toni Collette stars as the determined Jan Vokes, and Damian Lewis takes on the role of Howard Davies, the local accountant who inspires and helps her along the way. Dream Horse is available for streaming on Hulu, Hoopla, Kanopy, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, Apple TV, YouTube and more. Click here for viewing options.

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