United: “The ball’s round to go round …”
When United, a drama based on the true story of the Busby Babes and the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, premiered on BBC Two in Spring 2011, it was met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. It’s out on DVD and now on demand; and we review it below, with the help of director James Strong …
We all know the story; as the Manchester United team prepared to take off from Munich airport in February 1958 after a European game, the plane carrying them and other passengers crashed, killing many, wounding others. The intention of United, director James Strong tells ManUtd24, was to [in film terms] “tell the relatively untold story of the Busby Babes and the Munich disaster which nearly destroyed Manchester United football club. We wanted to tell the world about these incredible players and the ground-breaking techniques developed by Sir Matt Busby and his coach Jimmy Murphy in producing the best football team of a generation. And how, as they were about to conquer the world, tragedy struck and most of the team were either killed or injured in a fateful plane crash, but also how one man’s dedication [Jimmy Murphy] kept the spirit and the heart of the club going through its darkest hours.”
The film initially follows the template of any other sport film; centring around the toils of Bobby Charlton, a youngster wanting nothing more than a chance to play for Manchester United. But this is where United separates itself from the general mediocrity of other football flicks (and it isn’t even that), like 2005’s Goal! (which isn’t necessarily a bad film but it ultimately strays too close to the obvious) and gradually becomes edgy, moving away from the ‘feel-good’ and opening itself up into an entirely different world.
This film does things well. Bobby Charlton becomes Old Trafford’s new hero, impressing against Charlton Athletic, but sees an attempt to cut short his post-match celebrations by an opposing player who remarks with the most powerful of lines — a case of dramatic irony, perhaps, that serves not only to emphasise the prowess of the Busby Babes but to put the impending tragedy into context:
‘You’re just kids. How can you win like that when you’re just kids?’
Imagine you’ve been chosen to create a film. You — on the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. How would you go about it? And who would be the protagonist? Bobby Charlton? Matt Busby? Duncan Edwards? Even Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper who helped make survivors of those beneath the wreckage? Those behind United barely neglected to tell their story, but shifted a lot of focus, somewhat surprisingly, on Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy, played by David Tennant, no less. James Strong, whose work includes the directing of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey, tells us: “Jimmy Murphy was the unsung hero of the club before and after the crash,” he says. “In dramatic terms to tell a story effectively you often need to narrow your focus and tell a bigger story by concentrating on an individual, or in our case Jimmy and Bobby; this doesn’t mean their story is any less important than anyone else who was involved, but to tell the story of everyone just isn’t possible.”
It doesn’t take long to gain an impression of Murphy, and it’s usually a good one — he’s a players’ coach, and an active one judging by his off-coloured tracksuit and his spontaneous shouts of motivation (‘the ball’s round to go round’, ‘football’s a simple game’), his beady eyes showing an engaged motivator during a talk with Charlton where he then tells him, eyes suddenly withdrawn, smiling, ‘it’s all there for you, I promise’. Strong says: “I was struck by Jimmy’s integral role in the development of the youth players and harnessing their raw talent – many of whom went on to become known as the Busby Babes and then his key part in ensuring the team and the club would survive the disaster. His selfless work and determination to honour those who had been lost I felt was an amazing and untold story.”
While many were impressed with the portrayal of Murphy, some were less pleased with how manager Matt Busby appeared, as perhaps croaky, grumpy, and according to Busby’s son, Sandy, like a “gangster”. However, Strong is happy with the end result: “As the public face of the club and well known and widely respected figure, lots of people have a memory of what he was like,” he says. “For our part again we made great efforts to get our portrayal accurate. The actor playing him, Dougray Scott, listened to hours of interviews to get his speech patterns absolutely correct.
“Interestingly, when we showed the film to a group of survivors and relatives, one of the players, Kenny Morgans, told me afterwards he had closed his eyes and thought he was back in the room with the ‘boss’.
“We also studied photographs to see how he dressed, held himself and, of course, talked to lots of people who knew him to really get a picture of what he was like but, of course, it’s never going to be the real person — it’s only ever a portrayal and all you can do is try to do your best – which I know we did and the overwhelming majority of people felt we’d got him spot on.” While criticism is inevitable for a film, those who did for this one were almost exclusively unhappy at the character detailing, rather than the way the show unfolded. The audience, mainly Manchester United fans, would not object to aspects that cannot rationally be objected to.
Even with deep, detailed knowledge of how it all unfolded, nothing can quite prepare you for the scene prior to where it happens; the build-up slow and rapid, merciless and ominous; created partly by the visuals, the showing of angst and sharp eyes, and partly by sound as the gentle patter of snow, ticking of clocks and a haunting piano cumulatively creates something dark, perilous and — then — it hits you hard. United succeeds in the use of all these techniques — the film notably enhanced.
It’s a dramatisation, we know, but they should have at least put that in big, bold letters, repeated every once in a while to catch the audience off guard. The reality is that the immediate wreckage of the disaster, the shouts and the tears, the blooded bodies, is so moving purely because it’s all true; this genuinely happened. It is powerful because we’re familiar, even if that is vaguely, with the extent of what happened in ’58.
It’s only after it all subsides, and that takes a while, that the extent of the creators’ attention to detail can be fully acknowledged; the film draws on first-hand interviews, doing its best as it strives for accuracy. James Strong wrote in a column for the BBC that United was ‘as true to the real story as possible’, ‘for example, we know the exact fabric that was used on the seats of the plane’. “With our extensive research (interviews with the survivors, relatives, archives etc) we attempted to be as accurate to the events that occurred and respectful as possible to the real people involved, while still telling a story that was dramatically of interest to a wide audience,” Strong says.
This film is emotional, unforgiving, absorbing and inspirational. It succeeds in detailing the horrors of the air crash, the reasons for its happening and its eventually glorious aftermath, and a whole lot more. But it is obvious that this isn’t just about the Babes and loss of Babes, and that this is not the film of the Munich Air Disaster; but also about growing up, borrowed from the popular ‘from boys to men’ angle that few films successfully pull off with conviction, and moving on, building relationships (one of the purposes of Murphy) and bridges from what little you have and being united. It becomes resoundingly clear by the end that this is more about football — heck, there’s hardly any football shown. And that’s important: once you realise that this isn’t just another cheesy flick that tries to be safe, you’ll be able to appreciate a timeless masterpiece.
United is available on Amazon and on demand through iTunes and your local cable/satellite provider.