When Roger Bannister crossed the finish line at Oxford’s Iffley Road track in three minutes, 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954 and became the first person to break four minutes for the mile, his feat entered the history books alongside the coronation of a new queen of England and the conquest of Mount Everest.
It was an accomplishment that people once feared was beyond human limits, yet Bannister defied that notion.
The life of Sports Illustrated’s inaugural Sportsman of the Year is now depicted on screen in the new documentary Bannister: Everest on the Track. The film recounts Bannister’s life story, from a childhood overshadowed by the terror of German bombings in World War II to the years of accomplishment and influence that followed that historic mile.
“Roger Bannister is the best example of someone doing something where your brain says no but your heart says ’Yes, you can.’’ IAAF president and former mile world record holder Lord Sebastian Coe says at the beginning of the film.
Sports lllustrated chatted with director Tom Ratcliffe on what it was like to bring the Bannister’s story to film.
Chris Chavez: Roger Bannister’s life has been chronicled in books, articles and films throughout the years. What angle did you want to uncover in telling his story?
Tom Ratcliffe: We wanted to give background to his story and his life growing up and the things that motivated him. We started back further with his life as a boy in the interwar period and World War II. The story has been told before but we were trying to go deeper and capture that drama of his childhood. I’d say about 25 minutes of the film is focused on the race and we squeeze out as much drama from that as we can.
CC: The film received a lot attention from its start on KickStarter. What was the process like to get this project off the ground?
TR: Former Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein had written a “Where are they Now?” piece on Roger. I know Dave from a trip to Kenya and we started talking about it. He offered to call Roger on our behalf and then another friend, Richard Nerurkar (fifth place in the 1996 Olympic marathon), was an Oxford graduate and knows Roger. We had two inroads. We really wanted to look for different voices and started with a spectator. We eventually got a hold of Jeffrey Weston, who was at the race. Through Joan Benoit, we found George Dole, who was also in the race and lives in Maine. It started a chain of people from there.
CC:The film includes appearances by the likes of Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram. What was it like to weave generations of milers together?
TR: The great part about that was essentially the esteem in which they hold Roger. He significantly influenced their lives. Phil Knight says that Roger Bannister inspired him to start Nike and wonders where he would be without the inspiration from that mile. It was fun to meet all those people and [to see] how they came to be athletes. There was a simplicity to the mile, with four laps and 60 seconds. There was a chase for the record and it continues to resonate with runners and those that are interested in a good story.
CC: Knight recently said that if there was one athlete that he wishes he signed to a Nike contract, it would be Roger. Did he elaborate on that?
TR: I don’t think they’ve ever met. He says that he’s been to every great sporting event in the last 40 years but the time that he saw Bannister and John Landy run in Vancouver means much more to him than anything else. The smile on his face when he says that really brings out the enjoyment of that moment and how it’s influenced his life. Some people at Nike have seen that clip and a 35-year veteran of the company says that’s the best interview he’s seen Phil give.
CC: What was Bannister’s feedback on the film?
TR: He contacted Hugh Brasher, which resulted in a call to me around Christmas time. He said, “Roger would like to buy 15 copies of the film.” We still hadn’t put the film out but we sent him the copies and we definitely weren’t going to charge him for them. Roger sent a note afterwards that said something to the effect of “You’ve made my grandchildren’s Christmas much happier by your gift. Many congratulations on a splendid effort.” He wanted to give it to his grand children because he felt this was the definitive chronicle of his life. So that felt great.
CC: What were some of the challenges to making the film?
TR: Getting a hold of as many people as we wanted. We were on our way to interview Steve Cram when we got a call from Oxford that they found a spectator, Jeffrey Weston, for us to interview and he was available that night. We were six hours away from where he was, so we puled a U-turn and drove to a small village in the middle of nowhere. When we got there, his interview really makes the film, given he used to be a journalist. We worked hard at things but they just fell into our lap.
Another instance that worked in our favor was the flag that can be seen flying at the track, because that’s actually the flag from the day of the race. Oxford was little concerned because it’s the flag from that day. Eventually they put it up and we were able to film with it. They started taking it down and we needed a couple more shots and they were accommodating to getting it up again because the flag was such an important part of that day.
Watch the trailer for Bannister: Everest on the Track below:
CC: What was the most surprising story that he told you that had never been told before?
TR: He’d accomplished so much in athletics and in science. We asked him what he thought was his greatest achievement. He sat there for a second and thought about it. He said, “There are many neurologists and scientists out there but there was only one four-minute mile.” His wife jumped in and said, “It’s one thing to be humble but it’s another thing to misrepresent the truth.” She went on to list all his achievements as a scientist. He closed his eyes and let it go for a second. Then he said, “As I was saying before my wife left my dissent, I was a successful scientist but I will be known for the four-minute mile.” Despite all of the acclaim, he’s definitely a humble guy who understands the achievement but doesn’t let himself get too carried away with it.
CC: What are some of the most interesting stories that were left on the cutting room floor?
TR: There was a lot of war background and stories before and during his time at Oxford. We didn’t cut anything from the race.
CC: Was there anyone that you wish would’ve been available for the film? So much time has gone with people passing away over time.
TR: Chris Brasher would’ve been great. One of the things that came through was the incredible bond that Chris Chataway, Chris Brasher and Roger had. Chataway’s expression shows how much joy he had from that relationship and the race. Hugh Brasher mentioned how close they were as life-long friends. He said that his father was an Olympic champion, an accomplished journalist and started the London Marathon but was best known for pacing two laps of the four-minute mile.
CC: Most recently, people heard about Sir Roger when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. How was he doing when you last saw him?
TR: In retrospect, we can see the effects of the Parkinson’s. He greeted us at the door of his home and he was mobile but the next time he was moving more slowly and was walking with a cane. We knew something was up. Dave Epstein was speaking at Oxford and told Roger that he was going to be there. Roger had a pen and paper and was taking notes. He asked several questions about Dave’s research. You can see physical changes but in terms of his intellect and his curiosity of the world, he has not changed.