Jim Thorpe–All-American: Michael Curtiz’s Biopic of Native American Athlete, Played by White Star Burt Lancaster

Jim Thorpe–All-American, a black and white biopic, directed by the versatile craftsman Michael Curtiz (best known for “Casablanca” and “Mildred Pierce”), honoring Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe was the first Native American athlete who won medals at the 1912 Olympics and distinguished himself in various professional teams.

As was the practice then in Hollywood, the title role was played by a white actor—the handsome and naturally athletic Burt Lancaster at the prime of his popularity. But Warner also cast some contract players, as well as several Native American actors.

The film uses some archival footage of the 1912 and 1932 Summer Olympics, as well as other footage of the real Thorpe.   And Jim Thorpe himself has a cameo, cast as coaching assistant.

Multiple Oscar nominee Charles Bickford played the famed coach Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Thorpe’s longtime mentor.

Bickford also narrated the text–there is too much narration to compensate for the lack of dramatic development. The film unfolds conventionally as a tale of rise and fall, ending on upbeat note when he becomes the coach of group of boys.

The narrative begins with a banquet, in which the legendary football coach “Pop” Warner praises in a heartfelt speech Jim Thorpe.

Most of the tale unfolds as one long flashback, punctuated by functional narration to connect between the episodic structure, which jumps in time over a period decades.

As a youngster, Jim Thorpe runs home before his first day at Indian reservation school, but his father talks him into going back. Father wants his son to make something of himself—be somebody.

Years later, the adult Jim arrives on the campus of Carlisle Schoolto continue his education. He likes his roommates at the boarding school, fast-talking Ed Guyac and the huge Little Boy Who Walk Like Bear, but nearly gets into a fight with upperclassman and football star Peter Allendine.

When the academic pressure becomes excessive, Jim goes for a long run, during which he outraces other track athletes. Witnessing, coach Pop Warner talks Jim into joining the track team. J

Pop’s team consists of just him (competing in all but the distance running events) and one other man. When Jim beats the other team, the press begins to reports his impressive achievements.

Jim is attracted to another student, Margaret Miller (Phyllis Thaxter) but has to compete for her affections with Peter. Seeing that football is more prestigious than track, he applies to join the football team. Pop, worried about losing most of his track team with a single injury, turns him down, then reluctantly gives in. However, he keeps Jim on the sideline. Finally, he lets Jim play in a game against Harvard, but only to kick the ball away. The first time, Jim is tackled for a loss before he can kick.

The second time, he has trouble catching the ball; about to be tackled, he starts running and scores a touchdown. Soon, he is a celebrated football star.

Jim tells Pop that he has finally figured out what he wants to do with his life: coach. Later, Pop tells him that scouts from a school looking for a coach will be in the crowd watching a showdown between Carlisle and an undefeated University of Penn team headed by another All-American, Tom Ashenbrunner. The teams end up in a 13-13 tie after Jim kicks an impossible field goal in the last seconds. However, the job goes to the white Ashenbrunner, which Jim suspects is a result of his being an Indian.

While dating, he wants to marry her, in part because they are both Indians. When Margaret does not return for the new semester, Jim becomes despondent, particularly after he learns that Margaret is white. Pop arranges for Margaret to work as a nurse at the school, and after reconciling, the couple gets married.

Jim enters the 1912 Olympics, winning both the pentathlon and the decathlon. However, when it’s discovered that he was paid to play baseball one summer, he is accused of “professionalism,” and subsequently is disqualified and stripped of his medals because he is not an amateur.

Embittered, Jim turns to professional baseball and football to make a living. He and Margaret have a son, Jim Thorpe Jr., hoping he will follow in his footsteps. However, the boy dies while Jim is away in Chicago with the Canton Bulldogs, sending him into a downward spiral, and causing Margaret to leave him.

Tracking him down, working as an announcer at dance marathon, Pop offers him ticket to the opening of the 1932 Olympics. Initially, he tears it up, but later, he tapes it back together and attends the ceremony. He reconciles with Pop and his resentment dissolves.

Driving over a football that some kids lost, he buys then a new one.  He gives them practical pointers, and they ask him to become their coach, which lifts his spirits.

The film then returns to the banquet, in which Jim is inducted into Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame.

End Note:

Though the real-life Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic medals, as in the movie, the honors were reinstated in 1983, 32 years after the film, and 33 years after his death.


Burt Lancaster as Jim Thorp

Billy Gray as Jim Thorpe, the boy

Charles Bickford as Glenn S. “Pop” Warner

Steve Cochran as Peter Allendin

Phyllis Thaxter as Margaret Miller

Dick Wesson as Ed Guya

Jack Bighead as Little Boy Who Walk Like Bear

Sonny Chorre as Wally Denny (as Suni Warcloud)

Al Mejia as Louis Tewanem

Hubie Kerns as Tom Ashenbrunner