Remembering one of our greatest athletes

BY SIMON SMITH

We pay tribute to the Honourable John Landy AC CVO MBE (1930–2022), one of Australia’s greatest athletes.

'Our first really great international athlete'

Man in athletic singlet directly facing camera

John Landy from Cinesound Review 1107, 16 January 1953. Courtesy: Cinesound Movietone Productions. NFSA title: 9642

John Landy’s remarkable running career enthralled the Australian public throughout the 1950s. Fellow Sport Australia Hall of Fame inductee Ron Clarke called him 'our first really great international athlete', and with his record-breaking achievements, self-effacing nature and humility, Landy became the promotional face of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

Such was his popularity, between 1953 and 1956, the Victorian world-record holder appeared in over a dozen separate Australian newsreel stories, all of which are held in the NFSA’s Cinesound Movietone Newsreel collection.

In this unissued Movietone News interview from March 1953, and most likely the earliest surviving footage to feature his voice, Landy describes with typical modesty his training methods and desire for self-improvement:

Among the best surviving films of John Landy in action is this report, filmed by Cinesound cameras in January 1953, demonstrating in slow motion the smooth running technique which powered him to multiple middle-distance world records the following year. For many movie goers, this would have been the first opportunity to see Landy up close. Filmed at Central Park in Melbourne’s leafy south-eastern suburb of Malvern East, the oval was renamed in his honour in 1997:

Landy's Selfless Gesture

On 10 March 1956, John Landy lined up at Melbourne’s Olympic Park for the glamour running event of athletics, the one-mile race (1600 m) at the Australian Championships. Looking to run his fourth consecutive sub-4-minute mile in Australia – a time once considered impossible – Landy was racing for a chance to lower his own world-record time of 3.57.9, one he had held for nearly 2 years. With a strong field of 10 runners, including Merv Lincoln and Ron Clarke, a capacity 21,000 crowd witnessed a remarkable race, made memorable by an entirely unexpected incident!

Two athletes and an official on an athletic track with a large crowd behind them in the distance

John Landy and Ron Clarke from Cinesound Review 1272, 15 March 1956. Courtesy: Cinesound Movietone Productions. NFSA title: 28827

Two-and-a-half laps into the hotly contested 4-lap event, pacesetter Clarke was clipped by eventual second place getter Alec Henderson, causing him to fall into the path of race favourite Landy. Unable to avoid a collision, Landy’s running spikes made significant contact with the prostrate Clarke. Instantly, a concerned Landy stopped and turned back to see if he had seriously injured his fellow competitor, telling The Age post-race, 'I tried to leap him but landed on him and was scared I had spiked his head'.

Landy then resumed racing, remarkably catching the field to win the race in a time of 4.04.2, later admitting he had 'never punished myself so much in a mile … it took a lot out of me'.  A world record opportunity instantly foregone, The Argus trumpeted that Landy’s selfless gesture 'will be given worldwide publicity in newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, films and telecasts', while The Sun News-Pictorial journalist Harry Gordon wrote the next day 'it will be remembered as one of the finest actions in the history of sport'.

Missed it by that much!

Unfortunately, the famous moment of Clarke’s fall occurred just as the camera operator had stopped filming, intent on preserving the limited supply of film for the closing stages of the race. As 1950s newsreels generally ran 4 to 6 stories for each 6 to 7-minute edition, a 4-minute race was never likely to be shown in its entirety.

One can imagine the frustration of both Cinesound and Movietone producers to discover that the key seconds had failed to be recorded by the main camera positioned directly in line with the incident. It must have been a bitter pill to acknowledge that a single still image from a Sun-News Pictorial newspaper photographer had achieved what a moving image camera with the ability to film at 24 frames-per-second had not! A close comparison of the footage indicates that both newsreels utilised the same film source, indicating a likely agreement for both companies to share resources here.

Watch for yourself the combined footage of the March 1956 Cinesound Review and Movietone News reports presented as one clip. Please note, as the soundtrack of the Movietone edition has not survived, this second sequence has no audio:

If the champion miler thought that was the end of the incident, he was to be disappointed. On 20 May 1956, while in the USA promoting the forthcoming Olympics, film of Landy’s heroics – most likely the Cinesound Review segment – was seen by an audience of 30 million viewers of CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show, the New York studio audience giving him a standing ovation when he appeared.

Subsequent awards and even a statue marking the event unveiled in 2002 at Olympic Park would follow. Talking to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004, Landy admitted that 'I was very embarrassed and upset about the whole thing. I still am. I wish it had never happened … I think it unfortunate that such a lot is made of it.'

Melbourne: Films of the Fifties

In 1998, at the tail end of a highly successful career in the field of agricultural science, John Landy kindly answered the NFSA’s request for assistance in helping to promote our video release, Melbourne: Films of the Fifties. A 150-minute social history documentary of Australia’s second-largest city during the 1950s, the production was compiled entirely from the NFSA’s moving image collection.

Launched in association with the Australian Book Fair at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre in June 1998, Landy graciously hosted the event and later participated in the press coverage. As video producer Ken Berryman recalls today, 'John was extremely generous with his time, candid and insightful about his sporting career, and genuinely interested in the work of the NFSA and its efforts to make our filmed history more accessible to the Australian public'.

In this story excerpt from an off-air recording of ABC TV Melbourne’s Stateline, Berryman and Landy reflect on Melbourne life in the 1950s. This clip is an unusual mix of footage that cuts suddenly from Landy at the NFSA in 1998 to newsreel footage of one of his most iconic races and shots of Melbourne from the mid 1950s, combined with the voice-over of an unidentified woman. However, this clip also does a great job of illustrating Landy's affection for his home city and his generous collaboration with the NFSA:

The Governor visits the NFSA

An elderly man in a suit and tie smiling

John Landy visiting the NFSA's Melbourne offices, 12 March 2004.

On 12 March 2004, and 3 years into his term as the 26th Governor of Victoria, Landy visited the NFSA’s Melbourne office to personally view our footage from his running career. Somewhat bemused to find many of his best races (both in Australia and abroad) had not been captured by the newsreel cameras, on his behalf a request was made if film of his famous 21 June 1954 world-record run in Turku, Finland could be located for screening at a forthcoming 50th anniversary commemorative dinner.

While film of a 1000-metre race in Helsinki in 1954 was located by our Finnish Film Archive colleagues, moving images of the momentous Turku run remained elusive. Nevertheless, a very appreciative Landy received from the NFSA a 5-minute edited compilation of choice images from our collection, interspersed with photos of the Turku race from the governor’s own collection, in time for the evening.

After his passing, we remember John Landy for his generous support of the work of the NFSA. If you have footage of John Landy during his athletics career, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact our collection [at] nfsa.gov.au (Collection team)

Thanks to Glenn Eley at Cinesound Movietone Productions and Ken Berryman.