Tom Weidlinger and Joseph Bruchac

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Tom Weidlinger and Joseph Bruchac

He was regarded by many—from Sports Writers and Broadcasters of America to the King of Sweden—as one of the most prominent athletes of all-time. And Jim Thorpe remains today a sports legend worldwide.

A new documentary, Jim Thorpe: The World’s Greatest Athlete,to be released to PBS stations this fall explores the life of the iconic sportsman of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma in a way that would not romanticize him posthumously but would show audiences that he was a real-life person too, faults and all. 

“Because Jim Thorpe is a legend in many ways, you have this sort of interesting problem of trying to figure out who he really was,” Co-Producer Tom Weidlinger said. 

The film delves into Thorpe’s rise to sports notoriety at the Carlisle Indian School, then follows his record-setting feats in the 1912 Olympics and controversy regarding his amateur status, which led to him being stripped of his gold medals, as well as his baseball success. The documentary also touches on his tumultuous marriage, at-times strained relationship with his children and his struggle with drinking, in addition to highlights Thorpe’s eventual work as an advocate for American Indians until his death in 1953. 

“Actually, we had enough to do a 12-hour documentary, which is what my first script would have needed,” joked Co-Producer Joseph Bruchac, who also wrote a book about Thorpe prior to the film. “In many ways he was emblematic of the American Indian experience in the 20th Century.” 

Thorpe's son, Jack, who was interviewed for the film and was just 16 when his father died, said he initially hadn’t thought of his father as superhuman. "That was just my dad. I thought what he did was normal," he said. 

Still, Thorpe’s son recalls the media of his father's time and their inaccurate depictions of his father. 

"They were always portraying dad as that poor drunken Indian," said Jack Thorpe, who now works for his tribe. People lose sight of "who he was and what he accomplished in his lifetime. He did a lot of firsts. He was way ahead of his time." 

Keeping in mind that during his father's Carlisle days, the media was also covering the Indian Wars. The media, Jack Thorpe said, often lost sight of the fact that college in those days were for the privileged and not people like his father, who ended up competing against players like Dwight Eisenhower before his presidency. 

An extensive part of the two producers' efforts to educate about Jim Thorpe was geared at students in a 10-chapter, 80-page teacher’s guide to the film. 

“It gives the whole story of Jim Thorpe a much broader historical context,” Weidlinger said. 

Some of the chapters include background about American Indian boarding schools, the various sports Thorpe played, the Native American portrayal in Hollywood and the struggle for equal rights. 

Prior to making the film, Bruchac wrote a children’s book about Thorpe and, as a sports buff and Native American himself, felt a connection to Thorpe—especially with regard to Thorpe’s efforts later in his life to combat the stereotypes of American Indians in Hollywood. 

“He was born at a time when the general opinion was that Indians were passing into the sunset,” Bruchac said. “The last of his tribe.” 

In his own right, Bruchac of Abenaki descent has chosen a similar path through traditional storytelling and as a writer of poems, songs and novels. Living and working from Greenfield Center, N.Y., near the Adirondack Mountains, Bruchac is also founder and director of the Ndakinna Education Center, a learning facility that preserves Adirondack culture and teaches wilderness skills. 

Though he had not made a film prior to the Thorpe documentary, Bruchac plans to work with his son, who began his own film company, to pursue other documentary topics. 

Currently, they are working on a project about contemporary Native American storytellers in the Northeast and another about deer camps in the Adirondacks. 

“Storytelling is one of the most basic aspects of being a human being. We understand ourselves, the world around us and other people through story,” he said. “So I have devoted much of my life to learning to be a storyteller to some degree and a tradition bearer.” 

Similarly, Weidlinger, has been telling others’ stories for 19 years as a filmmaker. He is currently working on a film about “learning differences,” the correct term for learning disabilities, in high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area where he lives. Part of it has a diary component where the students describe their challenges to cameras which they operate. 

Weidlinger enjoys the film medium because it allows for the opportunity to tell stories that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

“The heart of any good film is a good story,” he said. “That’s as true for documentaries as it is for feature films, dramatic films. When we’re crafting the Jim Thorpe story, or when I’m working on any story, it’s not a question of retelling a chronology of events. It’s sort of looking for a pattern in those events that telegraphs a certain meaning that has conflict, that has resolution.” 

He offers a bit of advice to aspiring filmmakers. 

“Having a good idea and believing in it is the most important thing,” Weidlinger said. “If you just want to be a filmmaker because that seems like it would be fun to do. I would encourage people not to become a filmmaker. But if you have something to say and you stick with that you might not end up winning an Academy Award, but if you’re true to your vision and to your story something good will come of that.”

Written by Nancy Kelsey.

Interviews conducted by Nancy Kelsey. Edited by Ben Kreimer.

 
 

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