Reel Life vs. Real Life of Jim Thorpe

By Justin Eagle Gauthier film society poster

“More lies have been written about Jim Thorpe than any about any player in football history.” Col. Alexander M. Weyand in a letter to Robert W. Wheeler

The Oneida Film Society hosted Robert Wheeler and screened the 1951 MGM feature film Jim Thorpe – All-American on the evening of November 14, 2017. Author and noted Jim Thorpe biographer, Robert Wheeler, presented to a packed room at the Oneida Nation Community Education Center in a free event open to the public. There was an air of anticipation as the leading scholar on the life and times of the greatest athlete in the world took to the front of the room and started his talk by stating that thirty years ago, he and his wife quit their jobs to dedicate themselves to getting Jim Thorpe’s stripped Olympic medals reinstated.

Wheeler told the remarkable story of how his wife, Florence Ridlon, miraculously unearthed the long-lost rules and regulations for the 1912 Olympics from behind a random case in the vast stacks of the Library of Congress. These rules would prove instrumental in the International Olympic Committee’s 1983 reinstatement of Jim Thorpe’s two gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon, respectively.

Wheeler showed a real respect and heartfelt admiration toward Jim Thorpe and remarked several times throughout his presentation that Jim’s name had opened many doors. As a college student, Robert Wheeler dedicated himself to traveling twelve thousand miles, crisscrossing the country collecting interviews about his boyhood hero. Wheeler’s persistence and dedication towards reinstating Jim’s medals came through in his talk. Wheeler played excerpts of several high profile interviews from his archives. He also critiqued select scenes from the movie and provided follow up commentary that illuminated the ‘real life’ versus the ‘reel life’ Hollywood concocted for Thorpe. Seven writers cranked out a script that casts a dim shadow of the real Jim Thorpe. To true sports fans, the name Thorpe is synonymous with greatness and sporting supremacy. Hailed by King Gustav V of Sweden as, “…the greatest athlete in the world,” the Potawatomi, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, and Menominee Thorpe remains a prominent twentieth century figure.

Robert Wheeler and his story of redemption for Jim Thorpe made for an inspiring and well-spent evening with friends and community. The Oneida Film Society will have a 4:30 PM showing of Christmas in the Clouds on Thursday, December 19th at the Oneida Nation Community Education Center.

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently working on several screenwriting projects and is actively taking bids on a framing job for his MFA degree.