The world-beating West Indies cricket team that emerged in the mid-1970s reps the subject of the unashamedly celebratory docu “Fire in Babylon.” Pic tells how the so-called “Calypso cricketers” — patronized as happy-go-lucky players who entertained the crowd, but usually lost — were transformed by captain Clive Lloyd into a winning machine, earning complaints for aggressive, sometimes injurious fast bowling. Attempts to treat the players as descendants of politicized black sporting icons like Muhammad Ali optimistically seek to attract a wider audience that remains indifferent to a game that’s still played most where Britain’s empire left its firmest footprint.
“Babylon’s” filmmakers have previous experience in the sports-doc realm: Helmer Stevan Riley’s “Blue Blood” wittily captured the unlikely boxing aspirations of students at Oxford; producer John Battsek’s “Once in a Lifetime” recounted the little-remembered story of the false dawn of soccer in the U.S. in the 1970s. What the pair’s new film lacks is an equivalent sense of revelation. It’s hardly news that the West Indies dominated international cricket for many years; nor is it surprising that the team’s success proved inspiring to the islands’ post-colonial consciousness.
Still, this triumph-of-the-underdogs tale is enjoyable in the retelling, despite its repetitious hammering of the message. Point is well made that cricket was the only sport in which Caribbean islands such as Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad came together to compete as one nation. Aggressive bowling emerged as a response to Australia’s own 90-mph men, but only became a point of contention when perfected by the West Indies’ quadruple threat: Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts.
Story lacks much in way of conflict, and would have benefited from a deeper examination of the rebel tours to apartheid-era South Africa, which earned Croft and others lifetime bans from Caribbean cricket in 1983. Of course, aficionados seeking a nostalgic wallow may beg to differ. Distribs in cricket-loving territories will seek to target this middle-aged male audience, and the film’s best chance is as a Father’s Day gifting item on ancillary.