An elderly woman peers out of her second story window to catch a glimpse of the mob below. Hundreds piled upon hundreds of angry men are screaming, gnashing and fighting with each other while thousands wait beyond them either for their turn to battle or to see the action as it draws closer. In the middle, a big leather ball.
This is Royal Shrovetide Football. Mass Football as it’s sometimes called, and every year the town of Ashbourne plays it, carrying on a tradition that’s been around since at least the 12th century. There are almost no rules (murder and manslaughter are thankfully forbidden), and it involves getting a ball from the town square to your team’s goal 1.5 miles away in the span of 8 hours. It’s the grandfather of football, soccer and rugby, and Peter Baxter‘s documentary Wild In the Streets seeks to tell its story without damaging any camera equipment.
It’s unclear whether any cameras were hurt in the making of this film, but the result is a vibrant, interesting doc that’s little more than a slight curiosity.
First of all, there’s something wholly glorious about a town maintaining this kind of legacy, carrying the torch of ancestors alone through a modernized world that routinely questions whether risking broken ribs and black eyes in a town rivalry is the best way to spend Ash Wednesday and the Tuesday before it. As someone who plays soccer and has a rugby-playing wife, the open secret of where both worldly-popular sports formed is incredibly intriguing, but it’s also likely that the story of Shrovetide Football will appeal to general sports fans, Anglophiles, and anyone who loves a light, violent story about giant sweaty dudes brawling over a ball.
The movie itself is essentially divided into two parts. The first is a blend of history with an introduction to the people of the town, creating a profound sense of the personal importance surrounding the game. With Sean Bean narrating, it adds another touch of the epic, and he miraculously manages to survive the entire film for perhaps the first time in his career. Otherwise, the lengthy history is deftly condensed and brought to life through clever (often funny) animations and bolstered by some truly excellent archival photographs and footage.
Wild in the Streets also succeeds in what might be it’s vital job: making us care about the people playing the game. Without that, the second portion which follows a 2006 match would be pretty flat. Instead, even though Shrovetide Football isn’t all that watchable (considering it consists mostly of a group of men hugging a ball followed by brief moments of it flying through the air, followed by it sometimes being run down the street until someone gets hugged down again), the footage is more about seeing this people’s passion play out. Granted, it’s also comically impossible to pick any of them out of the crowd.
There are a lot of cheerful little details, but the one that stands out the most as highlighted by the doc is that there are no uniforms in the game. That might make it appear impossible, but it’s one more way that the town and its population stand taller than the game itself; they have no need for uniforms because they’ve grown up lining up and watching everyone else line up on one side or the other. If you’re born north of the river, you’re an Up’Ard, and if you’re born south of it, you’re a Down’Ard. Plus, they spend the rest of the year boasting and hearing everyone else boast about which side is better. They don’t need uniforms because they already know each other.
Overall, that’s what Wild In the Streets is really about: a town and its people brought together by a common bond. Their enthusiasm is infectious whether it’s displayed by a huge smile hiding below a broken nose or by a father nearly tearing up talking about how he wants to see his son goal a ball for the team their family has always played on. The sport itself is a novelty (albeit with a deeply important legacy), but the people of Ashbourne are flesh and blood dealing with change and expansion coming to their sleepy little hamlet while reveling in pure escapism once a year.
The doc is engaging but digestible. Strangely enough, it actually loses momentum once the game gets going, although it’s also telling when placards counting down the months to the contest pop up with little footage between them. Unlike other sports documentaries, Wild In the Streets doesn’t have the benefit of training sequences, inspirational speeches from coaches, or larger-than-life stakes. The game’s locker rooms are town bars, its trophies are balls stripped of their commemorative paint by endless clawing hands. Still, few sports need police officers on-site just in case someone’s getting trampled to death. It’s this and Pamplona, but in Ashbourne we actually get to hear the bulls talk.
It briefly asks whether women should play (with mixed answers), and it talks to a shop owner who doesn’t like to lose the business or his store windows to Shrovetide, but otherwise the documentary is overwhelmingly friendly to the game. It’s a big celebration that borders on a tourism video for a beautiful town with kind people and a fascinating tradition. Ultimately, much like the 2-day game itself, that makes for a fun, yet forgettable diversion.
The Upside: A piece of history that’s still alive, interesting people, a cheeky tone, a few real stakes that go unexplored, and a standard sports doc feeling of triumph
The Downside: A surface-level exploration, a sport that’s really difficult to film interestingly and a noticeable bit of padding
On the Side: There are hardly any out-of-bounds areas in the game, so it’s really funny when play ends up passing through a soccer pitch for a briefly transformative scene
Wild in the Streets is available as of 4/23 on VOD.