What’s the planet’s most legendary marathon? Probably that fabled first one Pheidippides ran in 490 B.C., breathlessly proclaiming a great military victory before perishing from his effort.
Next in line? Surely the Boston Marathon, whose colorful 121-year history is captured in a movie that premiered Saturday in its host city.
Narrated by Matt Damon, “Boston,” the first feature-length documentary about the race, tells how it grew from 15 runners in 1897 to become the globe’s most venerable footrace.
The world premiere at the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre, where the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra will conduct a live performance of Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal’s score, comes two days before Monday’s running of the marathon. The film will be screened at 450 theaters around the U.S. on Wednesday.
“The Boston Marathon is a truly iconic sporting event,” said director Jon Dunham, a marathoner who calls it “the granddaddy of all marathons.”
“It’s unique in the world of marathons, and in fact it transcends the world of marathons,” he said.
The 2013 bombings near the finish line that killed three spectators and wounded more than 260 others aren’t the focus of the film, but neither are they a footnote. Dunham had 56 cameras rolling along the course in 2014 to record the euphoria of athletes from around the world essentially reclaiming the marathon, paced by Meb Keflezighi, the first American winner in 31 years.
Mostly, though, the documentary is devoted to the Boston Marathon’s rich lore. The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race, gave Dunham exclusive rights to its archive of photos, video and marathon memorabilia.
Through the ages, the marathon has mirrored society’s idiosyncrasies:
— Some of the first to run it — all men — thought steak and whiskey gave them a competitive advantage. Chuck Mellor, the 1925 winner, ran the entire race with a cheek full of chewing tobacco.
— Seven-time champion Clarence DeMar’s doctors warned him to stop running because they were convinced it weakened the heart.
— A race official had to pay 1939 winner Tarzan Brown’s $1 entry fee after he showed up penniless at the start line.
There’s a direct tie to Pheidippides’ run as a foot soldier relaying word of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.
When the first modern Olympic marathon was run in 1896, retracing Pheidippides’ steps from Marathon to Athens, members of the U.S. team — many of them Bostonians — marveled at the event and came home determined to duplicate it here the following year.
“They said, ‘Boston is the Athens of the West’ — we want our own marathon,” Tom Derderian, an acclaimed running coach and author who served as an executive producer for the documentary, says in the film.
“Boston” also chronicles how women broke through the gender barrier, starting with Bobbi Gibb in 1966 and Kathrine Switzer the following year. Both, as well as Sara Rae Berman, ran before women were allowed to register for the 1972 race.
Four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan, who posted the fastest time ever for an American woman on the course in 2014, appears in the film and captures Boston’s spirit.
“There’s no one who can watch the Boston Marathon and not be inspired somehow by someone,” she says.
Review: Boston documentary chronicles Boston Marathon as the ‘Granddaddy of all Marathons’. Narrated by Matt Damon, “Boston” is a must watch.