bloodsport

An Oral History of Trump’s Love of Van Damme’s ‘Bloodsport’

The film’s writer and producer share what they think of Trump’s alleged fandom, and more importantly, the bizarre way he watches it

“We hadn’t been airborne long when Trump decided to watch a movie. He’d brought along Michael, a recent release, but 20 minutes after popping it into the VCR he got bored and switched to an old favorite, a Jean-Claude Van Damme slugfest called Bloodsport, which he pronounced ‘an incredible, fantastic movie.’ By assigning to his son [Eric] the task of fast-forwarding through all the plot exposition — Trump’s goal being ‘to get this two-hour movie down to 45 minutes’ — he eliminated any lulls between the nose hammering, kidney tenderizing and shin whacking. When a beefy bad guy who was about to squish a normal-sized good guy received a crippling blow to the scrotum, I laughed. ‘Admit it, you’re laughing!’ Trump shouted. ‘You want to write that Donald Trump was loving this ridiculous Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, but are you willing to put in there that you were loving it, too?’”

The excerpt above is from a profile of Donald Trump that appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. Entitled “Trump Solo,” the extensive piece was written by journalist Mark Singer, who shadowed Trump for three days. While the profile details many revealing facts about the man who would be president, the excerpt above has taken on something of a life of its own. 

But what’s the truth? Let’s get down and dirty.

Donald Trump’s Favorite Movie…?

Whether or not Bloodsport is Trump’s favorite film has never actually been confirmed, as The New Yorker profile is the only direct mention of Trump’s love for the film. Singer simply refers to it as “an old favorite” of Trump’s, not his very favorite, but — true to the Trump Era — facts no longer matter, so to much of America Bloodsport has become Trump’s favorite movie, and whether or not it’s his top movie or not is largely irrelevant.

Sheldon Lettich, Bloodsport screenwriter: A lot of friends rib me about it all the time. I’ve got one friend who always says to people, “Hey, this is my friend Sheldon Lettich! He wrote Donald Trump’s favorite movie!”

Newsweek, excerpt: Donald Trump’s favorite movie, Bloodsport, turns 30 today.

MovieWeb, excerpt: Jean-Claude Van Damme recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of Bloodsport, which Trump called his favorite movie back in 1997.

Daily Kos, excerpt: Cuomo asked if Trump wasn’t a little bit too much into the bloodsport of the matter and that question went unanswered. Just by the by, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport is Trump’s favorite movie.

Louis Picone, presidential historian and author of The President Is Dead!: The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials and Beyond: The problem is, when you’re talking about someone’s “favorite movie,” it’s so transient. I can think of probably 20 different movies that, throughout my life, I would have called my favorite movie. It’s a moving target.

Mark Singer, journalist at The New Yorker, author of “Trump Solo”: Bloodsport is not his favorite movie. It’s well documented that Citizen Kane is his favorite. For the Oscars one year, Errol Morris was commissioned to interview a whole bunch of people about their favorite movie and one of the people he asked was Trump and he said Citizen Kane

Allison Willmore, BuzzFeed culture writer and film critic, author of How Donald Trump Totally Missed The Point of Citizen Kane — And Won: What’s so interesting in that 2002 Errol Morris interview of Donald Trump is that Trump clearly sees himself in Charles Foster Kane in a way that I don’t think most people watching the movie would. You have this complex character that you’re always kind of trying to get inside of, but I don’t think most people find Kane relatable, unless you’re Donald Trump, who is also someone of great wealth who used that wealth to leverage himself into a political role. If anything, Trump maybe has more in common with Charles Foster Kane than any other human being on the planet.

However, when I’m watching that interview, Trump comes across as someone who is watching a movie that he knows has been lauded as important and he’s trying to dissect it, but he just ends up talking more about himself. After all, as I said in my piece on this, “No one has ever misread a movie with as much enthusiasm.”

Donald Trump, excerpt from Errol Morris interview: A lot of people don’t really understand the significance of [Citizen Kane]. I’m not sure if anybody understands the significance, but I think the significance is bringing a lonely, rather sad figure back into his childhood… The wealth, the sorrow, the unhappiness, the happiness. Just struck lots of different notes. Citizen Kane was really about the accumulation and at the end of the accumulation, you see what happens and it’s not necessarily all positive. I think he learned and came to understand that maybe wealth isn’t everything, because he had the wealth, but he didn’t have the happiness… 

The table getting larger and larger and larger, with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier. Perhaps I can understand that… In real life. I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people. It’s a protective mechanism. You have your guard up much more so than you would if you didn’t have wealth. 

Errol Morris, excerpt: If you could give Charles Foster Kane advice, what would you say to him? 

Trump, excerpt: Get yourself a different woman. 

Singer: It’s quite possible with Donald Trump that he said one thing and then later he said the opposite. I’ve seen that. He’s done that with every breath he takes. So who knows what his favorite movie is?

Mike Purdy, presidential historian and author of 101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other — And What It Means to Us: It’s kind of like during the campaign when he was asked, “What’s your favorite book of the Bible?” And he said, “I like them all. They’re all great.” The fact is that those answers obviously reflect a man who’s never read the Bible, so when it comes to his favorite movie, I mean, when we’re up to over 12,000 lies during his presidency, it raises the question, can you believe anything the man has ever said?

Willmore: It feels like a bit of a put-on when he’s trying to talk about Citizen Kane, yet with Bloodsport it seems like that’s his go-to when he’s relaxing in his element and being true to himself. 

Brandon Soderberg, Flagpole, excerpt from Trump’s Favorite Movie, Bloodsport, Explains His Politics”: That Bloodsport is Donald Trump’s favorite movie is, like so many things about Trump, thinly sourced, apocryphal… and regularly reported as fact. He once praised the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle… and that’s about it. But facts don’t matter with Trump, and it makes cosmic sense that Bloodsport would be Trump’s favorite movie.

Understanding Bloodsport

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to look at the movie itself, and how it came about. What sort of movie does it take to capture the notoriously fickle attention of Donald Trump?

Chaz Kangas, radio host at Go 95.3, NYU Cinema Studies graduate and Jean-Claude Van Damme superfan: Bloodsport is the “true” story of legendary martial artist Frank Dux and his experiences in Hong Kong’s hidden fighting tournaments of the 1970s. 

Lettich: In the late 1970s, I’d been introduced to this guy named Frank Dux by my agent at the time. Frank had written a novel about the Vietnam War and the agent thought he could sell this novel if it was cut in half, and he knew that I was a Vietnam veteran and thought that I should meet up with Frank and have a discussion with him. So I went to Frank’s dojo and we hit it off. Later on, Frank was telling me about this secret ‘Kumité’ tournament that he participated in, and he told me that he actually won this competition and he was the first Westerner to do so. He also showed me this huge trophy in his dojo. He also showed me an article that was published in Black Belt Magazine about him and his participation in this Kumité. 

Then, we’re driving along in my car one day and once again he’s telling me about this tournament and that it was no-holds-barred and it got to be very bloody. For that reason, it was nicknamed “bloodsport” by some of the fighters. Well, when I heard that word “bloodsport,” I swear it was like I heard a choir of angels singing. I said, “Wow, that’s a great title for a movie.”

Years later, I met a producer named Mark DiSalle and he believed that martial arts movies were going to make a comeback. He was pitching me a movie that would become Kickboxer, and I told him that I think I have a better idea for a martial arts movie. So I told him the title and he loved it — I pitched him the story about the secret Kumité and about this guy named Frank Dux and that he should meet him.

Mark DiSalle, Bloodsport producer: When I went to see Frank, he started telling me about the Kumité and these fights that took place underground, and I said, “Wow, now that would make a good movie!” So I hired [Lettich] to write the screenplay and that’s basically how it started. Then we went to Hong Kong for nine months and made this movie. It was a good, quality movie, and a lot of people love it. It’s gone on and on over the past 30 years.

Lettich: It’s become this iconic martial arts film. Generally when people talk about the best martial arts movies ever made, it’s always either number one or number two, along with Enter the Dragon

Frank Dux, excerpt from BuzzFeed article “15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bloodsport”: I’m proud of it and proud that it’s inspired so many people. I think it’s a classic that people will still be watching 25 years from now. It’s the one film that made Jean-Claude a star and will keep him a star.

Paul McDonald, 80s Kids, excerpt from “17 Facts About The Brutal Bloodsport!”: Midway’s Mortal Kombat took huge inspiration from the film and even used a parody of Jean-Claude Van Damme for the character Johnny Cage, who has a similar costume, back story and a familiar split punch.

DiSalle: We shot the movie with realistic fight scenes. There’s no flying or anything like that, we really depicted accurate styles and we highlighted styles from all over the world. I think that’s why it has inspired a number of real-life fighters, like the Gracie brothers actually told me that Bloodsport was their inspiration to develop MMA.

Kangas: What’s great about Bloodsport is that it’s all tenderloin. If you’re a Van Damme fan, it has all the core things you really want: You want the splits; you want an absurdly moral protagonist in the form of Van Damme; you want to see a bunch of different exotic fighting styles from around the world; you want a love interest who is a sassy female reporter; and you want a bad guy who you’d expect to be in a video game and not in a motion picture that adults sat down and wrote.

Singer: My memory of Bloodsport is that it appeals to the id, and that’s Trump. Of course, it also appeals to his beating-people-up fantasy.

Lettich: The title of the film also seems to suit his style of combativeness. The term “bloodsport” certainly could have been applied to the debates in the last election when Trump was up there with the other Republican contenders. He was certainly being vicious and offering no quarter to anybody. So, with that winner-take-all kind of competitor, I guess one can see how he would be drawn toward a movie like this about one who guy wins everything and leaves his opponents bloodied on the mat. It just seems to be the way that he carries on in business and in politics. He’s not kind to his opponents. 

Praveen R. Kambam, forensic psychologist at Broadcast Thought: Part of the appeal of Bloodsport is that it’s the story of the underdog, and underdog stories are a source of inspiration — they’re relatable because we’ve all been underdogs at something in our lives. Also, from a brain chemistry perspective, there’s more of a boost in joy out of unexpected successes versus something that you expected. Then the converse is true in that you experience unexpected pain or loss at an unexpected failure.

Historical Perspective

When examining any president, it makes sense to compare him to the others who have occupied the office. So how does Trump’s love of Bloodsport compare to the interests of his predecessors?

Purdy: It doesn’t surprise me that Trump has such love for an action movie, he certainly envisions himself as a decisive man of action. Just looking at the title, Bloodsport, that certainly makes sense as he doesn’t leave any insult against him unanswered. By his own admission, he’s a “counter-puncher” and he will fight back pretty viciously against anybody who says anything against him.

He’s kind of blown up the presidency. He’s blown up the common culture and the rule of law. We’ve had presidents who haven’t been good presidents and presidents who have exhibited a variety of challenging characteristics. Trump, however, seems to combine all of them in one, plus some. That said — while I do believe that Trump represents the worst of what we’ve had — there is some precedent for his temperament. 

Trump, by his own admission, doesn’t have time to read and some question if he has the capacity to read. If you compare that to Andrew Jackson, when Jackson was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University, former president John Quincy Adams was so ticked off he went home that night and in his diary, he called Jackson “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name.” So Jackson wasn’t known as the most literate of presidents. Also, Andrew Johnson was self-taught on reading and probably wasn’t the most academic of presidents. Jackson, Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump all share a lot of characteristics in terms of temperament and not being very polished academically. 

This, of course, is very different from so many of our presidents. John F. Kennedy was an avid reader, as was Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson. And of course Thomas Jefferson read a great number of books and later sold his books to the government to begin the Library of Congress. Harry Truman said, and I think I’ve got the quote right, that “all leaders are readers.”

Purdy: As far as movies go, I know Reagan was a pretty voracious movie watcher as president, sometimes to the extent that he would fail to read the briefing books he needed to read that night. 

Picone: Reagan used to watch movies in the White House theater and at Camp David. I heard he liked 9 to 5, the Dolly Parton movie, but he didn’t like the scene where they were smoking pot. He was also really into Rambo, and he liked to invoke Rambo during his campaign. I also heard that he was a fan of Back to the Future

Meryl Gottlieb, Business Insider, excerpts from “Here are 13 American Presidents’ Favorite Movies of All Time”: Obama has a lot of pop-culture favorites, but as far as films go, The Godfather tops his list. 

George W. Bush cried during Field of Dreams, but he also enjoyed the mindless humor of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers character.

In 2008, Bill Clinton did an interview with Roger Ebert to talk all things cinematic. In the interview, he followed Eisenhower’s and Reagan’s footsteps in citing High Noon as his favorite movie.

Nixon would rave about Patton to anyone who would listen and urge everyone to watch it. On a very different — and musical — note, Nixon also enjoyed James Cagney’s fun turn in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

JFK also had a huge passion for Bond.

FDR was president during one of the most troubling periods in U.S. history: the Great Depression. Movies were an escape from reality then as they are now, so FDR often enjoyed watching Mickey Mouse cartoons while in office.

Like Truman, Gerald Ford wasn’t an avid movie fan, but both Entertainment Weekly and The Guardian cite his favorite film as Home Alone.

Picone: And Donald Trump was in Home Alone 2, so that’s a cool connection. 

With Bush’s affection for Austin Powers, Ford’s love of Home Alone and FDR’s fondness for Mickey Mouse, Trump was hardly alone in his love for entertainment that would seem beneath the office of the presidency. And while Bloodsport may be more violent than the likes of some presidential films, it’s far from the most troubling of favorite flicks of the presidents. 

Picone: Maybe the most famous of the presidential favorite movies is Woodrow Wilson and Birth of a Nation. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, it’s about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and it’s extremely racist. Wilson was friendly with the author of the book, and he famously said, after screening the movie in the White House: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Eric Trump and the Fast-Forward Button

Others seem to take more issue with the way Trump watches Bloodsport than they do with his love of the movie itself, feeling that it reveals something about his attention span or his penchant for violence. Some surprising people, however, don’t mind this at all. 

Singer: We were all in an airplane when it was being screened, and Eric Trump, who was then about 13 years old, was in charge of fast-forwarding. Eric must’ve done this before because he knew what his job was, which was to get to the fight scenes and skip this other stuff. It was very Trump-like. As for Eric, he was given a job to do, and he was happy to do it. There he was at 13 years old, and he reached his life’s greatest accomplishment by fast-forwarding through that movie.

Brian Lloyd, Entertainment.ie, excerpt from “Jesus, Even the Way Donald Trump Watches Films is Completely F***ed Up”: It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Trump doesn’t watch films like you. In fact, Trump doesn’t even watch films — he speed-watches them. In a 1997 piece in The New Yorker, Trump explains that he can get any film down to 45 minutes. Why? Because he’s a monster, that’s why.

Singer: I wouldn’t want to speculate that he does that with other movies. I don’t know what he does. In fact, while I was there, he even went to a movie with his wife and daughter. I don’t know what it was, but he must have watched that.

Willmore: Like many of the things about Trump, him fast-forwarding through the boring parts of Bloodsport feels so “on-brand” that it almost seems made up. I will say about Bloodsport that, for a lot of people of a certain generation, you would encounter Bloodsport because it was running on daytime cable. There were a lot of people who watched half of Bloodsport because that’s when you’re flicking through channels and you’re like, “Ah, tournament to the death!” 

Also, I think that especially when you’re going to home viewing, whatever you want to do is whatever you want to do. Honestly, for a lot of people, their relationships with movies these days is that you watch them, but then you can also watch the parts you like a lot again on YouTube. So I don’t think that there’s a need to defend the pure cinematic experience of watching Bloodsport for the 15th time on VHS. But there is something just very evocative about that image, which is why I think that whole profile has kind of lingered in history, especially that image in particular. 

DiSalle: It doesn’t bother me at all that he fast-forwards through it. People do that all the time, like with X-rated movies for example. Trump doesn’t have that much time, he’s a busy guy, and frankly, I’m flattered he likes the fight scenes so much.

Lettich: If you’ve seen the movie a few times and those are your favorite parts, then why not fast-forward? It’s generally not something people do on the first viewing, and it’s clear from The New Yorker piece that Trump had seen it before. I know many people who fast-forward through movies. I’ve done it myself. For example, I think the movie version of West Side Story is kind of lame. I think all the dialogue scenes are lame and miscast, but the dance sequences are amazing. So I’ll put on West Side Story and fast-forward to some of the more spectacular dance sequences. So it’s understandable. I don’t take offense to that at all.

A fighter featured in Bloodsport who preferred to remain anonymous: All it means is that he’s seen the movie before, otherwise you wouldn’t fast-forward without knowing what’s in front. It’s common sense. Honestly, he’s seen the movie and he enjoys it and I’m flattered that my president loves it. He’s not the only one either. That movie has inspired people and fighters all over the world. Even Putin loves Bloodsport

As for Van Damme himself, while I couldn’t reach him for this piece, what he feels about Trump’s love of Bloodsport can be pretty accurately guessed from this clip:

The Real Frank Dux

So if Bloodsport isn’t a uniquely undignified presidential film, and if fast-forwarding through it isn’t particularly damning either, is there anything all that special about Trump’s love of Bloodsport? Yes. Yes there is, and the reason why lies with Frank Dux: not Van Damme’s character in the film, but the original Frank Dux who first related the stories of the secret tournament known as the Kumité.

Lettich: So everything about Frank Dux and the Kumité turned out to be bullshit. About a week after the movie came out, a reporter for the L.A. Times had suspicions and he started investigating. He actually interviewed Frank and published an article blowing holes in Frank’s story.

That was the first warning sign that the story was completely bogus. Then, over the years, other martial artists have also said, “How come I’ve never heard of this competition?” And people started asking around in the martial arts community about this Kumité event. According to Frank, it took place in The Bahamas — people have checked with the government there and they said, “No, there’s no such event that ever occurred there,” and nobody could ever be tracked down who actually participated in the tournament. Even Black Belt Magazine had had the wool pulled over their eyes.

And Frank had a kind of a devious way of disguising this as he would say, “Well, it was a secret competition, we were all sworn to secrecy, so nobody’s going to admit that they participated in the Kumité.”

He did the same with his military records. He used to tell people that he was a war hero, that he was in Vietnam, that he used to go on secret missions and that he was awarded a Medal of Honor. He even showed me his Medal of Honor once. I don’t know where he got it. There was this magazine called Soldier of Fortune which was big in the 1980s and 1990s and it catered to people in the military — they had a lot of real veterans working for that magazine. They did an exposé on Frank which they titled “Full Mental Jacket,” where they found out he was a reservist. He did no secret missions. He was never in Vietnam. He never left the United States. He was a wireman.

Frank actually sued the magazine for that but the case was thrown out. He also sued Van Damme over a movie called The Quest but he lost that. He’s very litigious. He’s never won a lawsuit, but he keeps suing people. 

He also wrote a book called The Secret Man. In it, he says that he was recruited to become a CIA agent by the head of the agency, William Casey, at a urinal. Basically, they’re both taking a piss and William Casey, the head of the CIA, says something like, “Hey kid, how’d you like to come to work for me?” And Frank says, “Who are you?” And Casey says, “I’m the head of the fucking CIA!” I swear that’s how Frank puts it in the book.

He also made up the foundation called the International Fighting Arts Association. He came up with a logo and stationary and he had letterhead made up and he had all these letters saying that Frank Dux is the real deal and that he won this Kumité and that he was a ninjutsu master. 

There’s also Frank’s story about his teacher, Tiger Tanaka, which was included in the movie. That turned out to be false, too — Tiger Tanaka is actually a character in a James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice.

Anyways, the point I’m making here is that the story of Bloodsport — despite being touted as based on a real story — was all made up. Frank Dux made himself up to be this warrior hero and martial arts champion, none of which was true. It was, though, a good story.

In other words, Frank Dux is the only person on the planet who may be as full of shit as Donald Trump. That’s why Trump loving Bloodsport is special in a way that it wouldn’t be if Trump had watched Kickboxer, TimeCop or any other Van Damme action romp on his plane that day. The fact that Bloodsport is a supposed true story that was totally made up by some self-aggrandizing blow-hard is why it’s all too perfect that it’s Trump’s favorite movie.

Even if it isn’t.