The Prince of Pennsylvania Doc of the Week

The Prince of Pennsylvania

It was a tragedy of gothic proportions. An eccentric millionaire with a sprawling estate and a passion for wrestling opens his home to some of the sport’s struggling young hopefuls. It seemed too good to be true. Sadly, it was. BT Sport 1, Tues, Sep 12th 00.15

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s life was tough for most amateur athletes. Only the very best from the most high profile sports had any hope of getting the backing and sponsorship they required to reach the next level. Some were lucky enough to receive grants from national associations, such as they were at the time. For most others, however, there was no hope of any financial backing. They were on their own. It was a tough graft.

Wrestling was just one of many sports clambering for funding back then. It was far from glamorous – most of those involved were in it for love rather than money. They dreamed of wrestling in the Olympics, but their straitened financial circumstances dictated that the vast majority would never make it that far. What they needed was an investor.


Enter John du Pont, philanthropist, heir to a massive family fortune and a fervent wrestling fan. His 800-acre Foxcatcher Farm outside Philadelphia became the hub of the sport. Offering state-of-the-art training facilities, free accommodation and even some pocket money, du Pont had even enlisted the support of America's best freestyle wrestlers, brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. It looked like the sport had found the saviour it so badly needed. The future looked bright at last.

Foxcatcher

Things progressed well for several years. In addition to wrestling, du Pont also took a keen interest in swimming and modern pentathlon and constructed extensive training facilities on his estate which were used by aspiring athletes in these sports. He founded his own private wrestling team, Team Foxcatcher, which was coached by Dave, the older of the two Schultz brothers.


However, du Pont’s behaviour grew increasingly erratic in the mid-1990s and he began to display what some later described as signs of mental illness. He became withdrawn and paranoid, inaccessible to even his closest friends. Things came to a head on January 26th 1996 when he inexplicably shot and killed Dave Schultz in the driveway of his home in front of his security chief and the victim’s wife. He pleaded insanity but was convicted of third-degree murder and was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in jail. He lodged an appeal in 2000 but the sentence was upheld and he died in jail of chronic pulmonary disease in December 2010 at the age of 72.

Directed by Jesse Vile, The Prince of Pennsylvania tells the story of those heady times at Foxcatcher Farm. It’s a tragic tale of a terrible fall from grace, of madness, of a paradise lost to jealousy and, possibly, mental illness. The story is well known but Vile has managed to secure some new interviews, including one with du Pont’s ex-wife Gale Wenk, along with some previously unseen footage for this piece.

“I was 14 years old when the news broke about the terrible thing that had happened on John du Pont's estate,” Vile explains. “This wasn't far from my hometown in Pennsylvania so it was big local news. And even though I didn't know who John du Pont or Dave and Mark Schultz were then, I remember being strangely affected by the story. Something about it spoke to me in ways I didn't really understand at the time, and it would often come back to me over the years.


“While making this film I had the opportunity to learn a lot about Mark and Dave Schultz. I learned that not only are they two of the greatest wrestlers that America has ever seen but also that their deep passion and love for the sport of wrestling was met with many challenges along the way to the top. They faced the immense physical challenges of wrestling as they struggled financially to reach their potential in a sport that offered little to no funding.

“John du Pont was a strange man who did some terrible things. He hurt a lot of people. But during my research, I was surprised to discover there were many who remember him as a good-hearted but deeply troubled person. This made it a difficult story to tell because it's hard to humanize a killer. But it was important that du Pont wasn't treated as a two-dimensional monster in order to understand the depth of the tragedy that occurred on January 26th 1996 in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Dave Schultz brought out the best in John du Pont, but, unfortunately, also the worst.”

Images: Getty

There are plenty of great documentaries to watch out for on the eir Sport pack every week. From football to golf, GAA, rugby, athletics and beyond, we’ve got something for everyone. Watch out next week for another fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sporting world or go to eirsport.ie for more sports news and stories or eir.ie to find out more about how we're setting sport free.

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