Boxing on The Silver Screen

23.01.06 - By James Slater: People who appear to admire the sport of boxing greatly are filmmakers. There have been a lot of movies made with boxing as their subject matter. The reason for this is, I feel, due to the all too obvious drama involved in professional fighting. The life stories of certain boxers were literally begging to be given the big screen treatment. And along with these biopics, there have been many fine fictitious films made with boxing providing the story line. As a result, we have quite a few sympathetic and realistic films that seem to understand what is required of the men (and women) who throw punches to earn a living. In this article I take a look back at some of the most prominent of these movies made in the last fifty years or so.

Let’s start with Rocky. Although tarnished due to the unnecessary and clichéd sequels the original still stands up well as a gritty and well told story regarding the strength of the human spirit and the triumphs that can be possible to anyone. Surely even today there can be only a few people able to watch it and not be at least a little bit moved.

It is as inspirational as it is moving. Many men who went on to become world champions, Vinny Pazienza, for example, cite the movie Rocky and the very first time they saw it as the moment they decided to try and do in real life what Rocky Balboa did on celluloid. Don’t tell these people the film is corny and far-fetched. It proved to play a major part in their lives, changing them forever.

The film also benefits from a great performance by the brilliant Burgess Meredith. He exudes realism and is totally believable in his portrayal of the old trainer who has seen and done it all. Sylvester Stallone worked very hard himself, not only writing the script but also training daily in an effort to pull off a passable impersonation of a struggling club fighter. He does more than this and certainly the film’s success at the box office was down to him. He produced a character the audience was able to warm to and root for, and most importantly believe in completely. He was helped no doubt by being a virtual unknown at the time; nobody felt as though their powers of suspension of disbelief were being overly exerted. And no way would real prize fighters have been taken in, certainly not those who were affected so deeply so as to believe that their real vocation had been made clear to them for the first time, if the film was in any way obvious hokum. I think it deserves a place in anyone’s top ten boxing film lists. The best picture Oscar of 1976 wasn’t given to Rocky for nothing. That’s more or less it from me on the subject of Rocky. The fine piece that appeared on this web site written by Craig Parrish goes into even more detail on this great movie, should it be required.

The film the critics seem to praise the most in the genre of boxing films is Raging Bull. More than just a boxing film it focuses on the disturbing side of the Jake La Motta story and as such is often dark. La Motta was apparently hell bent on self destruction and it was due to this subject matter that the director, Martin Scorcese, took six years of convincing by the film’s star, Robert De Niro, to go with the film. Fortunately he did, Raging Bull is rightfully hailed as a masterpiece. De Niro gives one of his best ever performances and everyone has heard the rave opinion of La Motta himself regarding De Niro, who he claims would have been good enough in reality to have been a successful boxer. De Niro is tired of this well publicised bit of praise and says that Jake was only saying this to be nice; he didn’t really mean it. The film nevertheless probably got a boost amongst the boxing aficionados courtesy of La Motta’s impressed remarks.

The La Motta story is at times a hard one to watch, not just because of the man’s thoroughly un-likeable manner (back then), but the fight scenes are brutally authentic looking and, thanks to the superb makeup, the blood and gore that can often be a part of boxing is frighteningly realistic. Not a film for the squeamish, it really captures the atmosphere of being at ringside in the smoke filled arenas of the ‘40s and ‘50s, blood, sweat, tears and all. Quite a contrast to Rocky, which is the more enjoyable film. As to which is the superior piece of filmmaking, I will leave that to the experts.

Michael Mann’s Ali is another painstakingly put together film, at least regarding the selection of actors in relation to their ability to look and sound like the real life characters they are playing. Will Smith must be commended for the incredible effort he put in so as to give as good an impersonation of Ali as possible. The muscle he added to his physique was the result of months of boxing training and voice coaching enabled him to bring back to life all Ali’s famous quotes, speeches and poems with dialect remarkably similar to “The Greatest’s”. He definitely looked and sounded the part. The problems with the film do not lie at his feet though. It really is quite extraordinary that such a talented filmmaker as Michael Mann was able to come up with a film, dealing with one of the most exciting and controversial figures of the twentieth century, if not of all time, that is boring. But this is indeed the case.

The film is flat and despite the tagline, “Forget what you think you know,” it tells us absolutely nothing new. Too much is Ali’s God-like reverence evident in this biopic, never does the film attempt much of anything in the way of criticism. Certainly not with Ali’s religious issues and the black Muslims. Surely the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, which Ali was right in the middle of, should have been looked at with more detail. Ali was accused by some who were in the know for having betrayed Malcolm. According to Sunni Khalid, a student of Ali and The Nation of Islam, in Mark Kram’s book Ghosts of Manilla, “Ali threw Malcolm away like a pork chop. Even today those who really know can never forgive him.” The film merely sidesteps this issue and Ali simply mumbles how Malcolm “shouldn’t have quarrelled with Elijah Muhammad.”

Malcolm X was like a father figure to the young Ali but we are supposed to believe that he was dismissed in such a swift and painless manner. Why? What exactly was it about Elijah Muhammad that Ali so revered, or feared? The film never answers any questions about this episode or just what hold the Muslims had over Ali. They certainly never came to his aid financially during his enforced exile due to his refusal to renounce their cause, whatever this was. The reasons for the whole affiliation with the Muslims that Ali had remains a debated topic and in no way was it as simple as this film makes out, with Ali a seemingly constant and loyal follower, never questioning the order.

Another annoying problem with the film is a lack of consistency. For example, the first Clay vs. Liston fight has approximately quarter of an hour’s screen time devoted to it while the much more important and historical first Ali-Frazier fight is given only a fraction of the time. And the Ali-Norton fights, in which Ali was also beaten on the first occasion, with his jaw broken, are completely non-existent. The reason such vital parts of the Ali story such as these are absent is a mystery. Another omission, or a total changing of the facts to be more precise, is the one that so incensed Joe Frazier; he considered suing the filmmakers. During the financially drained years of Ali’s exile Joe proved to be far more sympathetic than any of Ali’s religious brothers. Yet in a scene in the film, Joe, played by James Toney, is rebuffed when he offers Ali some cash. This was just not on. Joe did give him money, a grateful Ali even says so in his official first autobiography. Joe was understandably angry and hurt.

The film ends with Ali’s victory over George Foreman in Africa. There is no “Thrilla in Manilla”, nor is there any mention of the brave battle Ali would have in later life with Parkinson’s. Half a film? Yes. Maybe as some critics said, only when Muhammad is no longer with us will his life story accurately be put on screen, unhampered by the filmmaker’s fear of betraying their hero. Only when the huge shadow of Ali’s legend is unable to cast itself upon such a filmmaker’s attempts will we be able to see who the man really was. If you get hold of this film hoping to be satisfied in this way you will be sorely disappointed.

No list of boxing films would be complete without the inclusion of 1949’s The Set-up, starring Robert Ryan. Filmed in real time, it tells the story of Stoker Thomson (Ryan), an over-the-hill heavyweight who unwittingly makes a very dangerous enemy out of an un-likeable character named Little Boy. Stoker’s shyster manager agrees to a fixed fight with his man to go down in round three against up-and-comer Tiger Nelson. Little Boy weighs in with the cash but Stoker is none the wiser and determined to win “one last fight”, his manager sees this as such an improbability he feels he has no need to worry. When the bout ensues it’s clear that the older man of thirty five still has enough left to out tough the twenty three year old prospect.

When the third round comes and goes without the expected dive from Thomson his desperate and panicked manager has no choice but to tell him about the deal and his need to go in the tank. Proud as ever Thomson refuses the promise of an extra $20-30 and instead knocks Nelson flat just before the end of the fourth and final round. Needless to say Little Boy is incensed and in a brutal scene he makes sure Stoker’s last fight has been fought. With a few of his thugs in tow, including the vanquished Nelson, he breaks Stoker’s right hand with a brick, unwilling to listen to his pleas of ignorance regarding the set-up.

It’s a great film and it’s realism is quite impressive. Maybe the fight scene is a touch melodramatic and the assorted lowlifes we see at ringside are a little over the top and clichéd, but overall the story is compelling and the pride and resilience displayed by Robert Ryan’s character make rooting for him unavoidable. It also has some quirky elements, such as the rounds in the fight running for over three minutes of screen time. At the very end the clock that we see at the start of the film reading five past nine is now at a quarter past ten and the camera slowly pulls away from the small area in which the whole film is set. Along with Schulberg’s, The Harder They Fall, The Set-up ranks as one of my favourite boxing films, it is gorgeously filmed and Ryan’s performance is first rate.

The Harder They Fall is the last film Humphrey Bogart made and it was a good one on which to go out. Clearly based on the true to life experiences of Primo Carnera (he unsuccessfully sued the filmmakers for not asking his permission), it tells the story of Toro Moreno. A giant of a heavyweight who comes to America and is shamefully abused while being duped into thinking he is a world class fighter. A corrupt boxing promoter, played by Rod Steiger, enlists the help of a former big time journalist (Bogart) to build Toro up and secure a big paying title shot after a series of carefully “arranged” fights. Eventually Toro receives a hideous beating from the champ, played by a man who was once the real thing in Max Baer. Bogart’s character then relocates his decency and, upon learning of the pathetic $49 Toro is to be paid, whisks him out of the country, sending him home with all of what was to have been his payment for his help in the deception by means of his still useful name in the press.

The fights in this film are realistic too and, due to the appearances of Baer and also Jersey Joe Walcott, the movie commands an aura of respect. Both of these black and white features are about as good as it gets as far as boxing films are concerned. For any fan of boxing, or cinema, they are a must see.

Bringing us up to date, we have the recent Million Dollar Baby; Clint Eastwood’s latest effort as star and director. Based on the short story by F. X. Toole (Jerry Boyd) from his book Rope Burns, it puts the spotlight on female boxing. The leading role of Maggie is played by Oscar winner Hilary Swank and once again she is excellent. She underwent some serious boxing training for the part, a regime to rival that of Stallone’s preparations for Rocky and Will Smith’s for Ali. She went through a gruelling three month program that consisted of four hour six day weeks in which she not only got in tremendous shape but also learnt boxing technique. Trained by the accomplished Hector Roca at Gleeson’s Gym in Brooklyn, NY, she came away with a new found respect and admiration for all boxers.

“It’s so inspiring to see them push themselves so hard,” she said, adding how she feels the whole experience has made her grow as a person. “It’s a beautiful sport,” she remarked.

Also in the cast is veteran Morgan Freeman, who, along with Eastwood is one of the most accomplished talents Hollywood has produced. He plays the part of Scrap, a former fighter who lost an eye in a fight, while Clint’s character, Frankie, was in his corner as his cut man. The two now spend all their time at Frankie’s gym and when a dirt poor product of trailer trash arrives with ambition and hunger one day, an unlikely partnership grows. Encouraged by Scrap, the cantankerous old cut man finally agrees to get involved in what he at first calls, “The latest freak show out there.”

A tough and at times heartbreaking film follows, some of its scenes require the stiffest of upper lips so as not to break down in tears. The success the film enjoyed at the Oscars was well deserved and boxing was also the winner thanks to the always needed publicity that Million Dollar Baby gave to the sport.

A final film to mention is Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, as former heavyweight champ James J. Braddock. Braddock of course got his nickname due to causing one of the biggest upsets in boxing history by defeating the overwhelmingly favoured Max Baer to take the title. He lost the championship in his next fight, to the great Joe Louis, but not before scoring a knockdown early on. A national icon, Braddock’s story has produced another fine boxing film.

The underlying theme of all the films here is courage and it is testament to the obvious admiration of this courage that the filmmakers felt the need to pay tribute in the form of their art. To them boxing is a noble pursuit that requires a bravery of the highest level and, through the heartfelt performances of actors such as Hilary Swank and others, the participants in the sport are honoured tremendously. We all know, or should know, how much they deserve this honour.

Article posted on 24.01.2006

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