Boxing and the cinema have been inseparable from the earliest days of movie-making. The propulsive excitement and fierce elegance of the sport were perfectly suited to the screen, and some of the earliest surviving motion pictures are filmed boxing matches. As the sport grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, so too did the movie genre.
It’s no surprise filmmakers return to it frequently. With the sport’s mythic, violent clashes and long history of social eruption, it can be an allegory for nearly whatever you want it to be. They can be simple fight yarns, but more often they’re other things—explorations of greedy commercial exploitation, poverty, violence, race. They prod at class divisions, and at what it means to be a ‘man’ in the world. But they can also be brooding meditations on what may have been or could never be. They speak of the long dark night of the soul, a damned-if-you-do existentialism where you rise from the gutter only to be chewed up and spat out again by the fierce internal cogs of the sport. Then again, there are light-hearted celebratory biopics and slapstick parodies to choose from, too.
Thomas Edison’s brief East Coast monopoly on the movie business allowed him to produce hundreds of minor silent shorts. This very brief burlesque is a rare example of two women, replete in gowns and hats, boxing each other with considerable effort and skill. It’s notable purely because of its unusual subject matter, and the seriousness with which it treats its two “champion lady boxers.”
This independently made biographical film about the longest-reigning heavyweight in boxing history was well-meaning but somewhat poorly executed. Real Golden Gloves pro Coley Wallace filled the role of the inarticulate but astronomically talented fighter. The legendary 12-year-champ broke down racial barriers and swung his way to greatness as the “Brown Bomber” from 1934 to 1949. That it took so long for his remarkable story to make it to the screen is mostly a testament to the racial animus of the time—but a modern biopic of Louis is long overdue.
The Cuban boxing scene has long been a hotbed of talent, and starting young is key. Filmmaker Andrew Lang unobtrusively films three scrawny pre-teen boys as they train for the National Boxing Championships, but reveals much about their impoverished living conditions in the process. Indoctrinated into proud nationalism in spite of their circumstances, the boys wake at 4am to fit their training around school. But Lang is careful not to make any explicit social or political commentary, instead letting events unfold in a naturalistic and nonetheless compelling way.
Buster Keaton didn’t seem to have a great deal of regard for the sweet science—or at the very least, he delighted in parodying it. In an attempt to turn himself into a brawny “real man,” a mild-mannered playboy (Keaton) sets out on an adventurous trip into the country. He winds up impersonating a boxer to impress a girl—and having to go toe-to-toe in a real boxing match. His terror as he scrambles and dives around his opponent is hilarious, but it raises the salient point that the most realistic reaction to being punched repeatedly is to run away.
Tod Browning—a director of the 1930s far more legendary for his monster movie creations (Dracula, Freaks)—turned his attention to the boxing ring in this early sound film. Starring two very famous actors of the era—Lew Ayres and Jean Harlow—this film reveals the pitfalls of the successful fighter, grown arrogant and idle with his wealth. While Iron Man is a fairly straightforward and par-for-the-course boxing drama, the talented cast elevates the material—Harlow was the perfect gold-digging moll, and had been a prizefighter’s squeeze in real life.
An oft-forgotten Technicolor confection from Hollywood’s golden age, The Kid From Brooklyn stars a charming young Danny Kaye as a shy milkman who gets into a fistfight with a fighter who’s dating his sister. A sly promoter sees a chance for a sensation and lures Kaye into a whole new profession—as a champion fighter who has no idea all of his victories have been fixed. Combining a sprinkling of musical numbers and relying heavily on Kaye’s “aw-gee-shucks” persona, it’s not the most weighty and philosophical of fight pictures. But a touch of inspired slapstick makes for an unusually lighthearted entry into the genre, particularly in the noir-dominated ’40s.
Rod Lurie’s 2007 film, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett, is as much an exploration of failed writerly ambitions as it is boxing ones. They are two pursuits which have long been closely linked; covering prizefights has made for storied careers and toothsome prose for journalists. This is the angle that hungry young Denver sportswriter (Hartnett) is pushing for when he meets a homeless man known locally as “Champ” (Jackson). It turns out that the vagrant is none other than Bob Satterfield, a once-famous heavyweight contender.
In his eagerness to tell the champ’s story—a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale perfectly befitting the mythos of boxing history—the sportswriter begins to twist the facts. It’s not an all-time classic, but it’s a very smart film on the pain of the “could-have-been” in both the boxing and the writing worlds.
Jim Sheridan, a regular collaborator with Daniel-Day Lewis, directed this story of an ex-con trying to go straight in the fraught IRA territory of ’90s Belfast. He opens a boxing gym with neutral politics, trying to offer a bastion of sanity and control amidst the chaos and violence raging outside. But he’s not easily forgiven for leaving the IRA, and it’s impossible not to be drawn into the demands of warring factions. Boxing has at least the temporary power for those in the community to channel their anger and fear. With his insistence on a Method approach, Day-Lewis trained with Barry McGuigan for over a year to prep for the role.
Norman Jewison’s exploration of the life and incarceration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—the infamous subject of Bob Dylan’s song of the same name—came with a lot of baggage and social uproar. Carter was an up-and-coming middleweight bruiser in the ’60s, when his career was cut short by a racially motivated arrest and false imprisonment for a robbery/homicide. By 1999, when the film was made, he had been acquitted after serving nearly 20 years in prison, and vast ongoing protests had been organized in his name for years. In spite of a dramatic story seemingly ready-made for cinema, Jewison renders the material strangely inert; he bookends it with too much exposition and unnecessarily complicates things with extended flashback sequences. Nonetheless, the film goes a long way on the charisma of Denzel Washington in the lead role.
Ron Howard’s depiction of real heavyweight fighter James Braddock is a mawkish, if well-meaning, saga of ’30s America. Braddock was a round-faced sweetheart who was forced to take all kinds of poor-paying work as a manual laborer to feed his family during the Great Depression. His nickname, “Cinderella Man,” was borne from his incredible comeback victory against champion Max Baer in 1935. Baer was a formidable fighter, but the film loses historical accuracy in its slanted depiction of him as a simplistic villain. Because Baer had killed a man in the ring—something which haunted him—he was known as a vicious opponent, but hardly with the sort of intentional spite presented in Howard’s film.
Last year’s festival release about the life and career of Chuck Wepner went surprisingly underseen and un-released, in spite of a middling-to-positive critical response. Wepner, for the unfamiliar, was the part-time liquor salesman and all-around bum who got the chance to fight Muhammad Ali, going 15 rounds with the champ. This experience was Sylvester Stallone’s basis for Rocky. Liev Schreiber inhabits Wepner with a slouching physicality, deadset on taking nearly any amount of injury to put on a good show. Director Phillippe Falardeau dedicates a good bit of attention to Wepner’s blue-collar and sometimes strained family life, where his 15 minutes of fame have clearly gone to head. Chuck is an intelligently acted and thought out drama, where the most interesting developments occur after any boxing-related fame has faded.
A markedly different form of pugilism is the subject for this UK documentary, focusing on the pockets of fearsome bare-knuckle fights still (illegally) going on all over. The documentary was made over the course of twelve years, spent with several families from Ireland’s deeply private Irish traveller/gypsy community. The gypsy community place stock in one-on-one bare knuckle fights as a means of resolving personal arguments and family feuds, and this doc is on hand for many of them. This brutal and traditionalist manner of settling problems recalls 19th century attitudes in a 21st century context. One reassuring thought? It’s actually been postulated that the boxing glove makes a punch more dangerous—bare knuckles might look bloodier, but they’re far less likely to inflict deadly damage.
With his complex thrillers and frequently patrician characters, Alfred Hitchcock is not the first director you might think of when it comes to boxing films, but back in the silent era, the 28-year-old director was cutting his teeth at Britain’s Elstree Studios and made this sports drama. The film is notable because it was the one and only screenplay Hitchcock himself actually wrote, as a frequenter and fan of boxing matches. The story is of a fairground fighter, Jack, who falls in love with the heavyweight champ’s wife—so the two men decide to settle their differences in the ring. In spite of the relatively simple narrative, it’s stylish and visually striking, taking care to capture the lightning-quick movements of both men.
Rangy and mustachioed, Errol Flynn makes an elegant “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in this war-time Warner Brothers fare. Tracing turn-of-the-century’s boxing’s transition from bare-knuckle to the Marquess of Queensberry rules—and Corbett’s rise the top—the film serves as an entertaining and rather educational viewing experience. Corbett and his family have the light comic tendency to easily fall into full-scale brawls, so the scrapping is hardly restricted to the ring. Corbett tries to usurp the throne of bare-knuckle battler John L. Sullivan and bring boxing into the 20th century. Meanwhile, Raoul Walsh directs with a strong sense of forward momentum and clever framing, making for an old-fashioned film that stands up very well.
Swedish documentarian Susanna Edwards set out to make what she called a “female Rocky” story when she began following Frida Wallberg around in 2010. Wallberg was the WBC featherweight champ, and pound-for-pound likely the best female boxer in the world. As Wallberg prepares for several big fights, her tenacity is remarkable; she groans in pain, seemingly unable to stop training until she’s in physical distress. But her single-minded hard work usually paid off in time for the fight. Unfortunately, her career came to an abrupt halt when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the ring in a 2013 fight against Diana Prazak—and the documentarian was on hand for the whole awful event, as well as for Frida’s slow recovery. Charting the preparation, triumph and heartbreak of the sport, Edwards’ doc is both saddening and awe-inspiring.
King Vidor, critically beloved director of silent and early sound Hollywood, had a critical and commercial success on his hands with this Academy Award-winning film. Penned by well-respected female screenwriter Frances Marion, The Champ is an archetypal tale of a floundering has-been fighter (the legendary Wallace Beery) stuck in the bottom of a bottle. In an attempt to live up to the devotion of his young son (Jackie Cooper), who is on the verge of being taken away by his estranged mother, the broken-down Beery fights one last battle to prove his worth. A poignant film on the father-son bond and the powers of forgiveness, The Champ went on to inspire a whole series of similar redemption narratives in ’30s Hollywood.
Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ stage play is a slightly creaky old boxing yarn, with a premise bordering on silliness and yet manifestly compelling. The story centers around poor Italian-American boy Joe (a young, shockingly wooden William Holden)—a gifted violinist who also has a chance at making real money as a fighter. Torn between art and love or money and violence, the story is framed as a moral quandary. Although rather badly dated (see Lee J. Cobb as Joe’s father with an absurd Italian accent), the concept of the film has served as inspiration for countless other protagonists tempted into similar Faustian pacts.
Oscar Michaux was a prolific director of what were once known as “race films”—a sort of segregation-oriented entertainment made for all-black audiences and featuring all-black casts. Michaux had been working in independent film since the 1910s and is now widely regarded as the first (and most successful) major African-American film director. Elinor Lee (Gladys Williams) is a Harlem-based gangster’s moll who signs a contract with a fighter and then gleefully bets against him when the chips are down. This sinfully tricky woman holding a contract over a prizefighter’s head was an unusual thing to see, as much now as it was in 1940.
This is fairly run-of-the-mill Warner Brothers fare of the Depression era, right down to the spinning newspaper headline montages and cigar-chomping promoters. Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) directs the story of a good-looking, cornfed fighter whose career is taken on by a well-heeled manager (Edward G. Robinson) and his sympathetic girlfriend (Bette Davis), but through his wholesomeness, eventually appeals to his manager’s better nature. It may be a touch predictable, but it’s hard not to like any film starring Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart—snarling at each other in smoky rooms and chomping on cigars in rough old gyms.
This HBO biopic was not ever meant for the Big Screen, but it’s an absolutely scathing portrait of one of the most powerful promoters in modern boxing. Reportedly, Don King was so upset by his portrayal that he stopped doing business with the channel over it. Played by a ruthless Ving Rhames at his very best, King’s series of cutthroat business dealings and manipulations are played out with little attempt at salvaging his reputation. Following his infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” deal with the dictator of Zaire and his even more infamous shakedown of Mike Tyson, the film is mainly focused on his professional rather than his personal life. Still, Rhames gives the man a sheen of almost pathological ambition and drive—just enough to get the audience to eke out some begrudging respect for him.
Walter Hill’s prison drama is an amusingly literal “what if” scenario, that imagines a menacing heavyweight champion played by Ving Rhames, a man on top of his game who is abruptly sent to prison. (Mike Tyson, anyone?) Inside, though, he may no longer be the “undisputed” champ. A series of highly organized and totally improbable fight nights are arranged in the prison by bored guards, with another inmate (Wesley Snipes) notorious for his vicious onslaughts in the ring—and his zero-loss record. A conflict between them is inevitable, with the champ unwilling to believe that this prison fighter could possibly have a patch on him. The film lurches toward this central showdown with slick actioner style—a pure boxing movie, as Walter Hill said, “actually about boxing and not a metaphor.”
This small indie doc was made a few years ago by filmmaker Meg Smaker, who travelled clandestinely to Cuba to make her 15-minute short about a young woman, Namibia, who’s training in defiance of Fidel Castro’s ban on women’s boxing. Although men’s boxing has won Cuba more Olympic gold medals than any other nation on Earth, it’s illegal for women to do the same—and so, this beautifully shot short charts the struggles faced by a woman whose talent is unwanted in her native country, and whose dream is to compete in the Olympics.
This remake of the classic 1950 film noir starring Richard Widmark in war-ravaged London takes serious liberties with the original plot. It switches the location to New York and the central sport from pro wrestling to boxing. Robert De Niro is hustling lawyer Harry Fabian, trying to beg, steal and borrow his way into a boxing promoter’s license and startup cash. As Harry gets continually tied up with the seedy underside of the business, he is thrown in with loan sharks and gangsters. The result is a fatalistic mishmash of old noir conventions and modern violence, but firm in the knowledge that boxing is as crooked as it’s ever been.
The light romantic comedy stylings of this film are livened up by the star appearances of several celebrity prizefighters of the period. Myrna Loy plays a fashionable nightclub singer and gangster’s moll toying with the heart of Max Baer, the real life heavyweight champion. With the legendary Jack Dempsey as a referee and Baer’s real opponent Primo Carnera in the ring, it’s difficult not to play a game of “spot the celebrity” as you’re watching. In spite of the fact that at one point, Baer attempts to do some singing, this is a thoroughly entertaining, if patchy, old Hollywood movie.
Miles Teller bulks up for his role as Vinny Pazienza, a blue-collar Italian-American kid from Rhode Island who struggled against overwhelming adversity to fight again after a debilitating car accident. The champ had won two world title fights before a head-on collision left him with a spine injury and a halo, with concern as to whether he would be able to walk again—never mind fight. With all signs pointing to a finished career, the “Pazmanian Devil” showed almost superhuman strength in returning to the gym to train. Aaron Eckhart supports Teller as his terse, boozed-up trainer Kevin Rooney, while his smothering but loving parents provide a believable family background for the fighter. The concluding moments, where Pazienza is questioned by a reporter, are a memorable conclusion to a genuinely inspiring story.
There were 15 years between the releases of Rocky V and Rocky Balboa, but Sylvester Stallone being of retirement age gave a new gravitas to this sequel. After defeating the current champ, the loudmouthed Mason Dixon, in a virtual simulation, Rocky considers returning to the ring. Although he is urged to stay in retirement, he decides to have one more shot—with pressing risks for his own safety. Rocky Balboa adopts a less bombastic, more world-weary spirit, reflective both of Rocky’s age and a harking back to the original movie. Although it’s a bit unrealistic, it’s hard not to want to root for Rocky one more time.
This hilarious send-up of the extravagant and greedy fight world sees Samuel L. Jackson blatantly lampoon the obnoxiously slippery Don King. It’s his idea to stoke the old fires of racial tension and create a white challenger for his spoiled top-class black champ (Damon Wayans)—a real Floyd Mayweather type if ever there was one. Somehow they pull a clueless stoner from the woodwork (Peter Berg), slap him with an Irish-American nickname (even though he’s not Irish), and send him to his almost-certain defeat against their reigning heavyweight king for a cash-in. For anyone even fleetingly familiar with the vagaries of boxing show-biz, this will be entertaining.
Michael Mann’s ambitious attempt to chronicle the sprawling and wildly admired life of Muhammad Ali is respectable, if not enthusiasm-inducing. Certainly it’s Will Smith’s finest moment as a serious screen presence. He and the director spent exacting periods of time closely studying Ali’s fights and hours of candid footage, resulting in plenty of technical accuracy but a slightly mechanical feel overall. Still, Mann’s films hits all the biopic beats and its first hour or so is compelling, never shying away from the glamour, controversy, or flaws of egotism. The main trouble, in the end, lies with the difficulty of capturing Ali’s quicksilver, larger-than-life charm. That’s a mean feat for any filmmaker.
The most recent Rocky sequel—focusing on the offspring of Apollo Creed, Adonis—is a thrilling, propulsive sports movie. Turning old boxing conventions on their heads (Adonis is a wealthy princeling, not a poor underdog) and featuring real Liverpudlian fighter Tony Bellew as his opponent, director Ryan Coogler brings a lively urgency and excitement to the genre. Sly Stallone puts in a magnificent, melancholy performance as Rocky passing on the baton, and lets star Michael B. Jordan shine as a charismatic and capable fresh face on the boxing scene.
British director Shane Meadows is probably most well-known for his film This is England, a skinhead romp through the grim 1980s about working-class youths. His debut film, 24/7, has a similar milieu—desolate small-town England, full of disaffected and trouble-causing teen boys. A rough amateur boxing club is the best way to keep them busy and disciplined, and a small group do just that as they learn the sport under the watchful eye of local trainer Bob Hoskins. Local street gangs begin to find some common ground, and the kids become increasingly fascinated by the sport. It’s a minor film, but one that is dedicated to revealing just how productive and positive boxing can be for working-class kids.
Karyn Kusama’s feminist exploration of the fight world intrudes into an otherwise overwhelmingly male genre. It’s grown increasingly relevant as women’s boxing has slowly begun to break into the mainstream over the past decade. It features Fast & the Furious star Michelle Rodriguez as Diana, a Brooklyn teen who begins training in a boxing gym to take the edge off her personal aggression. The men around her—including her father—disapprove, but she finds a revitalizing love for the sport that’s unstoppable. Rodriguez, in her first film role, is a creature of fiery energy and steely nerve—in other words, a perfect prizefighter.
Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg are boxing brothers in this brilliant David O. Russell film about the real Ward brothers, Micky (Wahlberg) and Dicky (Bale). Both were pro welterweight fighters coming up during the crack and crime epidemic of the late ’80s in their hometown of Lowell, Mass. Dicky was a once-promising fighter who had succumbed to a crack addiction, but also the apple of his domineering mother’s eye. He works now as a trainer and close confidante of his brother, but knows he needs to keep clean to be useful to his family. This moving family drama is as much about the bonds of love and friendship between brothers as it is about the redemptive hard graft and tough breaks of professional boxing. All of it is executed with the utmost care for both psychological and sporting realism.
Stanley Kubrick began his career as a teenage photographer in New York City of the ’50s, capturing street sweepers, cops on the beat, Broadway dancers, and everyone in between. Long lost mid-century Manhattan comes into focus in his quotidian day-in-the-life documentary short. Clocking in at only 12 minutes, Kubrick follows the activities of Irish-American middleweight Walter Cartier before his big (winning) bout against Bobby James. Kubrick had a long fascination with boxing, and it featured in several of his films—Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, even briefly in Barry Lyndon—over the course of his career.
Robert Wise liked double-acts. He made two great boxing films in his career; he also made two great films about kids in NYC gangs. Pre-West Side Story, Wise made the life story of Rocky Graziano—keen to highlight the fighter’s ne’er do well delinquent youth and later army desertion. Graziano is played by breakout star Paul Newman as a big-mouthed, roughneck charmer, likable in spite of himself. It’s one of the few boxing films which begins gruff and gritty and ends happily, with Graziano at the top. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a realistic glimpse into New York street life and the mellowing influence boxing can have on such an unruly man.
Boxing is an accidental vehicle to fame and riches in this masterful Italian melodrama. Luchino Visconti’s 1960 film starred Alain Delon as one of four Southern Italian farm boys who relocate to Milan with their mother. These country boys in the big city are soon lured in and spoiled by the thrills of the big city—girls, crime and the fight racket. The film features boxing not only as representative of the dangers (and spoils) of urban life, but as a litmus test for moral strength. When Rocco’s brother Simone becomes a lazy boxer, lacking discipline and moral rigor, Rocco himself—a better, kinder human being—steps in and soars to success.
The Emile Griffith v. Benny Paret fight of 1962 has gone down as one of the most tragic episodes of boxing history. Ring of Fire seeks to explore it in depth, piecing together the events of the evening—and the many intervening decades of anger, loss and guilt. Paret whispered a homophobic epithet to Griffith before their fight began. Griffith, a closeted homosexual, flew into a rage, and by the 12th round, Paret had been KO’d. Only Paret collapsed at ringside, fell into a coma, and died 10 days later. Suffering from the trauma of this event years later, Griffith seeks out a meeting with Paret’s son, who offers him forgiveness. It’s a potent cauldron of old-world fears about sexuality, male rage and the powers of forgiveness.
Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable foray into the boxing genre saw him also dipping his toe into near-classical tragedy. Hilary Swank is unforgettable as the hardy and determined Frankie, and the actress did intensive training to look and feel the part in the ring—even putting on 19 lbs. of muscle for the role. Eastwood’s turn as a washed-up old-time trainer, initially befuddled at the thought of training this scrappy female underdog, is equally great—eventually forming a father-daughter-like relationship with Frankie. It’s fair to say that with its sucker-punch of a conclusion, this is the boxing film most likely to make you cry into the credit sequence.
A young Kirk Douglas is memorable here as an embittered dirt-poor fighter who refuses ever to be broke again. His background has turned him mean and appraising, willing to step on just about anybody on his way to the top. Written by High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman, Champion is a film of similar liberal persuasion—displaying the pervasive corruption and amorality of this route to the American dream, where only the Machiavellian seem to survive.
Muhammad Ali does what he does best—play himself—in this ’70s biopic based on his autobiography. Partially filmed by arthouse director Milos Foreman, the film features a talented supporting cast—Ernest Borgnine, Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. Nearly all of the boxing matches are real footage from Ali’s fights. If this all sounds basically perfect, it’s not that exactly—the film is pretty quiet on the more controversial elements of Ali’s life and doesn’t seek to reveal anything new—but it’s a thoroughly charming portrait of the champ, nonetheless.
Albert Maysles and Bradley Caplan worked together on this episode for the auspicious ESPN 30 for 30 series—sports documentaries made by master filmmakers with a preference on humane, compelling stories and high-quality production values. The film largely uses footage that had been filmed by Maysles back in 1980, surrounding the lead-up and aftermath of the infamous Holmes v. Ali bout. It was a fight that never should have happened; Holmes hero-worshipped Ali, who was far past his prime and already showing early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease. But the champ’s bravado—not to mention a clutch of scheming, greedy entourage—would not allow him to retire gracefully. Instead, this heartbreaking film follows Ali, the hero, as he’s brought low by a talented and self-effacing man who hardly wanted to hit him.
James Toback takes on controversial territory in his documentary on Mike Tyson, the so-called “baddest man on the planet,” ex-heavyweight champ of the world, and a convicted rapist. Toback digs away at Tyson’s deepest motivations and thought processes, revealing an intelligent, wounded and clearly troubled person who occasionally comes out with truly bizarre sentiments. They address Tyson’s exceptionally rough upbringing and his father-son relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato—along with his more infamous exploits, disastrous marriage and prison sentence. This is a gripping, occasionally amusing and deeply disturbing watch. In other words: essential viewing.
Documentaries rarely come alive in quite the way that this classic does; it’s endlessly watchable for diehard boxing fans and casual viewers alike. Directors Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford follow both competitors in the lead-up to the legendary 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” clash – fought in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Amid the clammy heat and the cheering mobs of schoolchildren, the cry of “Ali, boma ye!” was immortalized. Ali, bouncing around with characteristic vim and comic wit, did nothing to discourage this hero-worship. Foreman, more circumspect and increasingly agitated by Ali’s attention-grabbing, was both a younger and a bigger man. In other words, he was a truly formidable opponent. But Ali kept his poker face on. “You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait till I kick George Foreman’s behind!”
Ken Burns, one of most recognized American documentarians, decided to undertake a biographical venture in his 2004 film for PBS. After his massive success with historical subjects (The Civil War, The West), he took on a vast canvas for the backdrop of the life of Jack Johnson. Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion in American history, as of 1911. He was widely detested by white audiences, cheerfully flaunting his wealth and interracial romances in the faces of a racist public. Burns takes care to paint a sweeping portrait of turn-of-the-century America, the history of the sport up until that point, and the ways in which Johnson’s triumph inflamed and inspired the American public. It’s a captivating and often shocking trip through an ugly era of the country’s history, and it lays the foundation for one of the most basic tenets of boxing; you can’t leave race and racial strife out of the equation if you ever wish to understand it fully.
As extraordinary for its external influences as it is on its own terms, The Harder They Fall is based on a slight novel by longtime boxing commentator Budd Schulberg. Its plot was clearly based on the most crooked heavyweight title triumph in boxing history—the Primo Carnera story. The film follows a giant but glass-chinned foreign fighter who is built up as the next big thing, and helped along by a rogue’s gallery of gangsters who fix his way to the title (unbeknownst to him). Meanwhile, they siphon off the fighter’s funds, leaving him vulnerable not only to the fists of better opponents, but to an uncertain future. The Harder They Fall is also notable for being Humphrey Bogart’s final film appearance, as a complicit journalist riding the coattails of the fighter and getting his cut from the racket.
As its title suggests, few boxing films are quite so unrelentingly melancholy as this Rod Serling-penned story. Anthony Quinn is a roughed-up old heavyweight whose final head injury in the ring incapacitates him for further fights. Forced to the unemployment office after decades of boxing, he realizes he has little to show for his years of dedication but a cauliflower ear and an empty pocket. This is a film which makes a pointed effort to show the way prizefighters are cruelly put out to pasture once they no longer serve their purpose; Quinn’s turn as the punch-drunk dope is so kindly it’s difficult not to watch without fierce empathy. Jackie Gleason, in a serious guise, is fantastically conflicted as Quinn’s longtime manager, and Julie Harris equally formidable as a sweet unemployment office clerk. Requiem for a Heavyweight is one of the greats.
Perhaps the most poetic and fatalistic of all boxing movies—certainly the most indebted to film noir—is Robert Wise’s lean 72-minute drama. It stars Robert Ryan as a journeyman fighter in the hours leading up to his last fight. He is weary and looking ahead to his retirement, but also full of moral rectitude and pride. Audrey Totter is his concerned, loving wife, struggling to keep her husband safe from the crooked promoters and mobsters who care little for his welfare. Forced to choose between the indignity of throwing a fight in the ring or suffering the consequences outside of it, there’s a rock-or-a-hard-place existentialism to the movie that’s deeply sad.
John Huston, a brawling, drinking, macho old-school film director if ever there was one, turned his hand to an adaptation of a great boxing novel with Fat City. The result was perhaps one of the greatest movies on the subject of pugilism ever made. The soul of the sport lies in folks from the margins—the violent, the criminal, the immigrant poor, the racial minority. The film’s characters (played by the likes of Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges) are not big-timers, just aspirational men in a dead-end town, feeling left behind by the rest of the world. Huston never shies from the reality of small-time fight game—broken, bruised men with little hope and even fewer prospects, spending their best physical years taking beatings for a living.
Obvious as it may now be, Sylvester Stallone’s role as Rocky Balboa must be one of the most enduring performances of the ’70s. A look back at the original film is a reminder of the series’ humble and lo-fi origins, but also of the economic and spiritual funk Americans felt in the post-Vietnam moment. Stallone’s lovable, dopey bum with no real prospects who is suddenly thrown into a million-dollar fight with the superstar champion of the world was an uplifting movie hero in a downbeat decade. Brilliant supporting turns from Burt Young, Carl Weathers and Talia Shire give fresh dimensions to the old stereotypes of trainer, opponent and ring girlfriend—offering bruising insecurity, tenderness and the underside of egotism beyond any stock characterization. It’s not a stretch to say that Rocky’s glorious failure in the ring could, at the time, be writ large as an expression of American greatness in the face of dispiriting defeat.
When Robert De Niro first presented his pal Martin Scorsese with Jake La Motta’s autobiography, the director was reluctant to film the unpleasant life story of the “Bronx Bull,” famous for his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson and his ability to absorb an absurd amount of punishment in the ring. Outside of the ring, La Motta was a serial domestic abuser and all-around bastard, and Scorsese does not shy away from presenting him with all the gory details intact.
The director was perfectly suited to portray the Italian-American Bronx of the ’40s, and his ear for mannerisms and dialogue is evident. And the boxing matches are remarkable—the ring appears to shrink and widen, the camera glides and swirls around the men like a free-floating object, and the well-schooled actors hop around the canvas like professionals. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film on the subject of male violence—an unlikely mixture of components, but the ingredients for a stone-cold masterpiece.
John Garfield made the perfect cinematic pugilist. From his working-class New York background to his broad shoulders and vaguely potato-faced good looks, he embodies middleweight fighter Charley Davis with cocky charisma. If the finest allegories work in both sweeping and specific ways, the film works both as an anti-capitalist parable—showing how the honest salt-of-the-earth boy is wooed by materialism—and as an honest-to-goodness boxing drama, with a love for the sweat and ritual of the sport. The spirit of realism infuses the entire film, and it’s one of astonishingly few boxing movies to address, even obliquely, race—with actual inclusion of a major African-American character (Canada Lee). Cinematographer James Wong Howe used up to eight cameras to set up the variety of shots used during the matches—and sometimes even filmed on roller-skates for additional effect. The result is an unrivaled, thrilling, smoky trip through the boxing underworld and the redemption that can be found there.