Sports movies present a challenge. Especially American sports movies. For even though we Yanks talk a lot about democracy and the people, we really, at heart, reserve our highest accolades for exhibitions of individualism. Our art reflects that. The Western is our greatest film creation and no other genre elevates the value of the individual over society as much. Think of Doc Boone’s pronouncement at the end of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as the outlaw and the prostitute ride off together: “They’re saved from the blessings of society.” Let Europe have The Rules of the Game (1939) or The Hunting Party (1971). On the left side of the Atlantic, give us our noble loner.
And so sports movies, with their emphasis on teamwork, are hard to put on film. Of course, there has been the occasional Hoosiers (1996) or Friday Night Lights (2004), movies that address the “team” issue by elevating the coach to hero status and allowing the ensemble to be reflected through his lens. But really good team movies are the exception.
Which brings us to boxing. Boxing solves the problem by not being about a team at all. It is the perfect sport to film. It is all about individual conflict and courage. It is extremely visceral. It usually provides a clear winner and loser, but also offers ample room for moral ambiguity. And so, even as the sport of prizefighting has become less and less relevant in American culture over the past twenty years, Hollywood continues to produce movies based on boxing. The Fighter (2010) is the latest Oscar-winning boxing film. Two others, Rocky (1976) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), have won Best Picture. Raging Bull (1980) came in 24th on the AFI’s list of greatest American movies. Once We Were Kings (1996), a chronicle of the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman, won the Best Documentary Oscar. Boxing and movies have always gone well together.
Those award-winners are fairly well known. Here are four others – outstanding boxing movies in their own rights, that don’t quite have quite the name recognition. They tend to emphasise the darker aspects of the sport, but give excellent insight into the men who punch and get punched for a living, or for a pastime.
The Set-Up (1949, Dir. Robert Wise)
Wise spent his early years in film editing for Orson Welles and directing for Val Lewton at RKO. The Set-Up shows the influence of both men, but also reveals his growth. Shot in real time, it is essentially a nourish thriller about a veteran boxer who has to decide whether or not to take a dive. Tight and allegorical, the movie captures desperation and bloodlust in the deceptively named Paradise City, and features a bravura performance by Robert Ryan as Stoker Thompson. It can come off as overly stylised in its early sequences, but it all adds up to a powerful result.
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962, Dir. Ralph Nelson)
Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling. The writers who helped make the first golden age of television so golden. Chayefsky would find great success transitioning to film, but Rose and Serling would spend most of their best years working in television. Hollywood did come calling on Serling after his original teleplay about an ageing boxer proved to be a big hit on the small screen in 1956. The feature film starred Anthony Quinn as Mountain Rivera, and had strong support from Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, and Julie Harris. It isn’t about boxing as much as it is about the aftermath of boxing, and it features two small performances of note. Madame Spivy as Ma Greeny – one of the creepiest villains you will ever see – and a very young Muhammed Ali (still known as Cassius Clay) as the fighter who ends Mountain’s career in the opening sequence. Talk about sad irony.
Fat City (1972, Dir. John Huston)
It doesn’t get much better than John Huston doing a boxing movie. This one is casual and almost careless on one level, and gut-wrenching on another. It focuses on the relationship between an older fighter, Tully (Stacy Keach), and a young talented kid, Ernie (Jeff Bridges), in depicting roads taken and roads avoided. It also gave Nicholas Colasanto his best film role. The early ’70s, pre-Jaws/Star Wars, was a time of loose plotting and emphasis on character and mood. This movie offers those things better than any boxing movie I have seen. Its female characters are not nearly as strong (Huston never seemed all that concerned with women) and it does meander a bit. But it hardly matters.
Boxing Gym (2010, Dir. Frederick Wiseman)
When We Were Kings focused on champions. In true Fred Wiseman fashion, Boxing Gym is a documentary that focuses on run-of-the-mill folks who just like to box. So they come to Richard Lord’s small warehouse in Austin, TX to train. John Davey’s camera captures young hopefuls and army vets, the mothers and their little kids, in a fluid style that reveals the heart and soul of the gym and the people who make it a second home. Wiseman has been doing this form of direct cinema – no narrator, no graphics, no exposition – for more than 40 years, and if this isn’t his hardest-hitting work, it remains gripping material. Though none of the featured people are champions – perhaps because they are not champions – this actually presents a more hopeful and optimistic picture of the sport than most of the fictionalised stories of the rise and fall of boxers.
Two Other Notes: the actual filming of boxing matches has always presented a creative challenge to directors and cinematographers. The best cinematography I have ever seen in a boxing movie — both the boxing matches and the scenes outside the ring – came from James Wong Howe in Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947). And when you think of boxing movies, you often remember the evil opponent whom the hero must overcome. Think of Billie “The Blue Bear” in Million Dollar Baby or pretty much any bad guy in a Rocky picture. These characters are often cartoonish. The best “villain” I have ever seen in a boxing movie is played by Renato Salvatori in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers (1960). It’s not exactly a boxing movie, and it’s not American. Given what I said at the beginning, that may explain why it is more about a group of people than about one individual, and it may explain why there is room for a nuanced, developed, and ultimately tragic villain.