The death of Muhammad Ali has made me take a look at what’s sometimes called “the sweet science.” What is there about boxing that so enthralls spectators? Maybe the fact that it’s an up-close-and-personal sport, one in which two well-muscled athletes wearing very little come together in a violent mano à mano in full view of the fans in the ringside seats. Maybe when we watch boxers in dubious battle we’re calling up historic memories of gladiators slugging it out in the Colosseum. Maybe boxing is so brutal, and those who participate in the sport are so vulnerable, that we can’t avert our eyes from what promises to be a kind of human trainwreck.
In any case, the motion picture industry has always loved movies in which much of the action is set in a boxing ring. The tradition, dating back to the 1940s, is that boxing films focus on a champ’s corruptible flesh and even more corruptible moral fiber. It was in 1947 that Body and Soul (written by Abraham Polonsky, directed by Robert Rossen, and starring John Garfield) galvanized audiences by showing how an upstart with pugilistic talent can become the fallguy of unscrupulous operators who see him as their meal ticket. (The story is that legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe donned roller skates and carried a hand-held camera into the ring in order to convey a close-in look at what goes on in a boxing match.)
In 1949, Kirk Douglas achieved stardom as double-crossing boxer Midge Kelly in Champion, the first film produced by the great Stanley Kramer. In a story (based on a Carl Foreman script) that reveals its “hero” as capable of deception, backstabbing, and even rape, Champion makes the point that winners should never be confused with good guys. The same message is reinforced in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a 1980 biopic of the boxer Jake La Motta that powerfully charts its protagonist’s rise and fall.
Of course not every movie boxer is depicted as ruthless. The 1970 screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, The Great White Hope, uses the real-life story of Jack Johnson to highlight the racial aspects of the boxing world, with the leading character (James Earl Jones) penalized for his color and for daring to love a white woman. In 2005, director Ron Howard made heavyweight champion James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) a sympathetic figure, one who turns to boxing as his family’s way out of the Depression. And of course there’s Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, which starting in 1976 made a lovable loser into a figure of blue-collar dignity.
Muhammad Ali himself inspired many documentaries as well as a 2001 biopic starring Will Smith, who had gained Ali’s seal of approval as the only Hollywood actor pretty enough to impersonate him. Most audiences agreed that the dynamism of the real Ali did not fully come across in this fictional look at his boxing career and his gutsy civil rights stance. Ali was simply too remarkable a figure to be captured by someone else’s performance, and it promises to be the videotapes of Ali in action (both fighting and talking) that will be treasured in years to come. While I say goodbye to Ali, I also mourn the loss of author Katherine Dunne, with whom I enjoyed chatting when I was on Roger Corman’s payroll. I hoped she’d write a script for us, but it was not to be. Dunne’s masterpiece was an outrageous circus story, Geek Love, but she also won prizes for her take on boxing. So sorry that she and Ali were not saved by the bell.