By John Wharton [@whartojohn]
The year was 1894 and William KL Dickson, a former protégé of Thomas Edison, became the first man to capture a boxing fight on film. The two competitors were Mike Leonard, a man known as ‘The Beau Brummell of boxing’, and Jack Cushing. Leonard won the bout but, more significantly, a relationship was forged.
Boxing is the sport Hollywood has turned to more times than any other. Some films have been great, some have been good and some have been downright terrible. The 19th century journalist and sports writer Pierce Egan coined the phrase ‘The Sweet Science’. When you see Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta dance his way around the ring, as the splendour of Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana plays out around him; or the surge of triumph and excitement you feel when oft-defeated journeyman Rocky Balboa runs through the mean streets of Philadelphia, gathering an entourage of street urchins, with Bill Conti’s disco-inspired Gonna Fly Now reaching a crescendo as he sprints up the steps of Philadelphia’s Art Museum, it’s easy to see why Egan felt that the term was appropriate for the sport.
Former world heavyweight champion, James J Corbett was filmed during a specially conducted exhibition bout against Peter Courtney which was filmed under specific conditions for the Kinetograph, a type of early motion picture exhibition device. This was the first venture into the movies for Corbett and after his retirement he began to appear in low budget movies and vaudeville shows. A later autobiography by the fighter was made into a film which starred the biggest male star of the 1940’s, Errol Flynn.
Boxing Kangaroo was an early entry in the boxing movie genre. Filmed by German inventor and film-maker Max Skladanowsky, it showed a kangaroo wearing gloves and a vest sparring with a man. In the movie, the kangaroo appears to be more than holding his own despite some ugly clinching Bernard Hopkins would be proud of.
Boris Karloff is perhaps better known for his horror movies but he appeared in an early boxing movie, the silent 1924 Dynamite Dan. It was a film about a young labourer who, whilst punching the foreman on the building site in which he was working, was spotted by a boxing manager and became the heavyweight champion of the world. The film, despite running at a mere 62 minutes, seems overlong and incredibly dull.
In 1930’s Great Britain, boxing booths were a popular form of entertainment in fairgrounds. Fighters such as Benny Lynch, Tommy Farr, Freddie Mills and Jimmy Wilde were products of boxing booths, so it’s no surprise that filmmakers were keen to capitalise on the popularity. The 1936 comedy movie, Excuse My Glove chronicled the story of a young stained glass worker who accidentally accepts the challenge to box at one of the booths. British world champion Len Harvey stars in the main role and the film is made more interesting with appearances from British boxing stars such as Tommy Farr, ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, and Jimmy Wilde.
I’ve chosen a selection of the boxing movies that made us think, smile, groan or grimace. Or, to borrow a phrase from another genre of the movies, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!
The Champ, starring Wallace Beery, tells the story of a washed up former heavyweight champion living in squalid conditions in Tiijuana with his young son, played by Jackie Cooper. The story is a familiar tale of loss and redemption, as the alcoholic former champion loses his son and eventually starts to turn his life around, climbing back into the ring once more to face the Mexican heavyweight
champion. His son returns to see the fight as Champ is receiving a beating but, mustering one last burst of energy, he knocks out his opponent before succumbing to his injuries back in his changing room. The film was remade forty years later, starring John Voight and Ricky Schroeder, but was ultimately inferior to the original.
In 1942, two legends merged as legend of the silver screen Errol Flynn portrayed former heavyweight champion ‘Gentleman’ James J Corbett. The movie chronicled the life and career of the former champion and is fondly regarded by both boxing fans and movie buffs.
The story of Thomas Rocco Barbella, more famously known as Rocky Graziano, is one of the great stories of world boxing. A former street hood who spent time in reform schools and prisons, he eventually joined the army but went AWOL after punching a senior officer. Eventually becoming a world champion and one of the most popular fighters of his era, a film Somebody Up There Likes Me was commissioned and James Dean was set to star as ‘The Rock’. Tragedy struck, however, when the star was killed in a car crash in California.
The role was eventually given to a relatively unknown actor called Paul Newman and the film also saw an early acting performance from Steve McQueen. Newman excelled in the role and this was the beginning of his glorious movie career. The film is now regarded as one of the best boxing movies of all time and nearly 60 years later, it stands the test of time.
Fast forward twenty years and unknown writer/actor Sylvester Stallone pitched his movie idea, about a club fighter who eventually fights for the heavyweight championship of the world, to United Artists. The studio saw it as the perfect vehicle for a well established star such as Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford or James Caan. Stallone, however, appealed to the studio for the chance to star in his movie, knowing that producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had a contract with the studio where a movie would be greenlit if the budget was kept low enough.
Rocky was shot in 28 days, for a budget of $1 million and took in $225 million at the global box office. It won three Oscars and saw Stallone himself nominated for the best actor award. Four sequels followed, which gradually decreased in quality and which, for a time, saw the series on the verge of becoming a pastiche. In 2006, thirty years after the original, Stallone returned to the role for a final time in a sequel which eschewed the Roman numerals formula of the previous sequels for the more simple title, Rocky Balboa. The film was a success and saw a return to form for both actor and character; the Rocky series is perhaps the most successful and loved of all films about boxing and despite the inferior nature of the sequels boxing fans still cherish moments in each film.
The majesty of a movie that is Raging Bull is widely considered to be the best boxing movie of all time. It’s more than just a movie about boxing; it’s a movie about a man battling inner demons, sexual jealousy and his animal appetite. That man just happens to be a boxer and that boxer just happens to be Jake La Motta, the bull of the title and former middleweight champion of the world. The film was produced again by Chartoff and Winkler and directed by visionary director Martin Scorsese. Starring as La Motta was method actor, Robert De Niro. The actor who prior to filming had weighed 10st 5lbs ballooned up in weight to over 15st for his portrayal of the older La Motta. The rapid weight gain proved detrimental to De Niro’s health and it affected his posture and breathing and changed the way he spoke.
The film itself was not a box office success and took in only $23 million dollars at the American box office. Critical reception was mixed and reviews were often polarised. By the end of the 1980’s, however, the movie was regarded as one of the finest films of the decade and now it is widely
accepted as a modern masterpiece. The film was shot in black and white, which adds to the self-destructive tone of the film, reflective of the chaotic nature of La Motta’s lifestyle.
The Fighter, was released in 2012, was a film of the life of former junior-welterweight contender Micky Ward and his older brother, former fighter and trainer Dicky Ecklund. The movie was directed by David O Russell and starred Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as Ward and Ecklund, respectively. Ward and Wahlberg shared an inner city upbringing in Massachusetts, and Wahlberg admitted that he was a big fan of the man he was portraying on screen. Wahlberg refused a stunt double for the fight scenes and took real punches, almost having his nose broken a couple of times. The actor also had Ward around on set, in order for him to be able to mimic his mannerisms and behaviour. The film opened to mainly positive reviews and was nominated for seven Oscars, winning two for the portrayal by Bale and Melissa Leo’s portrayal of Ward’s mother, Alice.
Possibly a controversial choice, with the film being directed by Michael Mann and starring box office giant Will Smith, but the 2001 film Ali failed in every single way, in my opinion. It was a box office failure, losing over $63 million dollars, and it lacked any dramatic punch. Whilst any actor would perhaps struggle with the burden of bringing the charisma, charm and persona of Ali to the screen, and encapsulate him in a little over two hours, Smith fails miserably. He may have pumped his body up to look similar to the physique Ali sported in his peak, but an actor as limited as Smith was always going to struggle to convey the complexities of Ali’s nature. Overall the film is weak and, aside from the performance of Jamie Foxx as Bundini Brown, the film falls flat and leaves you disappointed.
Two aging fighters who are close friends left with no option but to face each other on the undercard of a big Las Vegas show, starring Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas, directed by Ron Shelton with his good track record of making sports movies – what could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a bit actually. Shelton didn’t learn the lesson of his previous attempt at satirising the sport in The Great White Hype and Play it to the Bone is a disjointed effort of a movie which makes his previous effort look like Raging Bull in comparison. Harrelson and Banderas are both fine actors, but neither is particularly athletic and the fight scenes are laughable. Unsurprisingly, the film tanked and was a failure both critically and financially.
So many contenders, so little time to fully scrutinise those most deserving. So, I’ve narrowed it down to these three abominations.
The Calcium Kid, starring Orlando Bloom as a boxer. I think that sums up this mockumentary made in 2004, and no further comment is needed!
Gladiator is one of the greatest movies ever made. Russell Crowe is fantastic in his turn as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. The 1992 film, however, is nothing of the sort. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Marshall, and set in the murky netherworld of underground boxing, the film lacks depth, drama and any characters that are little more than one dimensional avatars. Viewers can feel very little empathy with any of the characters. Gladiator is a low-budget film and, as such, I do afford it a little leeway but even with this leniency, the film struggles and is below average.
The Jackie Kallen story is one of the great boxing stories of the last twenty five years. Her management of James Toney, propelling him to a world title, is a victory for all small promoters. The film, Against The Ropes, fails to do justice to the uplifting story of the first female promoter in boxing. Meg Ryan fails to convince as Kallen and Omar Epps as Luther Shaw who is obviously based
on Kallen’s success story James Toney. Epps is a lot less convincing than the real Toney’s attempt at acting when he appeared as Joe Frazier in Ali.
So, boxing and movies. The canvas and the camera have enjoyed a tumultuous and at times rocky (pun intended) relationship. For every Raging Bull there’s fifteen more Calcium Kid’s, but when Hollywood gets it right the result is often glorious. Is there a better image in any boxing movie than the blood dripping off the ropes in Raging Bull?