"In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains."
- From "The Boxer" by Simon & Garfunkel
As both a film and sports enthusiast I flatter myself that I'm in a pretty fair position to judge the quality of sports related film. That being the case I render the following succinct verdict: most sports movies suck. Not particularly articulate but it gets my point across. Most sports movies of recent years are formulaic, to wit, a scrappy group of underdogs overcome all odds and wins the big game against their heavily favored and hated rivals. The motley crew breaks into a joyous celebration joined by friends and loved ones, blah, blah, blah.
These films are predictable, unimaginative and overly sentimental.
There are a few exceptions such as the best of the many baseball films, Bull Durham (1988), Eight Men Out (1988) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). All three are highly recommended and I just might have to write a separate post about them some other time.
One sport that has been done justice in films is boxing. The brutal mano a mano nature of the sweet science does not lend itself to saccharine schmaltz (despite the best efforts of Sylvester Stallone). Boxing is an individual effort and thus provides a vehicle for character study. Many of the better boxing flicks have very little action inside the ring. They often explore issues of integrity, courage and loyalty. A lot of boxing stories feature the underworld which, of course adds another dramatic element. Women are a signficant presence in virtually all boxing films, albeit usually as conflicted lovers of the central boxing figure. The brutality of the sport means that issues of health, safety and even life and death can further add to the drama.
While many sports films suffer from looking totally unrealistic in depicting action scenes, boxing is relatively easier to re-create, largely because only two athletes are involved and in confined area at that.
Many of the films below are not exactly light hearted romps through a field of posies. There are no boxing musicals that I know of. Some are downright depressing but still elevating in their examination of humans in extraordinary circumstances. So here are my 11 favorite boxing films. Other than the placement of the first, they are in no particular order.
Raging Bull (1980). I know, I know, calling Raging Bull a boxing film is like saying that Cabaret is just a musical. But the story is about Jake LaMotta a famous middleweight boxer of yesteryear. The scenes within the square circle are not only among the most incredible boxing sequences after filmed, but among the best scenes of any sort you'll ever see. Raging Bull proves that you don't need to care a whit about the sport to enjoy a boxing film. After all, director Martin Scorsese not only wasn't a fight fan but knew little about the sport. In some respects it is the quintessential boxing film for its juxtaposition of the story of a man and his boxing alter ego.
The Set Up (1949). From director Robert Wise starring Robert Ryan. One of the most underrated films of all time. A stylized noir told in real time. The Set Up is the story of a washed up boxer who's not told he's supposed to take a fall until well into the fight. Looking for one last crack at the title, he has other ideas. The story is splendidly told and combines great scenes in the ring, locker room and arena as well as the streets just outside. This is not just a look at the seamy side of boxing it appears. The Set Up is much more than that which makes it in keeping with the best of the genre.
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Talk about dark! But talk about good too. This is a film that explores the toll that pugilism takes on a human body. More than that it explores the horrible price of exploiting a human's body for few bucks. Anthony Quinn is terrific as Louis "Mountain" Rivera, who after 111 bouts has to subject his body to the freak show that is professional wrestling. Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Julie Harris are part of the stellar cast. From a teleplay by Rod Serling.
City for Conquest (1940). One of several boxing films that James Cagney made. In this film he takes to the ring to a support a brother who wants to be a concert pianist and conductor. The fight game takes a toll on his body too but his gorgeous girlfriend played by Ann Sheridan stays by his side. A touching story directed by Anatole Litvak. The pugnacious but nimble footed Cagney made for a terrific film boxer.
Ali (2001). Michael Mann's biopic of Muhammad Ali covering the years 1963-1974 stars Will Smith in the title role with a splendid supporting cast. For huge Ali fans such as yours truly there was great fear that Mann and Smith would not do our hero's story justice. But Smith was uncanny and Mann captured both the boxing and political drama. In retrospect it seems impossible that so current a story could possibly be a great film, but it was good enough.
Rocky (1976). Back before Rockys II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XXXX etc. et al there was this the original Rocky and it was good. Certainly not worthy of its Best Picture Oscar but a fine film nonetheless. Sadly Stallone did not know how to leave well enough alone and went to make innumerable remakes each worse than the preceding one. But the genuine article was a powerful character study and unique concept at the time that's been run into the ground since. Rocky is a down and out fighter who's given a shot at the title and decides to, as the kids say, go for it. Some of the boxing scenes are a bit unrealistic but the overall effect adds to a fine story.
The Harder They Fall (1956). Probably most remembered as Humphrey Bogart's last film. The story is based on a real life Argentine boxer Primo Carnera who got to the top of heavyweight division through smoke and mirrors and oh by the way a little corruption. Bogie is the reporter who has to decide whether he should set the glass jawed fighter straight before he get his block knocked off. Rod Steiger is a revelation as the crooked fight promoter. The fight scenes are brutal and so is the storyline.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Another film from Robert Wise, this one a bio pic of boxer Rocky Graziano as portrayed by Paul Newman. Most directors would have turned the story of a criminal who manages to navigate the straight and narrow through boxing into pure corn pone mush. Not wise. Pun intended, Wise pulled no punches and does not sentimentalize his subject matter. It's the film that established Newman as a star.
City Lights (1931). Why the heck is this Charlie Chaplin silent here? I'll tell you why, it has the funniest boxing scene of all time. Indeed its some of the funniest stuff you'll ever see on screen. Chaplin's genius is on full display in the amazing choreography of the boxing sequences. Funny stuff in the pre and post fight locker room as well.
Gentleman Jim (1942). This is one of those films I like way more than I should. That said it has a lot going for it. Raoul Walsh directed and Errol Flynn star with his constant sidekick, Alan Hale on board as his dad. Flynn plays Jim Corbett a late 19th century boxer from San Fransisco who takes advantage of the new rules modernizing boxing to win the heavyweight title. He must conquer long time champ John L. Sullivan who is played by Ward Bond in a magnificent performance. A fun film that, especially with Flynn in the lead, is like a swashbuckling version of the boxing film.
Fat City (1972). John Huston directed and Stacy Keach stars in one of my candidates for the "Hall of Fame of Underrated Films". Keach plays Tully, a boxer on the downside of a so-so boxing career. He is juxtaposed with Ernie ( an impossibly young Jeff Bridges) a young fighter on the rise. Fat city is a raw film not saw much in its depiction of boxing but of the lower middle class life. There are no gussied up characters with remarkable wit and charm. They are very real people doing the best they can. Boxing can be seen as a metaphor here. If you've not seen Fat City, do yourself a favor and check it out. Thank me later.
Also see: The Champ (1931), They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Cinderella Man (2005), Body and Soul (1947), and Champion (1949).