Has there ever been a sport better examined by cinema than boxing? The “sweet science of bruising” (as A. J. Liebling put it) pits man against man (or woman against woman, but I’ll be damned if I’m putting that lousy flick here), addresses class, race, immigration… hell, nearly every turmoil present in the great American experience. Though my choice is baseball, boxing is the great movie sport, without question.
This being Thursday, and this being so close to my freak-out over David O. Russell’s The Fighter, I thought I’d use this week’s Five Film Favorites to give you the great boxing movies of all time. At least from this corner.
(And a note: I have seen Raging Bull, The Set-Up, Rocky, and most of the others. I like them. But not as much as I like these.)
1. Fat City (1972, John Huston). Despite enjoying The Fighter as much as I did (see below), I have to say that Fat City is my choice for the best boxing film of all time. Yes, I have seen Raging Bull, and quite a few times, thank you. But Fat City presents boxing as it really is: usually pretty dull, damned ugly, and punishing to body and soul. It has probably the most squalorous opening ever: Tully (Stacy Keach, without facial hair to cover his hairlip) waking up, probably drunk, in his shitty hotel room. Early afternoon light comes in through the smoke stained shades, while Tully, in his dingy briefs, wanders around the room with a cigarette dangling from his lip, looking for a match to light the thing (he never does.) It goes downhill from there.
The plot is deceptive: ostensibly the story of the rise of young Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the decline of aging Tully (Keach), it’s really the story of how awful it is to be a boxer, since Keach’s collapse and Bridges’ rise are pathetic. Like the race in Two-Lane Blacktop, there’s no momentum behind this rise and fall, the two never meet to see who’s best, and in fact Tully helps Ernie, at least in the ring. In life, there’s no helping these two at all.
Here, Tully and Oma (the self-proclaimed gypsy Susan Tyrell, who was nominated for an Oscar), try to find a sliver of happiness in the living hell that is Bakersfield, California.
Later, we’ll see trainer Reuben (Nicholas Colasanto, famous for playing Coach, from “Cheers”), sitting in a greasy spoon, talking aimlessly about all the hell his body’s been through. “Yeah, when I first pissed blood, I wondered if it was worth it.” John Huston returned to form here, and despite Fat City’s bleakness, it’s compelling, moving, and damned beautiful.
2. Battling Butler (1926, Buster Keaton). This bizarre movie is oddly considered one of Keaton’s worst, but I love it. The story of Albert Butler (Keaton), a wealthy, spoiled playboy who meets a cute-as-a-button “mountain girl” (Sally O’Neill–where did she go?) while out camping. Butler’s valet is along for laughs (played by the great Snitz Edwards, a regular in the Keaton Kamp.) While trying to impress the girl, Mr. Butler convinces her and her roughouse family that he’s the famous “Battling Butler”, the prizefighting champion. Naturally, he has to box, right?
Not only are the camping scenes hilarious, the training scenes are brilliant little exercises in physical comedy. Then, when push comes to shove, and Butler has to take off his shirt and don gloves… well, now I see why my wife finds Keaton so sexy. The guy was ripped. Then he boxes. And what pugilism! So intense were these scenes that Scorsese claims to have used them to influence Raging Bull. You can see them around the seven-minute mark. These scenes are what turn most people off–they’re brutal!
3. The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell). The Fighter is a great story, a strange movie that doesn’t take boxing and make it into an examination of man’s inhumanity to man, doesn’t politicize it, doesn’t even really make it into something to celebrate. No, it’s simply the sport that two men, “Irish” Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, respectively), half-brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts, engage in because they have a passion for bruising, and the pride of saying they were the best at something. Director Russell gets some brilliant performances out of Wahlberg (underrated here), Amy Adams, and Oscar winners Melissa Leo and Bale (though I wasn’t as enamored of Leo as everyone else was.) The fighting scenes are simply magnificent, edited brilliantly, the camera zooming around the ring, cutting away to choreographed crowd movements, the family, the refs, etc. You feel like you’re ringside, and Russell even manages to make the HBO color commentary a vital part of the action. Watch The Fighter and then go online and see these fights and you can see how great the result–he captures what happened, but makes it a hundred times more engaging. The Fighter is a supreme entertainment, and perhaps the best boxing film for people who adore the sport.
4. When We Were Kings (1996, Leon Gast). A surprising, shocking documentary that brilliantly examines the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match in Zaire in 1974. Muhammad Ali took on George Forman, and director Leon Gast builds the film around Ali’s weeks long strategy to undo his opponent, who was widely considered the favorite. The music, the locales, and especially the boxing are culled together to create an intoxicating stew of thrilling sport, reprehensible politics, and clashing personalities (Foreman seems menacing and far from the lovable saleman he is now.)
I think it was Sports Illustrated that called Ali the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century, and after seeing When We Were Kings, you can see why. The talking heads of George Plimpton and Norman Mailer are almost as fun as what went on in the ring.
5. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004, Ken Burns). For once Ken Burns pulls no punches. Though Baseball, Jazz, and The Civil War are masterpieces by nearly every standard, they’re also fairly clean, and lack the spark of anger. Unforgivable Blackness is exciting, but damned depressing.
The story of the great heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Blackness details Johnson’s attempts in the first decades of the 20th Century to take the crown from racist jerk James Jeffries, who refused to fight Johnson because he wasn’t going to get in the ring with that black man (worse words were used.) For fourteen years Johnson fought, and at times literally followed Jeffries around, but in the end Jeffries ceded the crown to Tommy Burns, who finally agreed to meet Johnson.
Well, Johnson pummelled him. Jeffries, indignant, finally agreed to fight Johnson. Johnson knocked him out in the 15th, though it was never close. And then all hell broke loose.
The white establishment hated that Johnson flaunted his gifts, his title, and the fact that he openly dated white women. He was charged under the Mann Act for “white slavery”, fled overseas for a time, returned home, and was eventually jailed.
Unforgivable Blackness does its job perfectly: you emerge frustrated at the racism, but also at Johnson’s own self-destructive nature. It would be easy to tone down both, or to make Johnson this fun-lovin’ guy who got on the wrong side of the Man. Instead, Burns evokes this time period as the complex era that it was, and its characters, good and bad (but never cartoonishly evil), just shine.