October 2022: Some musings on classic boxing movies

A set of boxing movie themed stamps from Sierra Leone: boxing classics have captured the imagination around the world

he past few months have been quiet on here. But now with the start of a new academic school-year, back to lecturing eager and talented young people about the ins and outs of film and its echoes with culture and sociology, I feel revitalised to get back to writing. Many ideas in my head for essays, lists and reviews will be turned into published articles. I also want to get back to writing regular ‘musings’, this post being the first of what I hope will become a monthly occurrence: a chance to share some rough thoughts about what I’ve been watching and thinking, and also to hint at upcoming posts in Cinescope’s pipelines.

As well as looking ahead, for the past few weeks I’ve also been travelling backwards in time, into the past. Well, not literally time-travelling, but close. Film history is already well over a century old and the treasure chest of its history provides many a wormhole to get lost in for the nostalgic cinephile like me. For a while I’d had the idea of using a random number generator to pick a year, and then watch as many films as I could from that year. As the roll of the dice would have it, I landed on 1947. Sixty-odd black-and-white features, a handful of Technicolor beauties, and a couple of uncategorisable experimentals later, my Top 20 list of the best films made in 1947 is just about ready. As ever I’ll be looking for patterns and connections across the films, how they can tell us something about when they were made, how they’ve stood the test of time. My Top 20 list, complete with write-ups, will be published in a couple of weeks and amidst the well-known classics there will be some lesser-known recommendations in there too. Keep an eye out for that!

But, while immersed in the fatalistic film noirs of ’47, I chanced upon one movie that temporarily led me down another tangent. The film was Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, included in a ‘Boxing On-Screen’ season on the Criterion Channel, and distracting me from my 1947 project long enough to watch a few more ring-set classics of the late 40s and 50s. I have already written about Robert Wise‘s The Set-Up, an existential noir-ish boxing movie from 1949. I now watched more of these boxing noirs, bleak stories of prize-fighters that somehow reflected the post-war mood. In them, boxing is a pretext really, a springboard for some reflection or some moral about wider society to share with the audience. Today I don’t think this quite happens as regularly in the same way, or at least it cannot happen anymore in our contemporary screen culture, and that is what I wanted to muse on this month.

irstly, of all the taut tight boxing noirs I saw (including Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and The Harder They Fall (1956), and bearing in mind that Body and Soul shall be discussed in my upcoming 1947 list) the one I want to write about is 1949’s Champion, directed by Mark Robson, produced by Stanley Kramer, and starring Kirk Douglas in his break-out lead role, a visceral brutal performance as ruthless boxing champ Midge Kelly.

The movie has a flashback structure but a peculiar one. We begin ringside on fight-night, waiting for the entrance of the belt-holder, Kirk Douglas’ Midge Kelly. A humbled radio commentator praises the champ; we hear the clamorous crowd’s respect for him. And then cut, to a flashback, a few years earlier, telling us the whole story of Midge’s rise, only returning us to the initial fight-night at the very end. Usually a flashback would be triggered by an event leading us to wonder how (or why) it happened, preparing us to find out on the flashback journey. Or it leaves us on a suspenseful cliffhanger, ready to return to that initial narrative level after we’ve learnt more through the flashbacks. Not here: There is no particular drama or tension built up as this is just another fight for a fighter we are yet to get to know. Perhaps a trick is missed, but only gradually will we realise the point of the flashback structure is to show the cutting irony of the adulation and admiration this Midge Kelly is held in, a man who certainly does not deserve it, and a man who makes us question the sense of the title. What makes a ‘champion’?

The flashback opens on a very Steinbeckian note, a depiction of Midge and brother Connie as two societal minnows geographically en route to California, but the real direction they want to be moving in is up the social ladder. Two brothers, poor but proud, raised by a single mother on the East Coast during the Depression. It could just easily sound like James Cagney and his brother in The Public Enemy, with Midge as the more ambitious brother sick and tired of society dealing him bad breaks, and Connie (who symbolically is physically disabled in contrast to his brawny brother) as the moral conscience. But the acting of Douglas and Arthur Kennedy as Connie, as well as the high-contrast cinematography by Austrian-emigré Franz Planer, make the dynamic here breathe a life all its own.

What’s more, unlike Cagney in Public Enemy, Midge will not need to fall on the wrong side of the law to ascend to his American Dream. As we see in the first scene of the flashback, in a train carriage where both brothers have hitched a ride out West, and where a pair of thieves no doubt as poor but perhaps not as proud as Midge and Connie rumble them to pick their measly pockets. We see Midge has a special ‘talent’, an ability to channel his inner rage and hate, all that anger at being trod on by society, all that repressed shame at not being the man he wants to be due to poverty, it all lashes out through his fists. We also see here already the ideology of competition, of social rivalry, of dog-eat-dog, of people fighting each other as opposed to sharing or collaborating, even among those of the same class, which will define the movie’s critical view of boxing.

You can see it coming: more bad breaks preventing the brothers from an honest living, Midge accidentally falls into boxing. At first, it’s only a means to a few bucks. Then something clicks in him; Midge looks at a high-class dame in the crowd and the haughty coolness of her reaction to him hits a raw nerve. That inner torrent of rage, of aggressive frustration, of downtrodden ego becomes undammed once again and all he wants is to pummel the life out of whichever miserable soul happens to be sharing the ring with him. That poor sucker is no longer just another fighter now, but represents every guy who’s ever hurt Midge, every guy who’s looked at him the wrong way or mistreated him or wounded his pride. Midge the boxer has that absolute killer instinct that characterised someone like Mike Tyson in his early days. Cue montages of Midge crushing one sorry challenger after another. The crowds roar for him. That frosty dame now becomes his moll. Everyone admires him.

And yet, not quite everyone. There’s still Connie, in his corner, the symbolic conscience of the movie. While all around revel at Midge’s destructive punching power, Connie looks on in melancholy, overtaken by an uncertain sadness when watching his brother knock hell’s bells out of his hapless opponent. It is surprising to see in a sports movie. Isn’t that monomaniacal willingness to win, nay not just to win but to crush the opponent to smithereens, something to be lauded in the world of competitive sports? Is this not what a champion does? Win and win again and win in style? But through Connie, through the film’s one truly uncorrupted character, Champion suggests that this ideal of competition pushed to the extreme of wanting to punch the life out of your opponent is corrosive and toxic and even symptomatic of wider ills: the capitalist system’s idea of competition being the prime target. Rocky, this is not.

Nor can Midge escape the universal law of gravitation. Just as surely as he rises through the ranks with no time for personal feelings or loyalties, in the end not even to Connie, fuelled only by his obsessive insecurities and rage, so too Midge must crash back down. He has taken advantage of the capitalist game so far, but there comes a point when he realises everyone is a commodity in this game, including himself. He must realise the rules are never fair and he has no control over them. That is when we are finally ready for the flashback to end and return to the initial fight-night. It is a complete moral demise and decline a la Michael Corleone. Midge may have won everything and become world champ but he’s actually lost everything that mattered.

The new style of film noir, with its shadows and chiaroscuro lighting, seeps even into the boxing world through this film, for me most memorably in a shot of the corridor through which Midge walks into the arena, a block of pitch darkness with a row of circular pools of light in the middle. It takes on very symbolic overtones it in the very final shot. But on a visual level, it is a reminder of how this new style was a perfect marriage with this short-lived window during the post-war years, after the end of WW2 and before the McCarthy witch-hunts of HUAC, when classic Hollywood studio output was truly critical and radical and self-reflexive about social corruption. It is fascinating to me how this excellently crafted boxing noir becomes so much more than a sports movie or an underdog tale; this is a mirror steadfastly held up at the values which corrode a society.

cross all of these films, the sport of boxing is dealt with realistically. The craft and skill of cameramen, editors and other technicians were maximised to make the fight scenes as dynamic as possible — in fact, the fights in these films are utterly no-holds-barred slugfests in comparison to some much more guarded contemporary high-profile bouts, Pacquiao-Mayweather springing to mind. The corruption of the boxing world as a system and institution is unveiled in full candour: details about exploitative agents or bookmaking gangsters pressuring fighters to throw fights abound in all these films. Absolutely, they are boxing films about boxing. Yet, at the same time, it would be fair to say they use boxing as the means to an end rather than an end in itself. These are films about ambition, greed, corruption, ego, pride, masculinity, the commodification of individual athletes and the dark side of the American Dream. Rich themes and rich material to be mined by narrative drama.

Nor are these topics which have lost any relevance. If boxing may be slightly on the wane in popularity, IFC and MMA only seem to be rising up as a cultural phenomenon. Imagine a modern-day take on the classic boxing noir but set in the world of IFC, imagine all it could explore in terms of modern masculinity and its values. Greed and corruption also still exist as unrestrained as ever in the sports world. Only recently, French footballer Paul Pogba was the victim of a large extortion and blackmail attempt, in which his own brother appears to have been involved. The Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala tragically died on a plane taking him from Nantes to Cardiff, when he had been purchased from the former city’s football club by the latter’s. It has since been shown that the plane was completely unsafe and the pilot an unlicensed amateur, but of course he was cheap. Athletes, like in those old Hollywood movies, are still being used as commodities, still being bought and sold for profit, and all-importantly that profit is maximised by greedy, exploitative agents, even if that means compromising on safety.

All of these examples could make ripe inspiration for narrative drama, in the old classical movie mode of a parable. But, of course, audiences would not quite go for it anymore. If such stories are ever now addressed in film, it is only in biopic form, individual narratives such as I, Tonya or whichever of the Lance Armstrong movies, rather than as wider parables. We simply don’t want to watch parable-like films anymore, that’s an old-hat idea now. A boxing film or an IFC film for that matter would focus far more on being an experiential, immersive dive into the ring or the cage, and/or an aspirational tale of one fighter’s rise through the ranks. Anything critical, or dare I say inviting socio-political reflection about masculinity or corruption or greed through these sports, would not make the cut today.

I think of how regularly Hollywood churned out such astute movies, how even in the years after the war victory that ushered in a national ‘golden age’ these films still looked at the dark side. I am reminded of why I still enjoy diving into film history so much. Quite simply, films don’t have that role anymore and films now matter less. But let this not end on a pessimistic note about contemporary cinema. Even if its significance has altered, the art of film still continues to deliver. As I write I have been attending the London Film Festival, and some of the urgency of the new films I’ve seen is certainly something I’ll be writing about on these pages in the near future. For the meantime, see you soon in 1947!