Danny Leigh explores the elemental drama of the boxing movie, asking why film-makers from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese have returned time and again to tales of the ring.
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THIS PROGRAMME CONTAINS SOME STRONG LANGUAGE
I'm dancing. Follow me. No, I'm not there. I'm here.
"All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,"
said director Jean-Luc Godard.
But I'd suggest an alternative. A boxing match.
-Hit him! Hit him, Charlie!
Because when one fighter sends another to the canvas,
it is a moment of elemental drama.
I'd like to see him cut to ribbons.
But for all its familiarity, in the 120 years that film
and boxing have been entwined, the boxing movie has never stood still.
She's younger, she's stronger and she's more experienced.
Now, what are you going to do about it?
I'm going to explore how each generation's fight films
have reflected their times and ask why,
again and again, filmmakers have returned to tales of the ring.
And why we keep returning to watch them.
This is the place where great themes can be addressed. Redemption.
When I saw the mural of Christ on the wall, I said, "Terrific."
If people make the association, it couldn't hurt.
-He had style, glamour and it angered the white establishment.
If you explore anybody's life story in boxing,
if they were any good at all, they were asked to take a dive at some point.
What it is to be a man.
There are only two options available to men -
there's rage and there's desire.
Sexual desire and the desire to beat other people up.
It's like a distillation of a lot of things, the boxing ring.
It's the way you earn your living, you test your courage, you risk
losing your dignity and all of life comes together in a boxing ring.
Too much speed, boy. Too fast.
I could've been a contender. I could have been somebody.
The ring is where you stand alone to be tested, but not just physically,
because the greatest boxing movies are never just about boxing.
# Oh, yeah... #
I discovered boxing at the same time I discovered movies,
as a boy at the turn of the '80s.
I'd watch the fights on TV with my grandfather
with the lights in the front room ceremonially switched off.
There was a mix of grace and bravery
I found mesmerising there in the dark,
the same dark in which
I was starting to appreciate the magic of film.
And the boxing movie was where the two would come together.
But in 1980, at eight years old, I was too young to know that
one of the greatest ever had just been made.
As a devotee of movie history,
Martin Scorsese made sure he knew the tradition of the boxing film
inside out before he began his own biopic of
a half-forgotten '40s middleweight called Jake LaMotta.
In an extraordinary performance,
Robert De Niro would bring alive LaMotta's savage story
from which Scorsese said he learned that the ring is everywhere.
The crisis in Raging Bull is one of the most interesting
and one of the most ambiguous aspects of the film.
It still lends itself to debate.
People are still arguing about what exactly it is that happens to
Jake LaMotta and what exactly we're meant to make of it.
It's certainly some kind of crisis about masculinity.
It's very consistently portrayed in the film.
What's the matter with you, ha?
What's with this kissing on the mouth?
I just said hello. Can't I kiss my sister-in-law?
Ain't the cheek good enough for you?
It's rendered through his paranoia
and his jealousy, his obsessive possessive
jealousy about his wife,
his increasing fantasies that every single man that he knows,
including his brother, is sleeping with his wife.
That's not what I heard, Joe.
-What you mean that's not what you heard?
-It's not what I heard.
-What did you hear?
-I heard some things.
-You heard about me and Salvi.
-I heard things, Joey.
I think it's the longest scene in the script, it was seven pages.
And the paranoia was worked out very carefully.
It was the escalation of his distrust
and paranoia of his brother, the escalation is what I was getting at.
-Did Salvi fuck Vicky?
Did Salvi fuck Vicky?
Hey, Jack, don't start your shit. No, really, don't start.
Didn't I ask you to keep an eye on her?
And I did keep an eye on her. Yes, I did.
-Then how come you give him a beating?
-I told you that.
No two ways around it. He was heading towards full destruction.
That's the scene. It's the centre of the movie.
On some level, there is clearly a question here about what
it means to be a man. In the most basic sense.
What kind of manhood is available to Jake LaMotta?
Why'd you do it? Why'd you do it, ha? Why'd you do it?
-I didn't do anything.
-Why'd you do it? Why'd you do it? Why'd you do it?
Why did you fuck them?
In Raging Bull, it suggests there are only two options available to men,
two emotions that are available to men.
There's rage, the Raging Bull,
and there's desire. For Jake LaMotta's character,
it becomes distilled down
into just sexual desire and the desire to beat other people up.
-What's the matter with you?
-You fucked my wife. You fucked my wife.
An interesting thing about a fighter,
his job is to go in the ring and hit people and be hit.
That's his drive, that's what he does.
When he comes out of the ring,
he's expected to act like a courtly gentleman?
I don't know.
How did you and Scorsese manage to make
a character like Jake LaMotta, who would seem so unlikeable, relatable?
De Niro originally had a very profound sense that he could
do something with this extraordinary character, who does appear,
on the surface, to be a monster
but he knew there was more to him than that.
Vicky, this is my brother, Jake. He's going to be the next champ.
How you doing?
Nice to meet you.
I think that De Niro, at first and of course Scorsese,
sensed that they could find something very beautiful in this character
and make the audience care for him.
Do you know how beautiful you are? Did anybody ever tell you...
In the publicity surrounding Raging Bull, of course, there is an
enormous amount of discussion about De Niro's transformation of his body.
He starts out incredibly fit and then and undoes it all, instantly,
and becomes very overweight in order to age
and in order to show the deterioration of the body.
It's over. Boxing is over for me. I'm through.
I'm tired of worrying about weight all the time.
That's all I used to think about was weight, weight, weight.
The film is really making explicit
and dramatising something that is implicit in almost all boxing films,
which is the fact that the strength of the body is
also about the vulnerability of the body, it's about the fact that
death is always waiting, that destruction is always waiting,
that as you throw that swing, there's another one coming at you.
That's what they're going to do, they're going to do. What can I do?
It's like everything he does is down, down, down.
At the end, you saw him with the tiniest little uptick.
A lot of people out there?
Yeah, it's crowded.
I think that's the thing that when I work with Scorsese
and just watching all the Scorsese movies,
is that you tend to take a character and he plummets
and at the very last moment, he sort of saves himself.
In saving himself, there just might be the slightest getting of wisdom.
And though I'm no Olivier if he fought Sugar Ray
He would say that the thing ain't the ring, it's the play
So give me a stage where this bull here can rage
And though I can fight I'd much rather recite.
From the earliest days of the motion picture back in the 1890s,
cinema and boxing were bound up together.
Boxing would be crucial in developing this new medium.
The first true blockbuster would be a boxing film
and the first movie stars were prizefighters.
I'm in New Jersey to visit what you might call
the cradle of the movie business.
This is Thomas Edison's factory
and laboratory at 211 Main Street, West Orange.
Famously, among his many inventions, were the phonograph and the light bulb.
But none of that is what I am here for.
I am here to see what Edison called his kinetographic theatre.
This is an ageing reconstruction of Edison's Black Mariah,
the world's first film production studio.
It was here that the first ever filmed boxing match took place in 1894.
The first films Edison shot here featured an employee sneezing,
a Wild West circus show, scantily-clad women, of course, and cats boxing,
which probably also makes him
the great-grandfather of the viral video.
But the real thing arrived in 1894 when Edison shot the first ever
boxing match to be filmed here. To quote his own catalogue...
"An actual six-round contest between Mike Leonard,
"commonly called the Beau Brummel of pugilism, and Jack Cushing.
"Full of hard fighting, clever hits, punches, leads, dodges,
"body blows and some slugging.
"Sold by rounds, each round contains 150 feet.
"Price per round, 22.50."
Clearly, there was money to be made in the fight-film game.
There's been more than 500 movies about boxing,
more than any other sport.
There's a good reason for that because it is very easy to film
and Thomas Edison understood that.
It wasn't that Edison was a particular fan of boxing, but he just
knew that there was movement and action and drama, all in one space.
Others were quick to pick up on its potential.
In 1897, director Enoch J Rector filmed
a heavyweight contest between James J Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons.
Running for 1 hour 40 minutes,
it's considered the first real feature film.
It was also the first box-office blockbuster, going on to take
a then astonishing 750,000 or 20 million in today's money.
A decade later, cinema would find
its first hugely controversial star -
a boxer AND an African-American.
Jack Johnson is a pivotal character in the history of boxing
and the way it has been represented, sold as sports entertainment.
He was basically the first major black heavyweight.
Nobody could beat him. You could watch him
and it seemed like he was almost playing with his opponent.
He was irreverent when blacks at that time were not meant to be
outspoken about anything.
He caused a lot of attention and a lot of hatred.
People hated him because of who he was.
Johnson laughed at the establishment, he loved going out with white women.
He had style, glamour, and it angered the white establishment,
who were determined to drive him out.
The search for the great white hope was all based on that.
That search for a great white hope to challenge Johnson
began as soon as he won the world heavyweight title in 1908,
defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia.
At that fight, such was the anxiety over a black boxer being seen
to conquer a white man,
that all cameras were turned off before the bout was stopped.
Back in the US, the press called for a white fighter to reclaim
the title and, as many saw it,
put both Johnson and his race in their place.
Their favourite was ex-champion Jim Jeffries. He would not succeed.
On 4th July 1910, Johnson floored Jefferies in the 15th round
of the so-called "battle of the century".
That night, riots erupted in cities across America.
Estimates put deaths at 24.
Instantly, there were demands for all films
of Johnson's triumph to be banned.
Later, with the establishment concerned that future prizefight movies
would show more black fighters beating white opponents,
Congress passed a bill, the Sims Act,
to stop boxing films being transported across state lines.
Race would always be an awkward subject for the boxing film,
but even in a new era, the fight game would remain the star.
It was inevitable ambitious filmmakers would be drawn to
By the '20s, Charlie Chaplin would recognise
its potential for physical comedy.
While a young Alfred Hitchcock saw how boxing could set
the stage for a gripping slice of human drama.
As a thrilling new era in boxing dawned
in the '30s, Hollywood increasingly drew
inspiration from what was happening in the real fight game.
It's an obscure footnote in New York history now that this stretch
of sidewalk on West 49th Street between Eighth Avenue
and Broadway was once the centre of the boxing universe.
This legendary patch was known as Jacob's Beach
and here is a photo of it in its prime.
What you can't see here are the shady fight fixers who began
to infiltrate boxing in the '30s,
men like Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo.
But you can see the name Jacobs.
The Jacobs in question was Mike Jacobs,
a tickets scalper turned boxing promoter.
For a time, the fight game was his.
He set the fight cards over at the nearby Madison Square Garden
and he managed the one boxer who excited the public
more than any other, Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber.
MUSIC: "The Boss" by James Brown
With Uncle Mike Jacobs at his side,
Louis would become world heavyweight champion.
Through the depression years,
he also became an inspiration for Americans
as an honest young fighter from rural Alabama,
who had triumphed over adversity.
But in the 1930s, no Hollywood studio would dare cast
a black American in the lead, even though they wanted to dramatise the ideas
Louis embodied of success against the odds and ethnic assimilation.
Instead, they chose a safer option,
the figure of the boxing manager and an Italian-American at that.
THEY SPEAK ITALIAN
I think in Kid Galahad,
when we see Edward G Robinson embodying the boxing manager Donati,
he becomes a figure that people can relate to as an immigrant American
who is striving, trying to get to the top.
Slow down! Slow down!
When he wakes up, tell him he's through.
-You don't mean that.
-I mean it plenty.
When he finds the unlikely figure of a guy from the Midwest,
a farmhand, big but hopelessly naive character,
he becomes interested because he sees
he's another possibility, that he can make some money out of him.
How would you like to be a fighter?
Why, I never thought much about.
Let me do the thinking.
A champion of those times was Joe Louis,
but filmmakers didn't feel comfortable perhaps because of
commercial considerations trying to sell a black hero on film,
even though in reality, the champ WAS a black man.
I'm going to make you heavyweight champion of the world!
Come on, beat it!
There was no thirst, no hunger at all for black heroes in boxing movies.
Galahad. That's it, Galahad! From now on we call him Galahad.
Donati is walking that line between the respectability
and the underworld.
The boxing ring dreads that boundary.
Donati is backing it. Yeah.
Cue the boxing movie staple of the mob fight fixer,
here making his formal entrance.
-He better win.
If he don't, you won't be around to talk about it.
Thanks for the tip.
It's also got an extraordinary performance by Humphrey Bogart.
Before Bogart started playing good guys,
here he plays a truly sinister mobster who controls the fight game.
The temperature drops in the room every time he enters.
In 1934, Hollywood increased the intensity of its censorship code
so no longer could the gangster be front and centre,
but the boxing film offered an important avenue in which
violence could be represented on screen where the boxer was
the chief figure and the gangster was only on the margins.
Kid Galahad is released only a few weeks before Joe Louis fights
and wins the heavyweight title in 1937.
Warner Brothers was quite specific about packaging Kid Galahad to try
to take advantage of this fight that was on the horizon.
In fact, there are various references to Joe Louis in the film itself.
At one point, Donati talks about a fighter not being a violin player.
There isn't any room for feelings in this game.
A fighter is a machine, not a violin player.
Joe Louis was associated with violin playing
because when he first took up boxing, his mother gave him tuition
for his violin lessons, but he went to the boxing gym instead.
Joe Louis and violin were also the inspiration for Golden Boy,
starring the clearly Caucasian William Holden.
As eager young prospect Joe Bonaparte,
he is torn between the spiritual nourishment of music
and the seductive rewards of boxing.
I'd like to see him cut to ribbons.
His father, a symbol of the Italian community he's leaving behind,
is appalled at Joe abandoning his art to chase fame and success.
We got hearts! We got souls! We got to take care of them, no?
Joe, listen to me. Do what is in your heart, not in your head.
In there is a muse.
If the boxing films of the '30s had a caustic streak,
it became a pitch black bloom of cynicism
in the years after World War II.
That cynicism had its roots in the soldiers who were returning home,
often wounded physically and psychologically,
and who found it tough to readjust to civilian life.
On-screen, it was the age of film noir.
The cocktail of noir's cruel fatalism
and the raw emotion of the fight film
made this the golden age of the boxing movie.
Kill him, Charlie. Kill him!
Kill him, Charlie, kill him!
And one of the very finest was the powerful, politically radical
Body And Soul, starring John Garfield as fighter Charley Davis,
who turns his back on friends and family to make a Faustian pact
with a crooked fight promoter and finds the more he wins in the ring,
the more he loses out of it.
Charley Davis goes into the ring
assuming that his success fighting can bring security for his family,
only discovering that over the course of time
he becomes corrupted in the ring itself.
Kings of the world, Shorty.
-Aren't you going to join us?
What's the matter?
You didn't win the title, Charlie.
Ben was double-crossed, I promised him an easy go.
Where do you get that stuff? Who promised who?
Ben was sick, he had a blood clot. They all knew.
-You didn't know that, Charlie, did you?
-It's the old alibi, champ.
You get used to it. Let's sit down and celebrate.
Finally of course at the end he has to make a decision
whether he's going to throw this final fight and secure his wealth
for the future, or turn his back on that corruption,
which of course he finally decides to do.
Get yourself a new boy. I retire.
-What makes you think you can get away with this?
-What are you going to do?
Kill me? Everybody dies.
If Body And Soul portrayed the spiritual perils of winning titles,
another film from the same era would spotlight the scuffed shabby lives
of boxing's lower orders.
In 1949's The Set-Up, the pug at the centre of the story
is, like Charley Davis, a worn-out 35-year-old
trapped in a sport riddled with fixes.
Stoker Thompson, the boxer that's played by Robert Ryan,
is having a crisis with his wife, Julie.
She can't stand seeing him beaten up
and taking physical abuse in the ring because he's at the end
of his career, and in fact he's just used largely
as a punching bag for up-and-coming fighters.
Oh, Bill. It ain't I want to hurt you, but what kind of a life is this?
Springfield, Middletown, Unionville, Paradise City.
How many more beatings do you have to take?
Julie has decided that she's going to leave Stoker
if he doesn't retire from the ring,
but Stoker is a boxer and so he fights.
Although his manager has already come to an agreement
with the gangster gambler that his fighter's going to lose,
his manager hasn't told the fighter.
-You ain't got much time, so listen. You've got to lay down.
It's supposed to be in the bag. There's 20 bucks extra for you.
If you explore anybody's life story in boxing,
if they were any good at all
they were asked to take a dive at some point.
Look, this is Little Boy's fix, Little Boy's. He's paying us.
-You know Little Boy if you cross him!
-You've got to go down, Stoker.
There were tons of dives, and that's a staple of the boxing movie too.
Go down on the first good punch, stay down and take a count
and let's get out of here.
Stoker of course resists that dive and ends up winning the fight.
In an ironic way, the gangster's thugs beat him up
after the fight is over.
You'll never hit anybody with that hand again.
Stoker also manages to pull victory from defeat
because when the thugs beat him up,
they break his hands, which means that he can no longer fight,
but at the end of the film, he's joined by his wife
and she sees their marriage can be revived so the film, however grim,
ends on this positive note of the reunification of the lovers
over the ashes, you might say,
of Stoker's career and his declining body.
Julie. I won tonight.
-Yes, you won tonight, Bill.
We both won tonight. We both won tonight!
At the beginning of The Set-Up,
a hunched figure in a fedora rings the bell to start the fight.
Not many watching would realise this was the man
whose stark, unforgiving street photography
had helped shape film noir.
The his name was Arthur Fellig, but he was better known as Weegee.
Someone who would have recognised him
was a gifted teenage photographer from the Bronx.
His name was Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick grew up on the other side of the Bronx
from Jake LaMotta's place on Pelham Parkway.
He became a lifelong boxing fan as well as a dedicated photographer.
The two passions would eventually come together.
In 1950, he shot some astonishingly intimate photographs
of heavyweight champion Rocky Graziano,
but it was a spread for Look Magazine
on an up and coming contender called Walter Cartier
that gave him an idea.
Could he make a film about this photogenic middleweight?
This is the story of a fight and of a fighter. Walter Cartier.
Today is the fight.
It's a documentary but in terms of what fight films were
in that post-war era, like the first 10-15 years after World War II,
it captured all the classic intersections between noir and boxing.
It's a long way until night.
It had that notion of boxing just being the ultimate matador sport,
where it's just you. You can't rely on anybody.
A few moments are left.
He can almost hear the commissioner coming down the hall to call him.
Once in the Kubrick movie
when it started describing how he's morphing into someone else.
Walter is slowly becoming another man.
This is the man who cannot lose, who must not lose.
You can see this guy's a murder machine.
The documentary was just the catalyst
the ambitious Kubrick needed
to launch his career as a serious movie maker.
Kubrick's first feature film was an art house war flick
called Fear And Desire. It failed and he tried to bury it.
He needed something more commercial. A genre picture maybe.
Something noirish that married murder and boxing might get him noticed.
The result was Killer's Kiss.
Even before writing the script, Kubrick methodically put together
a checklist of what he thought would sell the flick.
A boxing match, a damsel seduction,
a rooftop chase.
The story that would materialise was one long flashback
bookended by a boxer anxiously waiting for his lover
so they can both flee New York City.
I think that's the way it began for me.
Just before my fight with Rodriguez. Three days ago.
As the picture dissolves into the past,
the plot which emerges is one where the boxer and a dime-a-dance girl
are drawn together as she tries to shake off the attentions
of a sleazy dance hall manager.
You foolish girl, I'm mad about you.
I want to get you out of here. I'll set you up right.
Nothing! You couldn't do anything for me.
Don't forgive me, just tolerate me.
In the process of telling that tale,
Kubrick also creates his own intriguing take on film noir.
Killer's Kiss was one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen.
It was an anonymous actor playing an anonymous boxer
living out of a suitcase all alone in the world.
It's about the isolation.
The same thing as a private eye, you're all alone.
You have a shabby office with a bottle of Scotch
in a bottom drawer and your life amounts to nothing.
You're living in a fleabag hotel.
The boxer's a variation on that.
Kubrick shot the film himself,
as these wonderful on-location photographs
taken by his assistant director Alexander Singer suggests,
Kubrick was fastidious in capturing the people and the Manhattan
he already knew intimately from his time as a documentary photographer.
Given the movie's noirish flavour,
the finale should have found the boxer jilted by his lover
but this was to be Kubrick's calling card to the Hollywood studios,
who would expect a happy ending.
His plan worked.
Kubrick sold the film to United Artists
and persuaded the studio to bankroll another two features.
He was now a Hollywood contender.
In every fighter's life, there comes a time
when they have to take off the gloves and walk away from the ring.
It is the moment where the now ex-boxer will rake over
the what-ifs and the might-have-beens.
One film, one scene, captures that mood
of regret and reckoning unforgettably.
While ostensibly dealing with corruption in New York's docks,
On The Waterfront has at its emotional centre
an ex-boxer played by Marlon Brando
still haunted by the fight in which the mob forced him to take a dive.
You remember that night in the Garden you came down
to my dressing-room and said, "Kid, this ain't your night.
"We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that?
"This ain't your night!" My night! I could have taken Wilson apart.
Life after a fighter stops earning a living in the ring
is vastly unexplored territory in the main.
It doesn't have the dramatic narrative
that film-makers are drawn to.
Maybe it's a story too that fighters themselves don't really want to know about.
It's not a pretty story.
Quite a few have never learned anything else.
That is the real tragedy of it.
So what happens?
He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get?
A one-way ticket to Palookaville.
You was my brother, Charlie.
You should have looked out for me a little bit.
On The Waterfront touches on that in that memorable scene
of Terry Malloy in the back of a car with his brother.
The "I could have been a contender" speech,
it's just the most incredible reduction of that whole theme.
I had some bets down for you, you saw some money.
You don't understand, I could have had class!
I could have been a contender!
I could have been somebody!
Instead of a bum.
For fighters both on and off the screen, life after the ring
could be cruel, as even a champion as celebrated
as Joe Louis discovered.
Joe Louis sold his title to the International Boxing Club
which was run by Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo, Truman Gibson
and various other underworld characters.
Then they recycled it.
His last fight was dramatic in its own way,
knocked out by Rocky Marciano at Madison Square Garden.
Knocked through the ropes, laying on his back.
What happened thereafter, because he'd had mental problems,
he lost nearly all his money to the Inland Revenue.
He wrestled for a living for a little while
and thereafter things got worse for him.
He ended up as a greeter at a casino in Las Vegas, Caesars Palace.
I saw him there and it was the most shocking thing.
I could hardly believe that was Joe Louis.
This was the most famous athlete on the planet in the '30s and '40s,
and here he was reduced to shaking hands for a living.
It encapsulated that journey from the top of the mountain to the bottom.
Pretty much as starkly as anything I've ever seen.
By the mid '50s, the boxing movie itself would become a has-been.
America was entering a more affluent confident era
complete with strutting new heroes like James Dean,
Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando,
but the Hollywood studios were in crisis
haemorrhaging audiences to TV.
In 1946, there were 7,000 television sets in the US.
Six years later, there were 22 million.
And by 1955, competition for the boxing movie
arrived in the form of weekly live bouts from Madison Square Garden
that drew huge television audiences.
Yes, the spectacle, the colour, the excitement,
the human drama of Ben-Hur has swept the world.
The studios fought back by pouring their money into widescreen epics
which now focused on a different kind of gladiator.
It seemed the boxing movie was on the ropes,
an unwanted relic of the bad old days.
For 20 years, cinema turned its back on the fight film.
My name is Muhammad Ali and you will announce it right there
in the centre of the ring after the fight if you don't do it now.
America did have a controversial new champion rising to fame
in the '60s, but it wouldn't be until the next decade
that Muhammad Ali became a boxing immortal.
What you going to call me?
Having been stripped of his title and suspended from the ring
after refusing to fight in Vietnam,
Ali regained his boxing licence in 1970.
By early the next year, an eager world was growing feverish
with anticipation over what was dubbed the fight of the century.
Ali bidding to regain his crown against new champion Joe Frazier.
After 15 visceral grounds, Ali was defeated but for the studios,
it was a timely reminder of the passions boxing could arouse.
Between an economic crisis and the war in South East Asia,
the America of the early '70s desperately wanted to feel good about itself.
Fighting to reclaim his status as champion
but getting older every day,
the public were gathering in Ali's corner, but the man responsible
for the boxing movie's comeback was an unknown actor with a script
written in three days.
The inspiration for his story set here in Philadelphia
was an obscure slugger called Chuck Wepner
who survived 15 rounds with Ali.
It turned out to be the best loved boxing movie of them all.
The no-hoper who became a phenomenon. Cue the music.
MUSIC: "Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)" by Bill Conti
The writer and star-in-waiting of Rocky was called Sylvester Stallone
and his was a story of redemption.
When I walked into that Resurrection Hall,
and saw that mural of Christ on the wall, I said, "Terrific."
We'll start on that and tilt down and find our hero
and if people make the association, couldn't hurt.
You believe that America is the land of opportunity?
Apollo Creed does.
He's going to prove it to the whole world by giving an unknown
a shot at the title. That unknown is you.
It's the chance of a lifetime.
You can't pass it by.
His name is Rocky.
His whole life was a million-to-one shot.
I thought of Rocky as a character study and a love story.
The boxing was the background
like the Civil War is the background in Gone With The Wind.
His desire to go the distance
and not be just another bum from the neighbourhood
is something very appealing to everybody
because we all have that feeling in one way or another.
Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed.
If I can go that distance,
seeing that bell ring and I'm still standing...
..I'm going to know for the first time in my life, you see?
That I weren't just another bum from the neighbourhood.
There was something about the process of unrealised dreams.
I was always brought back to the subject
because I think it's one of the most enduring subjects
and one of the most difficult passages for people to accept,
that they never were realised in their own lifetime.
That they just didn't get that shot.
He's in a boat! Riding in a boat, is he supposed to be George Washington?
The Apollo Creed character is...
an unabashed mirror of Muhammad Ali.
-Is he talking to me?
-He's talking to you.
-Is he talking to me?
Let him talk.
I want the Stallion!
Muhammad Ali was the biggest name in boxing,
and known around the world, so he took on that persona
and Sylvester wrote the character like that.
Filled with downbeat charm and a heady rush of sentiment,
the film struck a nerve in America and beyond,
making millions and winning an Oscar for best picture.
You went the 15 rounds, how do you feel?
-What were you thinking about when that buzzer...
And for all Rocky's innocence,
Stallone had proved himself a canny operator.
Sylvester Stallone said, you know, "I star or you don't get the script."
United Artists had never heard of this guy.
So, the producers sent them Lords of Flatbush to look at.
So they looked at that and they said, "OK, he's good. We approve."
Now they start looking at dailies.
And they look at the first few days, and, "Where's Stallone?"
"He's there." "No, no, Stallone is blond."
When they saw Lords of Flatbush,
they thought that Perry King was Stallone.
So they said yes to Perry King.
-I love you.
-I love you.
-I love you.
On the back of his million-to-one shot,
Stallone went on to build a franchise of six Rocky films
and a movie career now spanning nearly 40 years.
But the real-life people's champ was also making his comeback
and would find himself on the big screen.
The rise and fall and rise again of Muhammad Ali is an unusual
kind of boxing story.
In fight movies the hero rarely gets to enjoy a triumphant third act.
But then Ali was never the usual kind of boxer.
One bout more than any other sealed his legend.
And among the crowd was a documentary maker,
there to capture every chaotic, mythic moment
of the fight they called the Rumble in the Jungle.
# Do it to death... #
I had heard about this project,
two of the things I loved most, music and boxing.
A music festival would wrap around the fight.
The bout would see heavyweight champion George Foreman face
the charismatic challenger Ali.
The man behind it was flamboyant promoter Don King who had
struck a deal with President Mobutu of Zaire to bankroll the fight.
The whole world was focused on that fight.
It wasn't in America, it was the Rumble in the Jungle in Africa.
Even watching the movie, When We Were Kings,
brings you into a foreign place.
Don King hired director Leon Gast to film the musical acts
that would be the support for the main event.
The fight was supposed to happen the end of September,
George Foreman was injured, it was delayed 30 days,
and the whole concept of the film changed.
The delay meant Leon Gast suddenly found himself with
time on his hands and, crucially, unique, close-up access
to the most electric fighter in boxing history.
There was something about Ali that just his presence,
and how he was conscious of the camera,
but in a way different than anybody I had ever worked with.
Sucker, you ain't nothing.
He'd look at the cameraman, he'd do things like, "You a good cameraman?
"You think you can follow me?
"No, I'm here, no, I'm not there, I'm here."
I'm dancing, follow me. No, I'm not there, I'm here.
Nixon had resigned, and it became part of his poetry.
If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned...
Wait till I kick Foreman's behind.
It happened, like, from one day to the next day.
Hospitalise a brick.
I'm so mean, I make medicine sick. Bad. Fast. Fast.
Fast! Last night I cut the light off my bedroom, hit the switch,
was in the bed before the room was dark.
Before, prize fighters never gave you more than,
I want to say hello to my mum and all the people back in Allentown Pennsylvania.
I'm going to eat him up. Too much speed for him. Too fast.
He's the king, and he's never been to Africa before.
Everybody's coming from all the villages to see him,
to run with him. To call out his name.
And to see this great man, they just want to see him and touch him.
There he is. Bomaye.
-Ali, bomaye. Ali, bomaye.
This chant that he heard at the airport,
that he picked up immediately on. He said, "What does that mean?"
And the kid said, "Ali, kill him."
He made it so I think George felt like he was the outsider.
Eventually the fight went ahead on October 30th, 1974
in a stadium in the capital Kinshasa before a crowd of 60,000.
Ali's strategy was to exhaust the lumbering Foreman.
By the eighth round, he was able to deliver the knockout blow
and reclaim his crown.
Three, four, five, six, seven, eight...
But disaster struck for Gast
when his footage became ensnared in a legal dispute.
It would be more than 20 years before he could show the finished
documentary which now had a significant historical perspective.
We brought it to Sundance,
and there were parts in the film where people applauded.
It was just a perfect audience, and then the film won an Academy Award.
It was incredible.
Then, in 2001, Will Smith
had the unenviable task of impersonating Ali.
There's been an accidental injury to George Foreman in training.
The truth is, George knocked himself out. That's right.
He did three rounds, realised he was going to lose to Muhammad Ali,
and knocked himself out.
That's right, I'm a bad man.
It turned out certain characters were just too big for any actor.
All of you, I know you got him. I know you got him picked.
But the man's in trouble, I'm going to show you how great I am.
But a shadow falls over every fighter,
Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's disease would later be accelerated
by the hard knocks of the ring.
Boxers must always get acquainted with brutality.
For all its craft and artistry, boxing is violence.
There is a darkness to the sport.
Even the most realistic of filmmakers shy away from it.
It would be documentary makers, and one notorious
slugger in particular, who would take us ringside and force us
to confront some of the fight game's more unpalatable truths.
Director James Toback realised the garish, grisly life of former
heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was a story waiting to be told
and that a documentary about him
would make compelling, if uneasy viewing.
There was a sense, with Tyson which you did not have with anybody else,
that he was out to kill his opponent, not to knock him out.
Not to hurt him, not to humiliate him, to kill him.
-One, two, three punches. I'm throwing punches.
He goes down, he's out.
Literally, I'm going to run across the ring
and come as close to killing you as I can with my gloves on.
-Everything Tyson does is intimidating.
The most vivid one was Michael Spinks who stood there in the ring
looking as if he wanted to make a deal right there.
I'll lose in the first round, I'll get knocked out in the first round
if you promise me I won't be in the hospital for three weeks.
He looked like a guy who literally was walking to a slaughterhouse.
It's like he wants to get his knuckles closer to the leather
so he can get them on somebody's face. Namely Mike Spinks.
As he says in the movie, he took his own fear and imposed it on them.
He transplanted it into their brain.
While I'm in the dressing room, five minutes before I come out,
my gloves are laced up. I'm breaking my gloves down,
and pushing the leather in the back of my gloves.
I'm breaking the middle of the gloves so my knuckle can pierce through.
It's very interesting to me the way that's worked up in the film
where he talks about as he's walking into the ring it's culminating.
All during my training, I've been afraid of this man.
I thought this man might be capable of beating me.
But the closer I get to the ring, I'm more confident.
Once I'm in the ring, I'm a god. No-one can beat me.
By the time he gets in the ring, that's it, it's over.
I now know I'm going to terrify you, and I'm going to destroy you.
I keep my eyes on him, I keep my eyes on him, I keep my eyes on him.
Then once I see a chink in his armour, boom.
If one of his eyes make a move, then I know I have him.
Me and Tyson was, you could say, on that journey to meet each other.
Didn't know when, but we knew we were going to meet each other.
At one time, I didn't think we were going to fight
because he spent three years in incarceration.
He came out, and he was supposed to fight me straightaway,
but he decided on fighting Evander Holyfield.
-1997, rematch, Evander Holyfield.
First round began.
All of a sudden, he bit Holyfield's ear.
I bit him. He got mad, he turned around.
I was thinking, "Wow, that's shocking.
"We're gladiators, who bites in the ring?"
-When I lost my composure, the worst thing a warrior,
a soldier can ever do is lose their discipline.
And people were saying,
"Oh, no. They're never going to let him fight again."
So we didn't think that fight was going to come off with me and him.
And then all of a sudden the fight was on.
Poetically enough, the two fights are joined together,
not at the hip, but at the teeth of Mike Tyson who ended the first
one by biting Evander Holyfield in the ring,
and almost ended this one by biting Lennox Lewis at a news conference.
-I was just walking up towards him,
and I walked up kind of brazen and hard. I guess that intimidated him.
I was on the bottom, Tyson was on the bottom
and then I felt a pain in my leg.
I was like looking down where the pain is.
And Tyson was looking up at me like that, and he bit my leg.
And I knew that was a part of his intimidation structure.
It wasn't working. With me, I've been there and done that.
You draw the first blood, you bit me on the leg,
now I'm going to win the war.
COMMENTATOR: He's doing a good job. You can't take that from him.
# I can feel it coming in the air tonight... #
Long after Tyson's boxing career was over,
Hollywood was still happy to trade on his violent reputation.
Even persuading him to play it for laughs.
ALL: Oh, Lord.
Why did you do that?
One of the ironies, I suppose, about Hollywood's love affair with boxing,
boxing is Hollywood's dirty secret.
It is sort of addicted to boxing.
It's always drawn back to the subject,
and yet you have to ask yourself how honest it is about that subject
because it glamorises violence in a way that works as drama.
For all the fight game's ambiguous morality,
the film business always returns to the boxing movie,
tweaking the formula to keep audiences interested.
Million Dollar Baby tells the story of a young,
working-class woman played by Hilary Swank
who, under the paternal eye of her trainer Clint Eastwood,
looks to build a better life through boxing.
At first glance, it seemed women might at last
be accepted in the ring.
Hold it. Hold it.
-I'll show you a few things, and then we'll get you a trainer.
-You're in a position to negotiate?
Because I know if you train me right, I'm going to be a champ.
I think Million Dollar Baby
wants to be a film about female empowerment,
but in important kinds of ways it really isn't.
On the one hand it's celebrating the evolution of Hilary Swank,
and it's celebrating her grit, her determination, her heart,
which is how the film talks about it.
She's a better fighter than you are. That's why.
She's younger, she's stronger, and she's more experienced.
Now, what are you going to do about it?
Ultimately, really a film about Clint Eastwood.
It's about his character's development,
his character's anxieties, his character's need for redemption.
I've made a lot of mistakes in my life,
-I'm just trying to keep you from doing the same.
-I know, boss.
-I'm not going to live for ever.
-What is it?
It's a tape on that girl in England you're going to fight.
If you're going to go for the title, we've got some...
Hey, get the hell down. How old I am...
She's actually quite a static character.
She knows exactly what she wants, and that's all she wants.
And he's the one who changes,
he's the one we're encouraged to sympathise with, to identify with.
It's suggesting that women really don't belong in the boxing ring.
The most important way in which it suggests that is that she ends up
a quadriplegic and she dies.
I'm going to disconnect your air machine.
And you're going to go to sleep.
And I'll give you a shot and you'll stay asleep.
So to say that this is a celebration of women breaking new ground
or showing they can do things they have never done before,
well, not if they actually die in the end.
We're supposed to admire her, and then put her away when she dies,
and then feel very sorry for his tragic loss rather than hers.
Nonetheless, for her role in Million Dollar Baby,
Hilary Swank went on to win one of the film's four Academy Awards.
And in 2010, Hollywood once more raided real life
for its source material with The Fighter.
This time redemption beckons for contender Micky Ward
played by Mark Wahlberg
and his crack addicted stepbrother played by Christian Bale
in another Oscar-winning performance.
I don't need to be Columbo to see where this fight is headed.
A right-hand puts Micky Ward down.
These people are making a movie on me and my comeback and my brother
is going to be in Atlantic City next week.
The pride of Lowell is back.
After 120 years of boxing movies, the passion of filmmakers
for the fight game shows no sign of waning.
The fighter who summed it up best for me,
and did it in a really simple way, was Frank Bruno.
He called it show business with blood.
It's a show, it's a business, there's blood. It's all a package.
It has run in tandem with film from day one.
They have been so linked, like a marriage.
They've had their fallings out, they get back together again.
And there will always be boxing, and there will always be movies
and there will always be boxing movies.
I think there's a real future in the boxing movie
because unfortunately we're heading back into the same problems
that the Great Depression was dealing with.
So, I think, if anything, it's going to become very topical once again.
It's going to seem like an obvious way to symbolise
the individual battling against society.
The secret of the boxing movie is that we are the boxer.
We are Rocky Balboa, setting out alone into the Philadelphia dawn.
Stoker Thompson craving the big-time.
Sometimes even Jake LaMotta, lost in his own fury.
We all have moments where life feels like a gruelling struggle
against a ruthless opponent.
If boxing gives that struggle order,
divides it into three-minute rounds with judges to keep score,
then the boxing film roots it in a story and invests it with meaning.
Because what echoes through the boxing movie is the idea
that the real test isn't how you throw a punch, but how you take one.
When the fixers say, "Tonight is your night, kid."
Do you go down? When the other fighter has his arm raised
and the count is at seven, eight, nine, do you get back up?
Even when the final bell has faded,
like Martin Scorsese said, the ring is everywhere.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Danny Leigh explores the elemental drama of the boxing movie. For over 120 years, boxing and film have been entwined and the fight film has been used to address powerful themes such as redemption, race and corruption. Film writer Leigh examines how each generation's fight films have reflected their times and asks why film-makers from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese have returned time and again to tales of the ring.
Interviewees include former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, Rocky director John G Avildsen and Thelma Schoonmaker, editor of Raging Bull.