Hollywood hasn’t made dozens of boxing movies. It’s made one boxing movie, repeatedly. Still, that template rarely fails to entertain.

Hollywood hasn’t made dozens of boxing movies. It’s made one boxing movie, repeatedly. Still, that template rarely fails to entertain.

This week – the 78th anniversary of the birthday of multiple world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali – is a time to go 10 rounds on prize-fighting cinema.

Thomas Edison, who virtually invented motion pictures, filmed a professional bout in 1894, but it took years for filmmakers to realize a successful fight-film formula: The hero’s a decent guy from the streets (often the wrong side). He needs respect or money for family or friends. Someone close discourages him in the “Sweet Science”; another tries to exploit him. Photography includes ringside shots with the hero battling the odds while a manager cheers from his corner or a girl from the front row; and slow-motion action footage.

“Boxing is the ultimate confrontational sport,” said filmmaker John Herzfeld (who directed HBO’s “Don King: Only in America”). “It goes back to the days of the gladiators, with a clear winner and loser. It’s blood, it’s sweat, it’s tears, it’s reaching down inside to absorb punishment that is astonishing.”

There have been many, from Joe Palooka comedies and Elvis romance (“Kid Galahad”) to dramas (“The Boxer,” with Daniel Day-Lewis) and biographies (‘The Joe Louis Story” and “The Great John L.,” but here are 10 knockouts:

“Ali” (2001): More than a boxing movie, director Michael Mann’s film starring Will Smith focuses on the former Cassius Clay’s wins, losses and controversies from 1964 to 1974. It costars Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver and Joe Morton plus LeVar Burton as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, and Jon Voight as Howard Cosell.

“The Champ” (1979). The Wallace Beery/Jackie Cooper 1931 version might be better, but this Jon Voight/Ricky Schroder remake is a first-class tearjerker, too. Voight’s ex-champion survives working at the track, and gambles and drinks too much, but his son idolizes him and shares the dream of a comeback. Faye Dunaway co-stars in Franco Zeffirelli’s melodrama.

“Champion” (1949). This gritty crime drama/psychological thriller stars Kirk Douglas as a ruthless boxer whose disabled brother (Arthur Kennedy) tries to be his conscience. Here, the fighter isn't the victim, but the victor, a heel trouncing people in and out of the ring. Douglas’ brutal, bravura acting was nominated for an Oscar. Based on a Ring Lardner story, it co-stars Ruth Roman, Ann Sheridan, Anthony Quinn and several familiar faces.

 “Gentleman Jim” (1942). Reportedly Errol Flynn’s favorite role, this biopic of Jim Corbett offered him a chance to act instead of just being a star. Director Raoul Walsh has Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan, with a cast including William Frawley and Alan Hale Sr.

“Golden Boy” (1939). Based on Clifford Odets’ stage play, this stars William Holden as a gifted violinist who becomes a prizefighter to support his studies. Then a manager and a woman tempt him to choose boxing over music, with lousy results. It co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Lee J. Cobb.

“The Great White Hope” (1970). James Earl Jones stars in this riveting character study of the first African-American heavyweight champ in 1908: Jack Johnson. But the most formidable foe is racism. Jane Alexander co-stars, with Moses Gunn, Hal Holbrook and Scatman Crothers. Director Martin Ritt’s adaptation of the play was nominated for two Oscars.

“Hurricane” (1999). Denzel Washington stars as promising middleweight Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in this tale of his wrongful conviction for murder, costing him almost 20 years in prison. Norman Jewison directed a cast including Rod Steiger and Clancy Brown.

“Raging Bull” (1980). A great film, Martin Scorsese's portrait of middleweight champ Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) is an auteur gem, a star vehicle, and a writing achievement. With some of Hollywood’s finest, most furious boxing scenes, it shows LaMotta during and after his career. Paul Shrader co-wrote the picture, which co-stars Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci.

“Requiem for A Heavyweight” (1962). Rod Serling wrote the script, and the film stars Anthony Quinn as a washed-up boxer risking his health and dignity to help his manager pay off debts. Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Julie Harris co-star, with a small role by Ali as Rivera’s last opponent. (Also worth watching is the 1956 “Playhouse 90” TV version with Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, and Keenan Wynn and his dad Ed Wynn.)

“Rocky” (1976). Disarming and charming in a relatively low-budget production, this Sylvester Stallone vehicle shows Rocky Balboa testing his intelligence, instincts and character in a long-shot bid to challenge champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). John Avildsen directed the Oscar-winning film, featuring Talia Shire and Burgess Meredith.

 

Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. Contact him at bill.knight@hotmail.com; for archives, go to https://mayflyproductions.blogspot.com/.