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When it came to putting boxing on film, Thomas Edison had the right idea. Ninety-six years ago the inventor set up his kinetoscope in a laboratory in West Orange, N.J., and cranked away as world heavyweight champion James J. Corbett danced through an exhibition match. In the decades since, filmmakers have returned again and again to the ring, adding plot, dialogue, music, sophisticated camera work and special effects to their movies. They have made some classics, but they have yet to really improve on Edison's simple and eloquent vision of action.
Knockout! Hollywood's Love Affair with Boxing, an hour-long documentary produced by Ellen M. Krass and written by Pete Bonventre for the American Movie Classics Cable Network, examines the special place the sport occupies in the history of American film. The program, which airs for the first time on April 26 and which will be shown four more times in May, features footage from most of Hollywood's great boxing movies—from Wallace Beery's The Champ (1931) and James Cagney's City for Conquest (1940) to Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980)-as well as interviews with boxing experts and filmmakers, including Hollywood heavyweights Sylvester Stallone and director Robert Wise. An appearance by Jake LaMotta, the real-life Raging Bull, and the narration by Anthony Quinn, a onetime amateur boxer who played the aging pug Mountain Rivera in 1962's fine Requiem for a Heavyweight, give the show further fistic clout.
Knockout!'s experts weigh in with a variety of explanations for the movie industry's embrace of boxing, most of the reasons having to do with the triumph of the individual over adversity. Leonard Harris, a writer and film critic with CBS News goes so far as to call Rocky "Cinderella on a more active level." There is also plenty of talk in Knockout! about manhood and survival in the ghetto and "the superhuman exercise of virtue."
But what hooked Hollywood on boxing, it quickly becomes clear from the clips shown in Knockout!, was that the sport is a perfect vehicle for melodrama. As Jimmy Cannon, the late syndicated sports columnist, once wrote: "Boxing is the red-light district of sports." It's an apt description, and one that Hollywood has taken to heart. In boxing movies, gangsters lurk behind every ring post, manipulating both the sport and the boxers' lives. Who can forget Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, spitting the words back at his brother, Charley, in On the Waterfront (1954): "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." Or when Kirk Douglas, as Midge Kelly in Champion (1949), is told by his manager, Tommy Haley (played by Paul Stewart), to throw a fight. "This one you lose," says Haley. In Hollywood's view, fighters take more dives than Greg Louganis. What's missing from most boxing films is a sense of the everyday professionalism of the sport. In the cinematic ring, it's all Life and Death, Good and Evil.
The same exaggerated approach colors the fight scenes in most boxing movies. In Rocky or the 1947 classic Body and Soul, with John Garfield, you'll find scant evidence of the "sweet science." Just as Roy Hobbs's climactic home run in The Natural isn't allowed to merely clear the fence but has to set off fireworks above the stadium, so the action scenes in boxing movies must feature grotesquely exaggerated blows, repeated knockdowns and buckets of blood.
Knockout! has some surprises. Keep an eye out for a young Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, in a brief appearance as the boxer pummeling Quinn in Requiem. The camera gives us a head-on view of the snarling Clay, fists flashing. Now there's an actor who knows how to throw a punch.
At several intervals Knockout! cuts from the Hollywood stuff to genuine fight footage. We watch DeNiro, as LaMotta in Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull, mix it up in stylized fashion with an actor playing Sugar Ray Robinson. Suddenly, it's 1950, and there's the real LaMotta, hammering away at Tiberio Mitri in another successful title defense. The sad part is that to most moviegoers the Scorcese bout is probably the more exciting one.
It is impossible to deny the appeal of most of these films, just as it's hard not to cheer when Rocky belts Apollo Creed or wince when Brando says, "I coulda been a contender." But it would be a mistake to confuse what one sees on the screen with real boxing. If you're looking for drama in the ring—or character or action—try the next live boxing telecast. Or better yet, go rent a cassette of the Ali-Frazier fights. Now that's entertainment.