Lucidno        RONALD BERGAN


Boxing in the movies

Body and SoulBody and Soul

It is not surprising that more films have been made about boxing than any other sport. It is plainly the moviemaker's favourite and, presumably, the public's as well. What are the reasons for the screen's continual fascination with the fight game? Why has the subject attracted directors of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock, Rouben Mamoulian, King Vidor, Robert Wise, Mark Robson, John Huston, Luchino Visconti and Martin Scorsese?

In purely cinematic terms, it is easier to frame two people in conflict on the screen than to encompass the sometimes complex pattern of a team game, or a race where what is happening behind the leader can be equally significant. Boxing provides a clear-cut one-to-one dramatic situation. The issues are well-defined, the iconography easy to read. Man is seen at his most elemental, stripped bare, literally and figuratively, with only his fists to defend himself against an equally unarmed opponent.

Boxing is a drama played out under strict rules as ritualized as the final shootout in a Western. The boxer is as much a loner as Gary Cooper in High Noon or Alan Ladd in Shane, facing the enemy on behalf of the townsfolk or homesteaders. Sometimes he takes on the aspirations of a whole race such as Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali or Jack Johnson, on whom the character in The Great White Hope (1970) was based; John Garfield as the Jewish boxer in Body and Soul (1947) bringing hope to the Jews in his neighborhood, or the Italian-American Rocky Graziano (Paul Newman) in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) who has all the little people from the lower East Side pinning their hopes on him. From slave ship or immigration ship to championship. When the big fight ends the movie, we have been conditioned to the winning ethic. Yet, the hero does not always win, because his defeat is often part of the character-building process that sport is supposed to be about.

Because everybody loves the story of Cinderella, the Dream Factory has been in the rags-to-riches trade since its beginnings. But the fairy story is an effective sop thrown to the have-nots to pacify their discontent. The American Dream is an opiate, lulling people away from responsibility and change into a Panglossian garden. Among the many films perfectly pandering to these ideas was the Rocky series, which reassured losers that in America even a punk from the slums could be a contender or even a champion.

Boxing movies may describe the world of men and male values, but it is the women in the background that give them meaning. Matches have been won or lost because of her presence or absence. An empty seat in the second row has done more damage to screen boxers than any right cross. Good woman inspire men to physical triumph, floozies destroy them. They foul up relationships, like coming between a boxer and his manager in Kid Galahad (1937 and 1962).

That this dream of glory and riches is an illusory one, is well expressed in movies such as The Set-Up (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956) and Fat City (1972). Money is the leitmotif of Body and Soul in which John Garfield is 'not just a kid who can fight. He's money.' It is, in fact, the money involved in professional boxing linking it with crime that gives it a sordid fascination. Whatever the reality, the gangster in the movies is never far away from the fight game. Boxing has been shown as a microcosm of a dog-eat-dog society, a symptom of capitalism or as the individual trying to survive in an iniquitous system.

Thus, for filmmakers boxing has long been an alluring subject of great dramatic potential and tragic dimensions or as a symbol that provides insights into society. However, the sport's intrinsic violence cannot be ignored. In Champion, boxing is described as 'the only sport in the world where two guys get paid for doing something they'd be arrested for if they got drunk and did it for nothing,' and in Stanley Kubrick's first film, the short Day of the Fight, the narrator declares, 'Toe to toe body contact, physical violence, the triumph of force over force, the primitive, the curious visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another. Touch of claret, call it blood if you will.'

Martin Scorsese was to say about his Raging Bull (1980), 'The ring is a kind of madness, and it seems to me that the man (Jake La Motta) had to go back through his mother's womb again in order to achieve some kind of sanity. My picture's really about that process, not boxing.'

Both Raging Bull and Champion, which tells of a ruthless and over-ambitious prizefighter (Kirk Douglas), say more about the leading protagonist than about the fight game. For Jake La Motta, the ring does not seem to provide an outlet for violence, but a continuation of the violence outside it. In The Iron Man (1951), Jeff Chandler literally wishes to kill his opponents, but away from boxing, he's a regular guy. For Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the ring is a fine place in which to vent his spleen. He's told by the army coach, 'You've got what a lot of fighters don't have. Hate. Let your hate do some good for you.'

Because everybody loves the story of Cinderella, the Dream Factory has been in the rags-to-riches trade since its beginnings. But the fairy story is an effective sop thrown to the have-nots to pacify their discontent. The American Dream is an opiate, lulling people away from responsibility and change into a Panglossian garden.

In the movies, women are generally shown as having a restraining influence on men's violence. Audrey Totter in The Set-Up leaves Robert Ryan, because she cannot stand the mental and physical battering he takes. Pier Angeli in Somebody Up There Like Me, sees the fight game as full of 'meaningless blood and ignorance.' The three women in Body and Soul react in different ways to John Garfield's career. Good girl Lili Palmer leaves him when she sees the corrupting influence on him; bad girl Hazel Brooks shouts for Garfield to kill his opponent, and his Jewish mother (Anne Revere) says, 'Prize-fighting? That's a sport!?'

Boxing movies may describe the world of men and male values, but it is the women in the background that give them meaning. Matches have been won or lost because of her presence or absence. An empty seat in the second row has done more damage to screen boxers than any right cross. Good woman inspire men to physical triumph, floozies destroy them. They foul up relationships, like coming between a boxer and his manager in Kid Galahad (1937 and 1962).

Gary Cooper in High NoonGary Cooper in High Noon

Although women's boxing became legal in 1977 in the USA, with other countries following suit within a decade, it took the movies, usually lagging behind public opinion, nearly 20 years before it was used as a subject. According to the feminist writer Judith Halberstam, Girlfight (2000) embodied the title of her book Female Masculinity, a gender identity founded on the assumption that 'masculinity is a set of characteristics that women can possess as well as men.' Girlfight goes beyond most sports movies about women by showing a female athlete who doesn't just overcome the constraints of traditional femininity to succeed in her chosen sport against other women, but wins in competition against a man. In Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004), Frankie (Eastwood) refuses to train a 'girlie', until ex-fighter Scrap (Morgan Freeman) convinces him to give 31-year-old Maggie (Hilary Swank) a chance. Her escape from her Southern trailer hellhole has boiled down to boxing, the only thing she 'feels good doing.' The fact that she is a woman boxer then fades as an issue, and the film is about a boxer and the two people who believe in her. The dichotomy between the machismo ethos of boxing and the more 'feminine' pursuits was much enjoyed by Hollywood. The milieu of boxing is opposed to that of haute couture in The Champ (1979) with a child in the middle of this tug-of-war. William Holden in Golden Boy (1937) is the violinist who is forced to become a boxer, while in The Leather Saint (1955), John Derek is the priest who has to do the same.

Boxing has provided material for slapstick comedies, gangster movies, films noirs, musicals and social conscious pictures, yet the boxing picture has evolved in stature over the years from a sporting sub-genre to becoming a genre of its own. Whichever way one looks at it, boxing has attained a mystique that Hollywood has helped to perpetuate.

Ronald Bergan

 

 

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