Rewind: ‘Million Dollar Baby’ And The Strange Allure Of The Boxing Film

The sport of kings is also, apparently, the most cinematic.

What is it about boxing that makes it so appealing to filmmakers? Maybe it’s the one-on-one nature of the sport of kings, the fact that the underdog is usually the sentimental favorite (always a Hollywood hook) or the frequent Horatio Alger plot. Surely it’s not just that boxing films allow for a buncha fight scenes that don’t require much in the way of plot setup. Regardless of the reason, Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is the latest in a long line of pugilistic pictures.

The spectacle of gloved combatants was perhaps first put to film in the 1896 British opus “The Boxing Kangaroo.” A bit later, Buster Keaton played a pampered (human) rich kid who impersonates a boxer that shares his name in the 1926 comedy “Battling Butler.” TerryToons released a series of cartoons in the ’30s starring the now-forgotten Kiko, another boxing kangaroo (apparently they were quite popular in the early years of cinema).

But the first major motion picture about the sport was 1931′s “The Champ.” Starring Wallace Beery as Andy Purcell — a washed-up, alcoholic fighter who doesn’t know how to do

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anything else — and Jackie Cooper as his adoring young son, Dink (who, with that name, probably had to defend himself fairly often), this melodramatic tearjerker was iconic enough to spawn a hundred similar films, including a pale 1979 remake that starred Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder.

So many protagonists in these movies fall into the “schlub from the slums who struggles to make it big” category that you have to wonder if any middle-class joe with a college degree ever became a boxer. “Body and Soul,” from 1947, stars John Garfield as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who becomes a boxer, rises to the top, and falls in with less-than-scrupulous management. In 1949′s “Champion,” Kirk Douglas plays Midge Kelly, another palooka who discovers that “blow by blow … kiss by kiss … he [is] the champion” — until he succumbs to the self-destructive narcissism that sudden success can bring. By the time Midge becomes the champ, he’s chewed up and spit out every decent person in his life. Can redemption come in the final reel? That’s the thing about boxing films … the ending isn’t always predictable (unlike 90 percent of the movies about team sports).

Maybe that’s partly because we associate corruption and gambling with boxing more than any other sport. Boxing movies are often morality plays set in a world where a lack of morality is assumed to be commonplace. Films have certainly enhanced that seedy reputation. In “The Set-Up” (1949), Robert Ryan plays a boxer past his prime whose promoter has arranged for him to take a dive in a match against a young fighter on the way up. The only problem is, Ryan doesn’t know he’s supposed to go down. Taking place in “real time,” and featuring some of the most brutal fighting put to screen, this noir-boxing classic was a huge inspiration to Martin Scorsese’s boxing epic (which we’ll get to, don’t worry).

“On the Waterfront” (1954) features perhaps the most memorable pugilist in cinema. Marlon Brando plays ex-boxer Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s gripping look at corruption and personal integrity. The legendary and controversial drama contains one of film’s most famous monologues, when Brando laments his career-ending dive, telling his brother he “coulda’ been a contender.” While there’s not one boxing scene in the film, the audience understands that to a bum like Malloy, the sport may have been his one way out of the underbelly of pre-gentrified Hoboken, New Jersey.

The boxer who refuses to take a dive has become a staple in film. Whether it’s due to a sudden burst of nobility (as Battlin’ Matt Murdock had in “Daredevil”), or because they knew word of the fix would get out and thus placed a huge counter-bet on themselves (à la Bruce Willis’ Butch in “Pulp Fiction”), we know that the gangsters who paid for the fix aren’t going to be happy about it.

Perhaps no film displayed the downside of getting knocked in the head for a living better than 1962′s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” Adapted from a Rod (“Twilight Zone”) Serling teleplay, the movie stars Anthony Quinn as Mountain Rivera, a heavyweight at the end of his career. Rivera’s brain has been damaged by too many fights set up by his dirty manager (Jackie Gleason), but he feels a misplaced loyalty that won’t let him quit.

It’s almost incredible to think that the inaugural film of the “Rocky” series won the Oscar for best picture, best director and best editing in 1977. As each successive film in that series (along with its star, Sylvester Stallone) fell deeper into self-parody, it became hard to supplant the campy images of Mr. T (Clubber Lang from 1982′s “Rocky III”) and Dolph Lundgren (the cartoony Russian fighter Ivan Drago in 1985′s jingoistic “Rocky IV”) with the realistic grittiness of the 1976 original.

But maybe “Rocky” also lost some luster due to a film that came four years after its release, one that most consider not only the quintessential boxing film, but one of the greatest motion pictures of all time: Martin Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece, “Raging Bull.” Robert De Niro gives a career-defining performance as real-life ’50s middleweight champ Jake La Motta, a man so self-destructive in every facet of his life that he was destined to make a living by fighting. The unflinchingly brutal fight scenes are juxtaposed against those of La Motta being just as violent with his wife, his brother and everyone else who gets close to him.

More biographical motion pictures have been made about boxers than probably any other kind of athlete. In 1942, Errol Flynn traded in his swashbuckling swords for boxing gloves in “Gentleman Jim.” James Earl Jones played Jack Jefferson (a slightly fictionalized version of Jack Johnson) in “The Great White Hope” (1970). Denzel Washington portrayed Rubin Carter, a boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder in “The Hurricane” (1999). Will Smith got an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the self-proclaimed Greatest in 2001′s “Ali.” And 2004′s “Against the Ropes” was a fictionalized story based on the life of legendary female fight promoter Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan).

Maybe the reason why boxing movies continue to fascinate has most to do with the increasingly controversial nature of the sport. After broadcasting a 1983 match between Larry Holmes and Tex Cobb that went on for too many rounds after the brutalized Cobb should’ve thrown in the towel, legendary sports announcer Howard Cosell began a crusade against the sport. His distaste for boxing only got stronger as he saw the ravaging effects too many years in the ring had done to his friend Muhammad Ali. Boxing is at once heroic and tragic, brutal and elegant — it’s a car crash that you slow down to look at.

“Million Dollar Baby” may be only the second film about a woman on the ropes (after 2000′s “Girlfight”), but sports films with female leads are few and far between. The knee-jerk notion is to say that movies about boxing have come a long way in the past hundred years, but from the beginning, they’ve been more realistic, less glamourous and filled with far fewer happy endings than almost any other long-running genre.

Compare the ending of “Million Dollar Baby” with that of “Coach Carter,” “Miracle” or “Remember the Titans” and see if you don’t feel not so much a sense of exuberance, but rather a bit punch-drunk.

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