BEST BOXING MOVIES — On March 30, the online magazine Paste published Christina Newland’s “The 50 Best Boxing Movies of All Time.” Paste, which has been around in one form or another since 2002, is a lifestyle publication with a fetish for lists, e.g. the 42 best Bob Dylan songs, the 50 best romantic comedies on Netflix, the 50 most underrated craft breweries.
Newland, who appears to be in her mid- to late twenties (she didn’t respond to a request for an interview) is a New Yorker who moved to England where she married filmmaker and photographer Charles Newland, taking his name. They reside in Nottingham. Scrolling through her richly annotated “top 50” list, three things become quickly apparent: (1) she can hold her own with any of the most prominent film historians in the English-speaking world; (2) she knows a lot about boxing; and (3) she is a very good writer.
Newland reserves the top spot on her list for the 1947 movie “Body and Soul.” Directed by Robert Rossen, the movie earned a Best Actor nomination for John Garfield (pictured). “The film works,” says Newland, “both as an anti-capitalist parable – showing how the honest salt-of-the-earth boy is wooed by materialism – and as an honest-to-goodness boxing drama, with a love for the sweat and ritual of the sport…The result is an unrivaled, thrilling, smoky trip through the boxing underworld and the redemption that can be found there.”
Here are her top seven picks:
- Body and Soul
- Raging Bull (1980)
- Rocky (the original, 1976)
- Fat City (1972)
- Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
- The Set Up (1949)
- The Harder They Fall (1956)
Newland’s next four picks are documentaries, only two of which – Leon Gast’s 1996 “When We Were Kings” and James Toback’s 2008 “Tyson” – ever hit the big screen. She plugs Ken Burns’ 2004 Jack Johnson documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness,” into the #8 slot. The made-for-TV film aired on PBS. “Muhammad and Larry” (2009), an episode that ran during the first season of ESPN’s critically acclaimed 30 for 30 series, clocked in at #11.
In fleshing out her top 50, Newland goes beyond documentaries to include documentary shorts, silent films, and independent films that scored well on the film festival circuit but died on the vine. Examples of the latter include “Knuckle,” a 2011 documentary on bare-knuckle boxing in the Irish traveler/gypsy community and “The Bleeder,” a 2016 movie about the life and career of Chuck Wepner with Liev Schrieber portraying Wepner. These movies appear back-to-back on her list, logging in at #39 and #40.
Picks that are even more idiosyncratic are “Day of the Fight” (#18), “Boxeadora” (#29), “The Notorious Elinor Lee” (#33), “The Ring” (#38), and “The Gordon Sisters Boxing” which brings up the rear at #50.
“Day of the Fight” (1951) is a 12-minute documentary about middleweight contender Walter Cartier. It was put together by a 22-year-old Look magazine photographer named Stanley Kubrick and is notable as his first directorial effort. “Boxeadora” (2015) is a 15-minute documentary about a young female boxer in Cuba who aspires to compete in the Olympics and trains toward that goal in defiance of Fidel Castro’s ban on women’s boxing. “The Notorious Elinor Lee” is a 1940 “race movie” by the pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Michaux. The title character is a devious female fight manager. “The Ring” (1927) is a silent movie about a fairgrounds booth fighter written and directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. “The Gordon Sisters” is a 1901 Thomas Edison short. The sisters box wearing evening gowns.
Have I seen any of the movies named in the last three paragraphs? No, I wasn’t even aware that they existed. However, I found Newland’s article an enjoyable romp, notwithstanding the fact that in my humble opinion there were some glaring holes.
I found it odd that the 1996 comedy “The Great White Hype” (#24) was listed whereas “The Great White Hope” was nowhere to be found. The 1970 film adaptation of Howard Sackler’s award winning play scored Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar nominations for James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. “City of Conquest,” which bobs up on many shorter lists, is also missing. The 1940 Warner Bros. film stars James Cagney as a prizefighter who is permanently blinded by the rosin that an opponent daubs on his gloves. It would seem that any top 50 list ought to have room for a James Cagney movie.
I was disappointed, but hardly surprised, that two of my personal favorites were omitted. Walter Hill’s 1975 “Hard Times” is a Depression era period piece starring Charles Bronson as an itinerant bare-knuckle boxer who picks up his “career,” as it were, after arriving in New Orleans in a boxcar. A very cool movie, it says here, at the risk of being branded a lowbrow.
I stumbled on Claude Lelouche’s 1983 “Edith and Marcel” on Turner Classic Movies and can’t wait for it to come back so I can tape it. The movie, which stars Marcel Cerdan Jr. (victorious in 56 of 64 pro fights; you could look it up) as his ill-fated father, has an exhilarating soundtrack powered by old Edith Piaf recordings. The late New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called this French language film a piece of crap but, hey, what did he know about movies?
Two boxing movies hit the big screen in recent months, “Hands of Stone” with Edgar Ramirez playing Roberto Duran and “Bleed for This” with Miles Teller portraying Vinny Pazienza. Newland thought the Pazienza biopic was very good. She placed it at #26. The heavily hyped “Hands of Stone” didn’t make the cut.
Commensurate with the credo of a professional critic, Newland finds flaws in many of the movies that comprise her top 50. Ron Howard’s 2005 “Cinderella Man,” the story of James J. Braddock, is demeaned as “mawkish” and taken to task for its historically inaccurate depiction of Max Baer as a simplistic villain. She yet accords the movie a #41 rating. “Well-meaning but poorly executed” is her verdict of “The Joe Louis Story” (1953) which turns up as #49.
Regarding Joe Louis, Newland says that a modern movie bio of him is long overdue. Amen to that.
Here’s the link at PASTE Magazine.
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