Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Anti Boxing Champion of the World

Who knew Kirk Douglas was Harvey Dent's grandfather?

These days we're well programmed to visual two extremes of boxing. In real life we see egoistical, self-obsessed prize fighters making it 'rain' money at random events. On the big screen, many of the tales which become lauded with adoration are those of the impoverished underdog fighting to overcome societal inflicted limitations and gain fame and fortune. You don't even have to go back to Cinderella Man for such a story. 2010's The Fighter more than covers the cinematically hallowed ground. We're conditioned for them. We anticipate them. Which is why it's such a unique experience when you go back before them and find a film that is, in many respects, the antithesis towards them. For that, I give you Mark Robson's 1949 film, Champion.

Best described as some half-mangled combination of Ray, Citizen Kane, and Rocky, Champion plays on the genre norms to create a beast of grim cinema. From the opening shot we see the all American tough guy, Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas), dressed in fine robes standing proud in the ring. He's the story we've all heard. The boy who fought his way up from the slums to make it big. The crowd itself dotes on his every move. He's their hero. Hercules, Beowulf, and Odysseus, all rolled up into one crowning champion of boxing. Roll back time a little and he's just another bum sneaking a ride on a train.

Hitchhiking across the country to LA with his 'lame' brother, Connie (an amazing and easy to overlook performances from Arthur Kennedy), Midge is riding high of LA dreams. Unfortunately what he finds there is nothing even vaguely resembling the big time. Taking up mundane jobs as a busboy and dishwasher, Midge and Connie ride the fast train to nowhere. Midge passes his time with the young waitress, but when her father finds out the wedding ring is quickly thrust at him and Midge bolts. As a career in boxing begins to unfold for him, Midge becomes king of the world. Soon he has beautiful blonds aching for him. Money to do what he wants, when he wants.

"For the first time in my life, people cheering for me. Were you deaf? Didn't you hear 'em? We're not hitchhiking any more. We're riding" - Midge

From that moment onwards, he's lost. Midge is a shining example of an anti-hero. Yet, to call him a hero would be a bit of a stretch. Early moments would lead one to believe he's the kind of man you could look up to. Taking nothing from nobody, earning his way in life, and defending his crippled brother from all who would offend him. Over the next hour that image is slowly, meticulously deconstructed. The very first thing Midge loses in his battle to the top - loyalty. To get the women he wants, he's willing to sellout anyone. To get the money he craves, he's willing to let go of any women. A viscous wheel begins to turn and Midge shows no care for stopping it.

Champion works so well these days because it plays against all those predefined expectations of boxing films. We expect Midge to discover the error in his ways. To fall back onto those who truly love him, and Champion is more than willing to give it... but you have to play by its rules. Slight of hand, and quick of rashness, Midge falls into a sea of cheers, light, and money. A sea from which he is never to emerge again.

Champion has more than its fair share of faults. At times it fails to take itself seriously enough, and at other times feels unsure of what is to come. Yet, few can deny the power of that final Kirk Douglas scene. Damn near worthy of Oscar gold for that one moment alone. If only they had the good sense then to roll credits right away, you'd likely see more articles on the greatness of Champion now.

"You know what a "Golem" is? I think I knew all the time I was building one." - Tommy Hailey, Midge's Manager/Trainer (Paul Stewart)

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