Champion (1949)

D: Mark Robson
S: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy

Cynical boxing picture which reenvisions the clichés of the genre in terms defined by original story writer Ring Lardner Jnr., shortly to become victim to the House Un-American Activities Committee as one of the 'unfriendly ten'. The film follows the story of champion boxer Kirk Douglas, introduced at the outset by a sanctimonious ringside commentator remarking on how his 'rags to riches' story has inspired fight fans the world over. It is a generic moment and a set up as hokey as they come, but by the time we return to this moment in the timeline having flashed back for the bulk of the film, the context in which we see it has changed completely.

The film starts with down-on-his-luck Douglas and crippled brother Arthur Kennedy trying to make their way in the world and happening upon the fight game as a means to easy bucks. As the story develops, the game becomes more serious, with ever-deepening levels of corruption and manipulation into which Douglas sinks all too willingly. His viciousness in the ring is matched to his ruthlessness outside of it, and though he comes up against a variety of thugs and heels who challenge and often best him, he keeps coming back for more.

Aristotle once wrote that the fall of a good man is not good drama. Douglas' character is not exactly without sin, but he starts off relatively clean and becomes dirtier by degrees. It makes predictable drama, but it is grippingly done and works well as trope. The descent towards self-destruction is certainly full of conflict, not least of all between the democratic ideals of the self-made man and the realities of capitalist exploitation, but of course also in more prosaic scenes of confrontation both inside and outside the fighting arena.

Director Mark Robson handles the action well, although some of the early scenes meander a bit. Oscar winning editor Harry Gerstad keeps the pace crisp once the fight action starts though, and with the aid of solid fight choreography, the battles in the ring really deliver. Douglas is terrific in the lead. He plays the fresh-faced underdog with a pleasing openness as the film begins, but reveals a hard, sadistic, meanness which he plays with frightening conviction. By the time the film reaches its climactic fight, where he has become a raging, snarling beast, the audience is locked into the character in a way which will be difficult for them to separate the performance from the performer. Indeed Douglas' well-publicised off-screen determination seems to have informed his characterisation, though one should of course remember (not that it is easy to forget) that this is tropic drama, not documentary.

That noted, realism is certainly an appropriate term to apply to the film both in visual and script terms. The unflinching exposé of the fight game is clearly intended to counterbalance the more cheerfully optimistic fight films which preceded it, and the film's harsh lighting scheme and up-close-and-personal fight scenes consciously deglamourise the action. More conventional varieties of glamour remain largely intact though in the form of Marilyn Maxwell, Lola Albright, and Ruth Roman. Though Douglas is as unfriendly to the female characters as to the male, their hard edges are more sympathetically drawn in relation to a male-dominated capitalist world which does not favour their independence or advancement on their own terms. Maxwell is particularly interestingly placed as the ambitious fixer who tries to control Douglas, only to find he has a variety of aces up his sleeves and very little moral conscience to work on. Albright is most brutally used as a society wife and sculptor who ultimately counts less than bucks and is valuable more or less only as property to moneyman Luis Van Rooten.

Champion is a fairly uncompromising film with a strong polemical centre. Fans of the affirmational pleasures of the genre may be dismayed by its refusal to engage with the rhetoric of the American dream and the good-hearted underdog, but there are plenty of films to choose from which tell that story without irony. Casual viewers may enjoy it more than aficionados, and film buffs even moreso. Douglas managed an Oscar nomination for his work here, understandably so. His off-screen political allegiance with aspects of the critique contributes to the vibe of a film worth taking a moment to consider. Paul Stewart is also very good as a knowing manager and Kennedy acquits himself fairly well as the brother who sees the changes in Douglas' character before anyone else and tries in his own way to work around them to build something of a life for himself before it is too late.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.