Fight movies tend toward the gritty, and as it turns out the farther back in time you go the grittier, sadder, and darker it gets. So come along for some fun facts about five boxing pictures featuring bare knuckle brutality, corruption, exploitation, and brain damage.
1.) Hard Times (1975) - The classic Charles Bronson film about a bare knuckle boxer making his way through Depression-era New Orleans was originally over two hours. When it was cut down to 90 minutes pretty much everything on the cutting room floor was a fight scene. Even with all those fight sequences lost, Hard Times delivers a lot of action. The pivotal fight scene, shot in a warehouse off Tchoupitoulas Street, took more than a week to shoot thanks to the complicated fight choreography. According to director Walter Hill, Bronson really was the bad ass his persona purported him to be, and he was fully capable of thrashing anyone on the set. His one weakness was his stamina. A heavy smoker, Bronson had horrible cardio and could not keep up intensity for more than thirty seconds at a time.
2.) Fat City (1972) - Starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges, Fat City follows a sad case fighter looking for a comeback who discovers a young boxer in need of a mentor. Legendary director John Huston was himself a boxer, attending Lincoln Heights High School for its boxing program, despite its location in a bad part of town. After graduating he became a semi-professional champion in Los Angeles. Huston included many of his boxing associates in the film, notably lightweight boxing champion Art Aragorn as Babe and welterweight champion Curtis Cokes as Earl, among others. Character actor Al Silvani plays a referee in the film, and would go on to a niche career in boxing films. He appeared in four movies about boxing, in addition to the first three Rocky films. Muhammed Ali said of Fat City, “Man that’s for real, that’s me talking up there.” Also for real—the knock out punch Stacy Keach takes in his fight scene with actor Sixto Rodriquez. Sixto actually knocked him out, and the shot made it into the final edit.
3.) The Harder They Fall (1956) - Loosely based on the career of Primo Carnera, The Harder They Fall is the ultimate tale of boxing corruption. The final film of Humphrey Bogart’s career, The Harder They Fall not only utilized real boxers for the movie, heavyweight champion Max Baer essentially plays himself. In real life, Baer knocked Carnera down 11 times in 10 rounds. In an even more grim inclusion of reality, Joe Greb, who suffered severely from CTE after a 12-year career featuring 119 bouts, plays a boxer with brain damage. Primo Carnera sued the filmmakers, saying the film damaged his reputation as it convinced the public his fights had been fixed. His suit was unsuccessful. Two endings were filmed, in the first the sportswriter played by Humphrey Bogart demands boxing be banned, and in the second he suggests there be a federal inquiry into the sport. The first ending played in the theatre, and the second was used for television.
4.) The Set-Up (1949) - Viewed as a masterpiece by Martin Scorsese, The Set-Up takes place in real time and tells the story of a has-been boxer. His manager, confident he’ll lose, has taken money for a “dive”—but failed to inform his client. The lead actor, Robert Ryan, was a four-time heavyweight boxing champion at Dartmouth, and the man playing his opponent, Hal Baylor, was a professional boxer with a 52-2 career record. The screenplay was adapted from a narrative poem written in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, the first managing editor of the The New Yorker. The original story was about a black man named Pansy Jones. Although director Robert Wise tried to get RKO to hire James Edwards for the role, the studio insisted on a white leading man and Pansy Jones became Stoker Thompson. James Edwards was given the smaller role of Luther Hawkins in The Set-Up.
5.) Champion (1949) - The film that made Kirk Douglas a star, Champion is perhaps the bleakest boxing movie ever made—and that’s saying something. Ostensibly about a rags-to-riches hero who rises from poverty to become champion of the world, the film slowly reveals that the “hero” is anything but. (If you’re wondering how dark the character gets, when he finds out his ex-girlfriend has fallen in love with his brother he rapes her.) The fight scenes garnered an Academy Award for editor Harry W. Gerstad and a Golden Globe for cinematographer Franz Planer. Douglas was also nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and at age 100 said it was his favorite role. The film’s marketing tagline read, “This is 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.”