A sport of mythic, gladiator-like proportions, boxing has long been intertwined with cinema history. Often an arena where a filmmaker can showcase aesthetic, visual, and technical flourishes when punctuating the intensity of the ring. But also an area where American politics, economics, race, and the corrupting forces of greed from men in power intertwine. The boxing film encapsulates so much of America and its values, it’s no wonder why the sport has long been of fascination from artists and spectators alike.
From Rocky to Raging Bull, these are some of the best, from the early to middle of the 20th Century, where working-class values and men striving for glory, clash.
9 Rocco and His Brothers
Luchino Visconti’s epic portrait of four brothers struggling with social migration in post-WWII Italy is a beautifully stated melodrama that showcases the pitfalls of success in boxing and the strife it could cause in family dynamics. As Alain Delon steps into the fold as Rocco, the boxer who becomes prosperous and finds love while his brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori) struggles with the sport. The two come at odds with each other and find a fate that will change their relationship forever. Rocco and His Brothers are one of the best from the master Italian filmmaker.
8 Body and Soul
Part and parcel with what to expect from a boxing film or sports movies in general, Body and Soul rises above so many others because of how real the bruising life of a boxer is rendered. The lead role is played with a nasty, brutal realism by John Garfield, the actor embodies the part in late 1940s New York. Showcasing the working-class struggles of a fighter who vies for glory, Garfield must fend off all outside forces that try and corrupt him.
7 The Harder They Fall
While reportedly they didn’t get along during filming, the tough guy team up of Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger provided all the chemistry needed for a tale of contenders. In The Harder They Fall, the two play corruptible forces on both sides of the fence. Steiger, the boxing promoter, uses Bogart the sportswriter, to promote one of his contenders. The film shows how boxers are used as disposable means to an end for the men in power and how easily the media can spin a lie or hype a falsehood. The film also features a performance from legendary boxer Max Baer, who would tragically die three years later.
6 Somebody Up There Likes Me
West Side Story director Robert Wise has a clear, precise vision when crafting a story, visually, around the rough and tumble neighborhoods of New York City. In beautiful black and white, Wise works with Paul Newman (a role originally intended for James Dean before his death) to tell the story of boxing legend Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman plays the goofy charm, stubborn boy-like nature of a rebel who is hell-bent on never doing any good with a heart and tenacity that converses with where the rest of his career would go. Nailing the aw-shucks but fuck you attitudes of Italians in New York in the 1940s, Newman embodies the physicality of the boxer, knocking out people left and right, but also the desire to turn his life around before the mafia and corrupt forces attempt to break him.
5 Fat City
John Huston makes films in the vein of his persona. Rough, mean, nasty films ripe with alcohol abuse. Fat City was the perfect vessel to tell a story of two fighters, living from flight to fight and bar to bar, slugging it out for a shot at glory. Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach play the two lowly fighters who are always taking one step forward and another two backward. Laying into the miserable and marginalized conditions many boxers live in, Huston created a humane portrait of how pulling punches can keep your life on the low-end trajectory.
4 The Set Up
Robert Wise may as well have set the visual blueprint for how to create a gritty, stylistic, and noir-like atmosphere during the early years of boxing cinema. The Set Up stars Robert Ryan as the tough, ailing, and sensitive boxer living on the edge of retirement as a washed-up boxer always good for a bruising. Wise set the locker room to look like the dungeons of a warship as men patiently await either glory or death. Against the will of his manager — who bets against Ryan — he pulls victorious. Setting up a do-or-die run adjacent to the gangsters banking on the boxers’ downfall.
The ultimate underdog story was told in part as a way for Sylvester Stallone to star in his film so that he could show Hollywood what they had been passing on. Rocky is a classic boxing picture about rising from the ashes of absurdity to make a name for yourself. Stallone unwittingly also made himself a franchise to go along later with Rambo. However, Rocky Balboa is the working class hero of Philadelphia, going against all odds against Apollo Creed (a full-bodied Carl Weathers) as his formidable foe. Rocky would come full circle to complete the underdog story and win Best Picture at the 1977 Oscars.
2 When We Were Kings
When We Were Kings is a documentary about the “Rumble in the jungle” and more importantly, the political ramifications of Muhammad Ali as an athlete and how he could twirl sports into a political message. The film showcases what an incredible speaker, showman, and axel for change Ali was at his apex. Ali fought for his right as an American to exercise his speech and his vernacular was as sharp as his jab. However, what the film does so well shows the conflicts between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali not just in the ring but in the culture clash between them. It’s not just a sports documentary, but a sweeping, majestic portrait of two legends.
1 Raging Bull
Martin Scorsese is no stranger to centering his films around explosively violent and morally dubious men, but none quite got the same cinematic detail as his biopic on boxer Jake LaMotta did in Raging Bull. Using the major boxing matches to detail the psychological makeup and evolution of the famed Middleweight champion was a stroke of genius from Scorsese. Each fight was told differently, from using smoke and excess to using dolly zoom shots to warp the ring and show LaMotta’s boiling point, Scorsese channeled his technical mastery to tell a story of rage and violence in a way only he could. Raging Bull was nominated for eight Oscars and took home two, for Best Editing and a Best Actor win for Robert De Niro.