Champion (1949)

Champion (1949)
 
 

Douglas Punches Above His Weight

For the first time in my life, people cheering for me - Midge Kelly

Kirk Douglas as Midge Kelly in Champion

There have been many memorable boxing movies over the years, movies such as "Rocky" rank high amongst the most popular. But there are not so many which focus on the boxer himself rather than the sport of boxing. One of the earliest and best is "Champion" from 1949, a stylish look at how a boxer's life is affected through his participation in the sport and features one of Kirk Douglas's most memorable performances as Midge Kelly, awarding him with his first nomination for the Best Actor Academy Award.

Whilst travelling with his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy - Nevada Smith) to a business they believe they own shares in, Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas - Tough Guys) is hustled into a boxing match. Despite taking a beating Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart - King Creole) a trainer sees promise and offers to manage him. When Midge learns that he has been conned and there is no business for him he accepts Tommy's offer and starts training to become a professional boxer. With hard work comes success and Midge starts to make a name for himself in the ring as he becomes a contender. But he is seduced by the sport, the riches and popularity changing him and not for the better.

Paul Stewart and Kirk Douglas in Champion

Unlike many movies about boxing, "Champion" is not so fussed about delivering big visual crowd pleasing fights, although it has a few, but is a look at how boxing works, the seedy side of things and how it can change someone's life. It's a fascinating movie, a rags to riches story as we watch Midge Kelly go from someone with no interest in boxing to being hooked on the fame, popularity and riches that it rewards him whist turning him into someone who is blinded by all the trappings having started with nothing. In many ways it's clever and believable because when we are introduced to Midge you immediately realise that he is driven, that he wants to rise from his poor background and make it big so that he can care for both his brother Connie and his mother. Yet as he becomes hooked on the fighting game you watch his priorities change, becoming more cocky and conceited as he rises to the top of his game with almost nothing and nobody getting in his way.

In many ways what makes "Champion" work is Kirk Douglas because he takes us on that journey. When we are introduced to him, defending his brother on a train you get a sense of not only his loyalties but his desire to be more than he is. And as his character progresses you also get a sense of how conceited he becomes with Douglas delivering every ounce of someone who not only believes his own hype, so to speak, but cares for just himself even if it means shitting on the ones he once cared for. It's a marvellous portrayal and Douglas carries it off brilliantly, both when it comes to the drama as well as the few fight scenes.

What also helps is that "Champion" is a seriously stylish movie incorporating the use of shadows to maximum effect. There are numerous scenes which just ooze with this sort of styling but the best are those featuring just a shot of Kirk Douglas his face half obscured by a shadow giving a powerful image of a man with a darker side.

Aside from the wonderful performance of Kirk Douglas there are some other good performances most notably Arthur Kennedy as Midge's brother Connie who is like a voice of reason to Midge as he gets carried away with boxing. But it's Kennedy's portrayal of brotherly jealousy as Midge gets the girl he fancies which makes it such a strong believable performance making you side with him despite Midge being ruggedly handsome. Plus there are 3 delightful performances from Marilyn Maxwell, Ruth Roman and Lola Albright as the three significant women in Midge's life.

Of course there are very few boxing movies which don't deliver a big fight scene towards the end and "Champion" delivers one of the best making you feel like you are taking that beating in the ring. But it's not the actual fight sequence which wows you but the actual ending to the movie emotional, unexpected, honest and brutal it makes most other boxing movies feel weak in comparison with their predictable endings.

What this all boils down to is that "Champion" does deserve to be rated as one of the best boxing movies because it looks at the life of a boxer and how the sport changes them rather than concentrating on the actual fights. It also features a stunning performance from Kirk Douglas as well as a real and powerful ending which will remain with you long after the movie has finished.

Tags: Boxing Movies

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