“A boy who rose from the depths of poverty to become champion of the world,” Michael “Midge” Kelly may have found fame and wealth but there was also a huge cost to his ambition, an anger pushing him onwards as he entered the ring picturing the faces of every man who had wronged him, bridges burned in his pursuit of the top, the world which revolved around him very much of his own making.
Directed by Mark Robson, a former editor for Orson Welles and Robert Wise, Champion was written by Carl Foreman based on a short story by sports journalist Ring Lardner, starring Kirk Douglas in the title role for which he received an Oscar nomination for best actor, the film receiving a total of six nominations including cinematography for Franz Planer and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, with a sole win for editor Harry W Gerstad.
A huge hit when originally released in 1949 and now restored on Blu-ray for Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, the accompanying commentary by film scholar Jason A Ney describes Champion as “one of the best boxing films ever made,” regarding it as much as a work of film noir as a sports film, Midge caught in the shady dealings of promoters and gambling rings who expect him to throw matches at their behest, waiting in the shadows to reinforce their threats with violence if he does not cooperate.
Told in flashback, the film charts Midge’s slow rise to fame as he makes his interrupted journey across the country towards California in the company of his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy), briefly encountering professional boxer Johnny Dunne (John Day), his girlfriend Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) and trainer Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), all of whom they will cross paths with again, Midge’s star ascendant as Dunne’s falls and Grace flitting to his side to bask in the spotlight.
A dirty sport full of dirty people, most of the women of Champion are ciphers, a parade of blondes to be won as though they themselves were trophies, the exception being Emma (Ruth Roman), met in a roadside diner and married to Midge before he deserted her just as his own father had abandoned him, she and Connie the only people who loved Midge for who he was rather than his ambition, the image he projects, seeking to anchor him for his safety rather than using him to pull themselves higher.
Midge selfish, arrogant and dismissive, Ney states his character was softened considerably from Lardner’s original irredeemable thug, but with a trajectory as inevitable as the inclusion of a training montage the rags to riches story of Champion is the fastest route to the American dream, so long as you enjoy hitting people and don’t mind getting hit back.