When We Were Kings

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Leon Gast

REVIEWED: 04-03-97

WHEN WE WERE Kings, the Oscar-winning documentary about the 1974 fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, has finally made it to the multiplex after years when it looked like it wouldn't get made at all. All the struggle has paid off for filmmaker Leon Gast, who, with intelligence and flair, chronicles the battle between a charismatic but aging Ali and a young, brooding Foreman.

The fight, nicknamed The Rumble in the Jungle, was organized by Don King and sponsored by the newly formed country of Zaire, led by the sinister Mobutu Sese Seko--who always appears in a little Jackie O. leopardskin pillbox hat. Gast (Ali calls him "that skinny, ugly guy") was hired to go to Africa to film the rock concert scheduled in conjunction with the fight, but his post-production backer turned out to be the Finance Minster of Liberia, who was executed in a coup attempt during filming. Eventually, Gast secured the rights to more than 400 hours of footage, but didn't raise the funding to complete the documentary until 1986, when David Sonenberg came to his rescue. Even then, no one was interested in distributing the film until it won the documentary prize at last year's Sundance festival.

No wonder those guys looked so happy receiving their Academy Award. If one triumphant story isn't enough, the contest between Ali and Foreman had all the elements of high drama. This was Ali's attempt at a comeback after losing his title and being banned from fighting (for refusing to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds). At 32, many considered Ali to be over the hill. Gast includes a great piece of film that shows a dejected Howard Cosell sadly admitting he believed Ali didn't have a chance. Foreman, on the other hand, was 26, bigger and stronger than Ali; a quiet, serious young man with no knack for charming the media. He wears the same '70s, flowerific denim overalls (without a shirt) at every press conference.

Despite the fact that his best boxing was behind him, Ali was wildly popular in '74. The Zairians loved him, and Ali loved to be loved. If anyone has forgotten what an amazing, charismatic figure Ali was in those days, When We Were Kings brings it all back. He was beautiful, witty, and talented, and he summed up the zeitgeist of the times with his off-the-cuff rhymes, usually delivered directly into the lens of the camera. "You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait till I whip George Foreman's behind."

When Foreman injures himself and the fight is delayed, Ali takes advantage of the extra time in Zaire to pontificate and meet the people, spreading his message about improving the lives of Afro-Americans, about fighting, about whatever. He reminds the children of America to "Quit eatin' candy...We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay."

Gast shuttles between footage he shot in 1974--now degraded and slightly reddish--and recently shot interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who covered the fight in the '70s. Every now and then Spike Lee also throws in a comment, but it's really Plimpton, and especially Mailer, who add excitement and a human dimension to the fight. Together they narrate the match itself, explaining what exactly the guys are doing in the ring and summing up the psychological atmosphere of the evening. Mailer describes the pre-fight mood in Ali's dressing room as being "like a morgue." Apparently, everybody thought he was going to go out there and get killed.

--Stacey Richter

Full Length Reviews
When We Were Kings
When We Were Kings

Capsule Reviews
When We Were Kings
When We Were Kings

Film Vault Suggested Links
Keepers of the Frame
For All Mankind
Regret to Inform

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