When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)
[originally posted 18Jun2001]
Taylor Hackford, the director behind such interesting and absorbing fare as An Officer and a Gentleman and Dolores Claiborne, bankrolled this film and allowed Leon Gast to direct. One assumes Gast took them helm because he’d already done a documentary about B. B. King’s attachment to the events in question twenty-odd years before. Big mistake.
When you’re making a documentary about such a narrow topic (in this case, the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa), there is one ironclad rule: only make your documentary as long as the material can sustain it. The Hughes Brothers knew this, and when they filmed American Pimp, they cut out at 74 minutes (and that may have been five minutes longer than necessary). Gast takes an even smaller slice of life and gives it a full twenty minutes more than that.
There’s a lot of great footage here, but there’s a lot of filler to go along with it. It helps us to know that Howard Cosell had declared Ali’s career dead not long before the fight, but do we need five minutes of Cosell’s speech intercut with another four minutes of Ali’s response? Do we need THAT many shots of Don King’s press conference? (To his credit, Gast did remove all of the footage that focused on King’s hairstyle woes.)
In the end, we get an hour-long buildup to what everyone who rents this film actually wants to see: the fight. And Gast doesn’t give us the whole fight, just a highlight reel. Boxing may be a crude, cruel sport, but watching the fight and listening to the commentary offered by Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, both of whom attended, it’s possible to understand the intellectuals’ claim that boxing is a more poetic sport than it would seem. (So long as said intellectuals don’t have to get in the ring themselves, one assumes.) Foreman and Ali both glide around that ring. It’s beautiful.
…and then there’s another ten extraneous minutes of “why in the world is this here?” footage. It’s almost as if Gast were creating a film that he knew would get lots of airplay on ESPN Classic, and he wanted something roughly of the length that could work with a two-hour time frame (after you add commercials in). Well, he could have done a lot better working with an hour and a half time frame.
About twenty-five minutes too long. Otherwise, wonderful. **
The full film.