To get some things out of the way from the start, Champion is a masterpiece and one of Kirk Douglas’s best roles. Directed by Mark Robson, Champion opens with a scene that immediately sets the mood for the rise-and-fall story that is about to follow, and definitely constitutes one of the most remarkable, non-verbal character introductions in cinema. Walking down a long corridor, surrounded by his crew, a boxer, his name emblazoned on the back of his robe, enters the stadium. The crowd breaks out in cheers – without ever seeing his face, the viewer already understands the importance of this man. Followed by the journalist’s comment on how wildly the crowd applauds, the boxer approaches the ring, enters and sits in his corner. Then, with the camera placed at a low angle, Kirk Douglas for the first time turns towards the viewer, revealing his face, as the journalist utters the word ‘Champion’.
This is the beginning of the telling of Midge Kelly’s story which takes up most of the film’s narrative, that, in a stroke of structural brilliance, ends back in the present after the match, with Midge beaten to a bloody pulp, repeating, as if hallucinating, the speech he had given his coach and agent years before becoming famous. And although Champion is, on the surface at least, the story of an individual, it accomplishes so much more. Its unflinching portrayal of the world of boxing and the ugly corruption it entails is unforgettable, with a terrific overhead shot (among other instances) of Kirk Douglas battling alone the thugs that attack him after he wins the title in a game he was supposed to throw. When Arthur Kennedy, playing Connie, Midge’s brother (and moral counterbalance), exclaims ‘Oh, this rotten business!’, Midge cynically replies: ‘Awww, lay off the business. It’s like any other business, only here the blood shows.’ There is also the opposite aspect, the lifelong devotion of the people who love the sport (and get nothing in return, except betrayal), such as Paul Stewart’s Tommy Haley, the stoic, world-wise and bemused manager who first spots Midge’s talent and stays with him through thick and thin.
What is perhaps more surprising in the context of Champion is the representation of degrading, unadorned poverty (that serves as the character’s motivation for upward social mobility and to justify his implacable ambition), as well as the depiction of sexual relations, which strike the viewer as bold and unusually honest (even blunt), considering the period the film was made.
From his first lover Emma (and their rather explicit ‘shall we get wet’ beach scene), to the shrewd, greedy femme fatale he obsessively chases after, to the elegant Palmer he seems to fall genuinely in love with, only to ditch later when he has to choose between her and her husband’s money, Midge moves from woman to woman with a carnal lust that can barely be contained and is only matched by his ambition. The film’s view of romantic love is bleak, to put it mildly: Midge seduces a girl he never intends to be tied down to (although his brother is clearly smitten with her), ending up marrying her after being blackmailed by her father. He then abandons her and focuses his attention on Grace, his boxing rival’s lover who is something of a veteran in choosing her partners from the ring and makes it no secret that money is what she’s after. He steals Palmer from her husband (who compliments him on his ‘wonderful body’), and then reaches perhaps his lowest point when he seduces Emma again, after she has announced that she is going to divorce him and marry his brother.
Rather than straightforwardly illustrating Midge’s moral downfall, the expendable nature of his relationships with women serves to reveal what drives him from the start: a desire to escape poverty and never be poor again (not that different from Scarlett O’Hara’s drive, manifested in the oath she takes upon returning to a desolate Tara). This is showcased in early scenes, such as the beach scene referred to above, when he asks Emma whether she knows what it is to be really poor, cold poor, hungry poor – Emma, the daughter of a local diner owner, appearing removed from that reality.
Champion catapulted Kirk Douglas to stardom, and one only has to watch it to understand why. It would even be tempting, albeit misleading, to identify too closely character and actor (the son of impoverished Russian immigrants) in their unrelenting search for fame and success. When Douglas was honored by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1987, Hume Cronyn, upon presenting him with his award at the end of the ceremony, even used a line spoken by Midge in the film: ‘I don’t want to be a “hey you” anymore. I want people to call me Mister. I want to amount to something.’
* In honor of Kirk Douglas’s 100th anniversary.