It has taken 22 years to release When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's documentary about the tumultuous October 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, because the filmmaker's original backers kept running into bad luck. One of them died in a plane crash; another was shot by a Liberian firing squad.
Give Gast credit for perseverance. He and fellow director Taylor Hackford, who recently joined the project, finally managed in 1994 to salvage and cut 400 hours of decaying footage into the ninety-minute film we see here--a fascinating, frequently moving, occasionally annoying account of the "Rumble in the Jungle." It will help boxing nostalgiaphiles to remember a time when heavyweights were worthy of the name and will remind everyone else how a relentless force of nature named Ali captivated the planet.
These days Foreman is a happy old whale still swimming round in the fight-game swamp. Ali is now sheer, quavering tragedy. But Kings shows us that each of them in his prime dwarfed the self-absorbed sports icons of the present. What more could you ask for, this long after the fact, than the vision of brutish young Foreman hitting the heavy bag so hard in the gym that he leaves fearsome, watermelon-sized dents in it? What more than the charismatic Ali's verbal sparring with press and fans--swifter even than his cracking fall-away jab or the genius of the famed rope-a-dope? "If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned," he jives, "just wait till I kick Foreman's behind."
And what weirder sidelight could any student of global politics behold than the spectacle of the ruthless Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko withdrawing $10 million from his struggling nation's treasury to stage the Ali-Foreman show--complete with musical preliminaries featuring stars like B.B. King and James Brown--in a stadium that doubled as a holding cell for dissidents? Can you take promoter Don King raving in his period polyesters? The film's got that, too.
There is, naturally, a terrible bittersweetness in the renewed, big-screen vision of Ali at full strength, gathering children around him, fusing sport, art and politics in ways no one before or since has done, at last clocking the bewildered, arm-weary Foreman. George was a king himself, to be sure, but one who always had to yield his throne to the real monarch.
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The rattlings of interviewed writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton shed light here and there (Mailer on pre-fight fear: "Ali's dressing room was like a morgue; he was a man going to the gallows"), but their twin urges to turn the Rumble into some sort of personal literary construct doesn't do much for it--or this documentary. Neither do the maunderings of Spike Lee, who's never met a subject on which he wasn't an expert.
In the end, of course, Ali dominates the entire proceeding in a way few twentieth-century figures have dominated anything. "I live in America, but Africa is home of the black man," he declares at Kennedy Airport. "I was a slave 400 years ago, and now I'm going home to fight among my brothers." Coming from someone else, this would sound like a man merely building the gate. Coming from Ali, it's as true as the sting of his uppercut--and, given his fateful decline, just as heartbreaking.
When We Were Kings.
Documentary directed by Leon Gast. With Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton.