While far from the only good film on boxing, Champion is perhaps the best drama ever based on the fight game. It is remarkable for a number of things: the unrelenting, grinding logic that leads to the hero's tragic fate; the beautiful cinematography and editing that make it a masterpiece of light and shadow; near-perfect performances by everyone, from Kirk Douglas as Midge Kelly, down to the actor who plays a sleazy small-time ring manager; and the boost it gave to the budding careers of Douglas and others. The basic story has been told many times, but never so powerfully: a poor, ambitious boy accidentally learns that he is a "natural" boxer, and that he might "go all the way." He wins his early fights with ease and, at last, in the big one, he becomes champion of the world. Then rot sets in. He lives it up, deserts his loved ones and best friends, and loses his physical and moral advantages. Near the end -- out of condition, demoralized -- the champion loses (or almost loses) his boxing crown. Finally, he grits his teeth, returns to rigorous training and to people he really likes, and he regains (or holds onto) the championship.
Part of Champion's dramatic superiority is in its brilliant revealing of the boxer through the eyes of other people in his life. There are good guys: Midge's brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy); his tough but honest trainer (Paul Stewart); his wife, Emma (Ruth Roman); and Johnny Dunne, the up-and-coming contender he eventually beats. There are bad guys: the manager who cheats him in his first, amateurish fight; two successive "owners," of the diner where Midge and Connie try to be entrepreneurs and end up as dishwashers; the blonde siren (Marilyn Maxwell) who abandons Johnny Dunne and helps corrupt Midge; and the mob-connected promoter Harris, who gets Midge his championship bout. There are ambiguous in-betweens, like Palmer (Lola Albright) who is Harris' wife, but who loves Midge and is, perhaps, loved in return. Then there is Midge himself. Unlike Charlie in Body and Soul (John Garfield, 1947) or the hero of the Rocky quintuplets (Sylvester Stallone, 1976-1990), Midge is not a basically nice guy who's been led astray. His ambition, arrogance, and stubbornness make him at once villain and hero. These "fatal flaws" contain, as surely as in Macbeth or Othello, the seeds of the champ's ultimate dissolution. Midge is dealt his share of life's unfairness and bad luck. Yet it is not the events themselves, but his bitter, violent responses to each blow that seal his doom. The final irony comes when he makes his comeback. In the last round of the last fight, his most manly virtues -- bull-like strength and stubborn stamina -- bring about both victory and defeat.
Too bad that this wonderful film -- nominated for six Oscars including Best Actor -- won only an Academy Award for Film Editing (Harry Gerstad) and a Golden Globe Award for Best Cinematography (Franz Planer). All the acting performances are superb: Champion was the breakthrough role for Douglas; his Oscar nomination led to many later starring vehicles. Champion also launched the careers of actresses Roman and Albright, and has what is probably Marilyn Maxwell's finest performance as the unforgettable gold digger Grace Diamond. And all that terrific acting certainly implies some credit for director Mark Robson, who went on to do award winners like Bright Victory and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Regardless of what Oscars it won or didn't win, Champion is a landmark film that should be on everyone's must-see list.