Champion is a boxing picture. It ends with a big fight, as boxing pictures are wont to do. However, as the fight starts and the film cuts between all the people Kirk Douglas’s Champion has wrong, the film isn’t asking the viewer to root for the protagonist. Douglas is a bad guy. The entire third act is about how Douglas is a bad guy. He’s an even worse guy than the film’s been establishing for almost the entire runtime.
Except it’s a boxing picture. And, at some point during that big, final fight, without the film even doing anything to make Douglas sympathetic, he gets to be the hero again. He gets to be the champion. It’s one of the film’s most successful moments, thanks to director Robson, photographer Franz Planer, editor Harry W. Gerstad, and Douglas.
Unfortunately, it can’t save the film, which meanders through most of the third act after a disappointing second. Robson and screenwriter Carl Foreman are able to keep up some energy as Douglas fights his way to the top–after romancing, marrying, and abandoning Ruth Roman–but eventually it runs out of steam. There’s a hint at a love triangle between Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, and Lola Albright. Instead, there are some decent scenes to avoid having to pursue that storyline. Almost everything in the second half of the film seems like a contrivance to position the film. Nothing Douglas does has any weight or even consequence.
Some of the problem are the players in the second half. Arthur Kennedy is his brother. Kennedy, walking with a cane, is the weaker one. He spends some time as Douglas’s conscience, but as the film goes on, gets less and less to do. Foreman’s script is interested in tearing away Douglas’s conscience–maybe even Douglas’s humanity; it just does so with some thin characters. Maxwell’s just a groupie, even though she shows business acumen. Albright’s the wife of Douglas’s manager (Luis Van Rooten in a thankless cuckold role); she starts with some depth, but then loses it due to Douglas’s animal magnetism.
And Douglas is fantastic, even when it’s obvious his ego’s in the way. He gets a monologue at the end, which Robson doesn’t know how to integrate into the rest of the film, though he and Planer do a fine enough job shooting it. Great editing again from Gerstad, who also gets to do a couple fantastic montage sequences. But Douglas is a despicable (and worse), utterly compelling protagonist. During the final fight, as it becomes clear he’s going to get the sympathy, warranted or not, requested or not, I actually resented the film a little. It’s so effectively made, it knowingly overrides the script’s intention.
Then Douglas has his well-acted but utterly misplaced monologue and all the problems of the third act catch up during the lull and it goes out on a forced note.
Fine support from Kennedy, Roman, and Albright. Maxwell just doesn’t get enough to do. Paul Stewart is great as Douglas’s trainer; Robson even lets him move the present action along three years with a voiceover in the montage sequence. It’s great stuff.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s music gets to be a little much at time, but it’s always accompanying technical success so it gets a pass for the most part. Maybe if the theme weren’t so cloying.
Champion’s superbly acted, superbly made. It’s just not superbly written. Something–Douglas’s ego, Foreman’s plotting–got in the way.