When We Were Kings (1:28, 1996, 8.0, 98|94%) is a documentary about the now classic 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. This film had me gripped right from the start: Ali’s eloquence, his constant smile — even in the face of sure defeat — the way he played with the press like the ocean plays with a ship… he’s just become a personal hero. In thinking of him in the past, I always saw him as an indestructible force, so sure of himself and so talented in the ring that nothing could possibly destroy him. Watching this movie I finally saw that, no, this wasn’t the case. He just talked himself into these states of confidence and then roiled and clawed his way to survival when the moment of truth came.
This had to have been one of the most psychological matches in boxing history. George Foreman was a beast and, as quickly becomes apparent in the movie, hands-down the technically superior of the two. I will not easily forget the scene where he pounds away at a heavy bag, leaving a dent in it half the size of a watermelon. However, when the actual fight happens Ali’s strategic genius shine through just after you’ve lost all hope for him. He knew what techniques Foreman was training to counter (speed, agility), and then did just the opposite, relying on three main tactics.
First, he delivered quick, long jabs to Foreman’s face whenever he could. Ones Foreman didn’t bother training for because their defence is so basic that if a sparring partner were to use them it would be more insulting than anything. Secondly, he employed for the first time his now-famous rope-a-dope technique, wherein he’d lean on the ropes, cover his body with his arms and cower, taking as many punches as Foreman could deliver to his arms and torso. This, together with leaning on George and holding him in a headlock whenever possible served to tire his opponent. Lastly, anytime he could he would taunt Foreman during the fight. A famous story told by Foreman about these moments mentions the last punch he struck right to Ali’s jaw, one that would make any other ordinary boxer stumble. Ali quickly jeered, “That all you got, Foreman?”… to which Foreman mentally replied, “Yep — that’s it.” The round ended in a knockout for Ali just moments later.
One unfortunate element of the fight is how Mobutu‘s cruel regime was not criticized at all. However, the juxtaposition of African-American and African values and lifestyle, and watching Ali’s African-American identity emerge in the times surrounding the fight made for an interesting cultural study. The addition of such musical greats as B. B. King and James Brown to the scene (I didn’t know they flew in as part of the event) only further added to this mix, showing that African-American roots are more based in the latter element of the hyphenate than anything racial ties might imply.
I give this film a shattering ★★★★★. The characters rip out of the screen to meet you, the plot runs so thick with psychological sparks it just crackles, the movie’s development is just right, and if it isn’t fresh then I don’t know what is. Lastly, I can honestly recommend this film to anyone and everyone, particularly to those about to embark on a difficult goal or, again, sport/film enthusiasts. This film would be of particular use in boys’ camps where virtues of hard work, perseverance, and manhood are extolled and developed.