Whether you watch them for the scrappy underdogs, for the heart-pounding drama, or, as Survivor would say, for the thrill of the fight, the boxing film is a subgenre that continues to play a big role in cinema. But why? In this video essay for Fandor, Nelson Carvajal digs into the history and themes of these boxing movies, as well as how and why audiences identify so closely with the fighters inside the ring.
If you're currently in production (or would like to be) on a boxing film, Carvajal provides a ton of great technical information on how they have been approached both cinematically and narratively by a variety of directors and DPs, specifically focusing on the fight scenes inside the ring. Some, like Creed director Ryan Coogler and DP Maryse Alberti shot them up close in a single take to help immerse the audience in the fight.
Others, like David O. Russell and DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, brought their unique style to The Fighter by shooting these scenes like an HBO Fight Night special. And then there's Martin Scorsese, who with DP Michael Chapman, turned the drama inside the ring in Raging Bull into a poetic and dreamlike montage of flying fists, blood, and sweat.
They are very different approaches to what is essentially the same scene: two boxers, one the favorite and one our underdog protagonist, duking it out until one of them falls. With these scenes, each director and cinematographer were trying to, in a sense, pull the audience into the ring. Close enough that they could feel the weight of the gloves and the strength of the blows. Close enough that they begin to feel like they are the ones fighting.
'Raging Bull' (1980)
Getting your audience to identify with the protagonist is one of the biggest challenges a filmmaker must overcome, which is why the underdog story is such a popular one. We have all felt like the underdog at some point in our lives—we've all felt the pain of being the smaller, weaker one, the person with an unrequited love, or the one who suffered injustice by the powers that be. So, we identify with the boxer because they are doing on screen what we have done physically, emotionally, or mentally. The boxer is everyone. And the boxer reminds us to fight. Carvajal sums it up perfectly:
But every now and then, it’s time to get back in the ring—to fight for our place in the world, to fight for our spirit, to fight for our loved ones. At the end of the day, each and every one of us is the boxer.