Posted by Susan Doll on March 12, 2012
Years ago I was a student of art history at Ohio State University where I discovered the boxing paintings of Thomas Eakins in a class on American art. Eakins, who broke with academic conventions and elitist views of art, pushed toward a realism that actually offended sensibilities of the era. What fascinated me about the three paintings was the way they revealed the social history of the period, especially in regard to class. The paintings, Taking the Count, Between Rounds, and Salutat, were completed in the 1890s during the Gilded Age, when an increasingly industrialized economy was dominated by ultra-rich robber barons who depended on and often exploited the immigrant and working classes for labor. The differences between the classes is depicted in Between Rounds by the physical distance between them: The working class and immigrants watch the fight in the cheap seats high above and far away from the middle and upper classes on the floor or in the boxes. Fighter Billy Smith rests in the corner of the ring as his second Billy McCarney fans him with a towel, and manager Ellwood McCloskey offers encouragement. Smith’s neck and face are suntanned and ruddy while his body and legs look pale, revealing Smith to be an outdoor laborer during the regular work week. As a boxer at The Arena in Philadelphia, Smith displays the physicality and skill that is admired by the very classes who employ and exploit him during the workweek. And through boxing, Smith is attempting to advance his position in society and make something of himself with the only path open to him and the only tool available—his body.
Studying boxing in relation to social class as reflected in Eakins’s trilogy of paintings gave me a respect for the sport. Boxing—a mano e mano competition in which minimally clad contestants beat each other for money—doesn’t try to mask its brutality as do other popular competitive sports. There’s no ball, sticks, hoops, or pucks to hide behind; no pretense that spectators are watching for the finer points of “the game.” There is no equipment in the arena other than the boxers’ own bodies and no protective gear beyond the padded gloves. It’s simply brutal; that’s why spectators watch and that’s why it’s not the sport of kings.
Just as Eakins’s paintings relate boxing to class issues, so do boxing movies reflect the struggles of the working class to survive in an economic playing field rarely friendly to the lower rungs of the social ladder. Of course, class struggle isn’t the only theme of boxing films; some foreground issues and myths of masculinity (Raging Bull) or personal integrity (films in which the fighter is tempted to “take a fall” for the money). And, often a working-class milieu provides an authentic, colorful backdrop but the story is really about something else (The Fighter; Million Dollar Baby). However, I prefer those boxing films in which the main character has been literally and figuratively stripped down to nothing and then fights for personal and economic survival (the original Rocky; Cinderella Man; Requiem for a Heavyweight).
Interestingly, Eakins may have been influenced to paint his boxing series by a movie. In 1897, the Veriscope Company produced and distributed The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, a lengthy film documenting the match between Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada, on St. Patrick’s Day. Enoch J. Rector’s cameras captured all 14 rounds of the historic fight, and the resulting film was the longest movie to date. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, which included Fitzsimmons’ winning blow to his opponent’s chest, may have been as long as 100 minutes, though shorter versions also circulated. The movie played Philadelphia during the summer of 1897, the year before Eakins painted his first boxing subject. Newspapers remarked that the film was popular among both male and female audiences—a telling tidbit of information. At the time, boxing was illegal in many states, especially on the East Coast, though sparring matches or “comic boxing” was permitted. However, boxing of any kind was not an amusement considered suitable for women viewers. Apparently, movie versions of famous fights were just enough removed from the actual events to be deemed safe for both genders. The success of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight influenced other companies to film boxing matches.
Eakins’s boxing paintings came to mind recently when I watched Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, a well-crafted boxing melodrama with gut-wrenching performances. Warrior certainly deserved better than the spotty distribution it received and would have been completely buried if not for Nick Nolte’s Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. No disrespect to winner Christopher Plummer, but Nolte was robbed. He was better than the other four nominees combined. Like the best of the method-style actors, Nolte did not seem to be acting; he simply embodied his tragic character, Paddy Conlon, breaking my heart in nearly every scene.
Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warrior stars Nolte as the working-class father of two Irish-American brothers battling personal and economic problems. Brendan, who lives the American Dream in a nice suburb with his wife and family, teaches high-school physics. Tommy, who grew up in another city, is bitter because he was left to take care of his dying mother alone. He shows up in Pittsburgh further haunted by his stint in the Marines. Though he is a bona fide hero for saving the lives of other soldiers with his brute strength, Tommy can’t come to grips with the fact that friendly fire from American military personnel shot down his platoon. Neither son has much to say to their father Paddy, an alcoholic who tossed aside his family for the comforts of the bottle. Though Paddy is sober, there is no redemption for him in the eyes of his sons, and he will never fully regain their love and respect. Throughout the film, he listens to a book-on-tape of Moby Dick, the ultimate story of failed masculinity, reliving his failures over and over again. Despite his feelings toward his father, Tommy wants Paddy to train him for a mixed martial arts contest dubbed Sparta, which is a part of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), in order to recapture a sense of personal identity stolen from him by his war experiences. If the basic story and characters of Warrior seem familiar from other boxing movies, it’s because genre films trade in the familiar to pull us into the story and make the characters accessible to everyone. It’s the variations on the familiar conventions that make a good genre film.
Setting Warrior in Pittsburgh, where dozens of steel mills and factories once meant a good life for working class families, is a reminder that this area of the country is now known as the Rust Belt because many mills and factories have closed. In addition, the devastation wrought by the recent fallen economy has further squeezed the working class to the margins of society. The character Brendan best represents America’s betrayal of the working class. Though Paddy had taught both of his sons how to box, Brendan put himself through college to improve his station in life so that he did not have to get beat up for money. But, he discovers his salary as a physics teacher isn’t enough to hang onto his slice of the American Dream as his mortgage payments balloon beyond his pay raises. Like Billy Smith in Eakins’s Between Rounds, Brendan must navigate a socio-economic landscape that seeks to exploit or marginalize him. And like Smith, Brendan turns to the only tool he has to improve his lot in life—his body. Unbeknownst to Paddy or Tommy, he returns to the ring out of economic necessity. As soon as Brendan begins to train, the viewer knows that the UFC Fighting Championship will come down to brother versus brother, a melodramatic plot device but also a potent representation of the dog-eat-dog economic environment of today. And, the fact that both brothers have been betrayed by social institutions that are supposed to support them—Brendan by bankers and politicians responsible for the economic collapse and Tommy by a chaotic military prone to deadly mistakes —suggest that America has sacrificed its working class.
If Warrior is an allegory for economic survival of the working class as well as a story in which two brothers are pitted against each other, then the brothers suggest two distinct ideas about the realities of the modern working world. In asking Paddy to help him, Tommy is depending on the training practices of traditional boxing—strength training, running through the streets of Pittsburgh a la Rocky Balboa, sparring with bags in a gritty gym, and old-school advice from rugged individualists. These practices rely on strength, the ability to endure blows, fists and muscle. Tommy can be hot-headed and stubborn, but he is also honorable and passionate; he represents the traditional working class. Cool-headed Brendan chooses a high-tech, mixed martial arts approach with a hip young trainer directly connected to the globally based UFC. Brendan is a strategist who incorporates a repertoire of martial arts moves from around the world to gain advantage over opponents who are younger. He is the new working man fighting for his position in a global-based arena.
The conventions of the genre might lead viewers to expect old-school American traditions to win out over some glitzy new-order advocates, but this is no longer Rocky Balboa’s world. The 21st century global economy threatens to render the traditional American working class obsolete, and Warrior does not sentimentalize this reality by backing the favorite to win.
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