Young Cassius Clay (Chip McAllister) has arrived home from the Olympic Games, where he has won a gold medal in the boxing tournament, but now he is back his delight in his success has been tempered by his dismay at the civil rights situation. He gets a job gardening for a rich white woman who hopes to sponsor him, but when he discovers she simply treats him like one of her racehorses he walks out on her. So disgusted is he that he throws his medal into the river, complaining that it means nothing to him anymore, but in spite of his disillusionment he isn't going to let it get him down - he's going to be the greatest boxer who ever lived.
The list of biopics where the subjects play themselves is not a long one, and the sporting ones even fewer, with The Jackie Robinson Story probably the chief antecedent to this film, the story of World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. Actually, the main influence on this film appeared to have been Rocky, as we followed the champ from his early beginnings to his enormous success, but also were treated to looks at his love life and the odd training montage: he doesn't quite start laying into a side of beef, but it's a close run thing.
Ernest Borgnine is in the Burgess Meredith trainer role, and additionally showing that not all white people are evil racists. This is because the first part of this is much concerned with the prejudice that Ali faced, although with this presentation it made it seem as if he annoyed people into taking him seriously, what with all that self-aggrandising talk he specialised in, then to a somewhat lesser extent his boxing made him a contender, when one assumes in real life it was the other way around. Certainly Ali's larger than life personality didn't do his fame any harm, and the film doesn't skimp on scenes where he has to stand up to The Man.
But after he refused to fight in the Vietnam War due to his principles, the film gives up on the interesting political stuff and sticks with the hero worship, which is a pity, because the early sequences show what a controversial figure he was even if it is in the fashion of a T.V. movie for much of the time. There are odd choices, so that we see Ali being strongly influenced by Malcolm X (played by James Earl Jones, curious casting) and his speeches against the "blue-eyed devils", but we never hear about how his religious mentor's assassination affected him. Indeed, all the Islamic stuff goes the same way as the politics after a while.
It may be flatly shot and perfunctorily performed for the larger part, but Ali proves to be as magnetic while acting as he was when being himself in the boxing ring or personal appearance. He's not the greatest as far as performing goes, yet the charisma of the man is not to be underestimated, and although this film is seen as disposable at best and an embarrassment at worst, he does manage to carry it through heavy-handed point scoring and uninspired recreations - although the actual fights are illustrated with documentary footage taken from the events. There's little to bring down the man's near-mythic status, as the only part where he looks bad is where he drags his girlfriend around his mansion for daring to wear a short skirt to a party, making him pretty conservative for a revolutionary figure. Really you're better off with a documentary to learn about Muhammad Ali's life, or a good biography, but this does have the plus of his presence to guide you. Music by Michael Masser, which includes the song "The Greatest Love of All".
"Existential" is a word often used to describe the films of this American director, who after working for Roger Corman on Beast from Haunted Cave, Back Door to Hell and The Terror directed two cult westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. In the 1970s he continued his cult acclaim with Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37, but come the 80s the directing work dried up, with only Iguana and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 to his name. He also worked behind the scenes on The Wild Angels, Robocop and Reservoir Dogs, among others.