The Greatest (1977)
Apart from fleeting cameos, few public figures get the chance to portray themselves in their own biopic. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey struggled in The Fabulous Dorseys while Audie Murphy was far more successful in To Hell and Back. In both instances, the actors had appeared in many films before their starring roles as themselves. Not so Muhammad Ali, who made his film debut in The Greatest. While it may be trite so claim that as an actor, Ali makes a great boxer, such an assessment devalues the effortless charisma he brings to the role. Nevertheless, the film rarely manages to reproduce this on screen.
Following his success at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Cassius Clay triumphantly returns home to a slew of rich white people wanting to manage his career. The young boxer soon realizes though, that while they may be eager to profit from his feats in the ring, he is not welcome at their table. Shortly after tossing his Gold Medal into the Ohio River, Clay becomes acquainted with Malcolm X at which point Ali assumes portraying himself. Though thematically this may have seemed an appropriate time for the transition, in practice the sudden switch from the fresh-faced Chip McAllister to the 35-year-old Ali is clumsily realised.
Ali may be pretty, his face may be clean, but he don’t pass for someone nineteen.
From here, Ring Lardner Jr’s script ticks off the milestones of Ali’s career: the victory over Liston; his objection to being drafted; the first fight against Frazier; and regaining the Heavyweight crown with ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. Likewise, some of Ali’s more famous moments outside of the ring are handled in a perfunctory manner, with Ali’s delivery seeming tired the second time around. It’s in the incidental scenes where his natural charm surfaces, courting women, bantering with Bundini and taunting Liston. His phone call to the authorities alerting them to a bunch of ‘niggers’ camped out on Liston’s front lawn is a hoot. A top-notch cast, including Ernest Borgnine, Robert Duvall, Paul Winfield, Ben Johnson and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X, enlivens proceedings.
The film's closing credits state that the film’s director, Tom Gries, passed away five months before the film’s release. Similarly Jan Kadar, the director of Ali’s next project Freedom Road, died four months before it aired in 1979. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ali was never cast in a lead role again.
as Cassius Clay
as Sonny Liston
The character of Ruby Sanderson is based on Muhammad Ali’s first wife, Sonji Roi.
No scene recreations in this film as actual footage of fights is used.