How an 1897 boxing match helped make cinema history.
This is a long book about a very short film. Admittedly, that movie, a document of a heavyweight title bout called The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, was once much longer—about three times longer than the 29-minute version eventually shown on June 10, 1997, at London’s National Film Theatre. But even the 90-minute version of the film, which no longer exists, would pale in comparison to Hawley’s (The Imjin War, 2014, etc.) densely written account, which weighs in at more than 350 pages. His subject is a little-known footnote to cinema history: the “fight film.” As motion pictures were being created—by everyone from Thomas Edison to Georges Méliès to the Lumières—two American brothers, Gray and Otway Latham, and their associate, Enoch Rector, realized there was money to be made by filming prizefights. Boxing was exceedingly popular at the end of the 19th century but prohibited in many states. Their idea was simple and savvy: given there were no laws (yet) against boxing films, they would find a pair of famous pugilists, put them in a ring, and rake in money by showing the footage all over the country. It was harder to pull off than they thought, though, and Hawley’s book painstakingly chronicles the enormous pre-bout preparation. The author splits his attention between the athletes and the cinematic pioneers to deliver an extremely well-researched tale of who did what, when, and how—and sometimes, even why. But this mountainous accumulation of detail is ultimately smothering. Readers don’t just learn about Eadweard Muybridge and his famous stop-motion films of Leland Stanford’s horses; they even learn the name of one of the equines (Sallie Gardner, if one wonders). In the same vein, Hawley doesn’t just describe a match between British fighter Robert Fitzsimmons (who would later appear in the titular film) and an Irish heavyweight named Peter Maher; he provides, literally, a blow-by-blow account. It’s not that his research is unwelcome; it’s simply overwhelming. By page 260, he’s only gotten to the first round of the big fight in Carson City, Nevada. So many writers give readers so little that it seems churlish to chide one who gives too much—but there’s a reason for the old adage “less is more.”
The author’s research is commendable, but it swamps readers with too many details.