Cult Movie: Spartacus was up there but Champion is Kirk Douglas's winner for me

Kirk Douglas as Midge Kelly in Champion (1949)
Ralph McLean

Kirk Douglas

WHEN Kirk Douglas finally shuffled off to the great actor's Winnebago in the sky last week at the ripe old age of 103 most of the talk about his finest on-screen moments covered predictably familiar ground.

All the usual cinematic suspects, from Lust For Life and The Bad And The Beautiful to Spartacus were name-checked as the much-loved thespian's most glorious moments in the cinematic spotlight.

Deservedly so as well – it's hard to argue with something as iconic as Spartacus, in which Douglas played the leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, after all. That 1960 epic alone would be enough to grant the man a special place in cinema history and those other two offerings simply confirm his unique genius in front of camera.

He clocked up his second Oscar nomination for The Bad And The Beautiful in 1952 and his 1956 Van Gogh biopic Lust For Life earned him his third nod from the Academy but, for my money, it's his first Oscar-nominated film that really defines the man and his art.

Based on a short story by Ring Lardner and released in 1949, just a few short years into his acting career, Champion encapsulates everything that was great about the on-screen Douglas. A proper, gritty boxing drama that pulls no punches, it's a masterful piece of work from a man who always gave his best and never shied away from displaying the darkest impulses and unsavoury aspects of his characters.

His ruthless portrayal of Midge Kelly, a poor Irish boxer who rises to the top by all means at his disposal, is simply stunning and fully deserving of the Oscar recognition it got. Douglas brought a fearsome self-belief and aggression to most of the film roles he took on in his remarkable career but the role of Midge Kelly embodies so much of what made him a truly great leading man.

In his ruthless desperation and relentless obsession with making his way to the highest ranks of his chosen sport, he stabs everyone in the back and displays the kind of hair-trigger temper that keeps you on the edge of your seat every time he fills the screen.

There's something about the moodiness of this crisp black-and-white, noir-flavoured drama from director Mark Robson that clearly suited Douglas and his tough central here as the fairground hustler-turned boxing ring hotshot pretty much defines the character he would adopt for many of his finest films to follow.

The Raging Bull of its era, it's a brilliant boxing film and a reminder of the sheer physical presence of Douglas. You feel the punches as they land and Douglas makes you care about a character with basically no redeeming features bar his unbridled lust for success.

It's the perfect way to remember an actor who never flagged until the final bell and always came out fighting whatever he faced. It may not be as iconic as Spartacus but Champion connects with all the right knock-out blows for me.

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