Film Review: Thriller in Manila

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PARK CITY -- Sports fans of a certain age remember the Thriller in Manila -- the third championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975 -- as one of the epic battles in boxing. Now a documentary about the fight sets out to challenge that legend. Not that it wasn't a great fight, but that Ali was the hero and all-around good guy, as he proclaimed himself, and Frazier was an ignorant Uncle Tom, as Ali also proclaimed. It's a fascinating story of sports and race told for the first time from Frazier's perspective. The documentary should be a hit for HBO when it premieres in April.

The quintessential American story was curiously made by a British outfit and helmed by veteran documentarian John Dower. The film makes no pretense of objectivity -- it's clearly in Frazier's corner -- but at times it seems to inflate its case for dramatic effect. Calling it the "most eagerly anticipated fight in the history of boxing" may be stretching the point, but there is no denying it was an event.

Ali and Frazier, after being friends early in their careers, had fallen into a bitter personal rivalry that gave the fight the feeling of a grudge match. Interviews with people close to Frazier, including his brother and son, suggest how close the fighters once were and Frazier's generosity when Ali lost his license for 3 years as a consequence of being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

But once they got into the ring together for three epic fights, Ali's tone changed and he went after Frazier with increasingly aggressive attacks, culminating in some ugly race baiting surrounding the final battle. History tends to be told by the winners, and everyone remembers Ali as the noble warrior, but few remember the other guy, something the film hopes to remedy.

Perhaps to promote the fight, or himself, Ali portrayed himself as the real black man and Frazier as a slave of the white world. Carrying it a step further, he characterized Frazier as a gorilla and tormented him every chance he got. Among the excellent archival footage assembled here is a clip from a talk show in which the two men physically attack each other. Frazier's deep-seated bitterness at Ali was not just an act for the cameras.

And even today, interviewed in the same inner-city gym in Philadelphia where he trained for the fight, Frazier is still smoldering (his fight moniker was, in fact, Smokin' Joe). In a broad-brimmed hat and lime green leather jacket, Frazier is nothing if not colorful, and the film makes his case convincingly, if at times repetitively. Among other things, it suggests that Ali's pugnacious act was something totally orchestrated by his church, the Nation of Islam.

With emotions so high there is barely a dull moment here, and Dower has assembled a lively bunch of talking heads, including Ali's ring doctor who repeatedly tells the interviewer that he's asking dumb questions. There is also extensive footage of the fight and the film's most moving moment is Frazier watching it for the first time since he was in the ring. He may not have been victorious that time, but in "Thriller in Manila," Frazier finally wins his personal battle after 34 years.

Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Production company: Darlow/Smith Prods.
Director: John Dower
Producer: John Dower
Executive producers: Andrew Mackenzie, John Smithson, Elinor Day
Director of photography: Stephen Sanden
Music: Ben Bartlett

No rating, 91 minutes
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