While the three-fight series between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali is the stuff of boxing legend, it’s a tale that tells so much more, inextricably bound to the social, political and racial conventions of its time. Thus, in working on Thriller in Manila, the 2008 doc from Darlow Smithson Productions for More4, director John Dower, Darlow Smithson EP/head of film Elinor Day and head of archive Paul Gardner knew that the film itself would have to transcend the sports doc genre. Finding the right archival footage to mirror the socio-political mood of the early to mid ’70s was going to be just as important as obtaining the footage from the fights. Think of it as a cinematic one-two punch.
‘We always knew we wanted to make a great film and to do that I went to a lot of countries to cover the bases,’ says Gardner, who recently received the Jane Mercer Researcher of the Year honor at this year’s FOCAL Awards for his work on Thriller. ‘We could’ve relied on the fight film footage and stuff from American and British news, but we wanted it to be multi-layered.’
The film, which premiered on HBO in the US last month, has Frazier as its heart and soul, examining the rivalry between the two pugilists from his perspective. As a result, while pre-production research revealed to the team who owned the rights to which fight footage (ESPN owned the third bout, largely considered to be the best, and most grueling, boxing match of all time), care had to be taken to find material that wasn’t fawning over the more media-savvy Ali.
‘We weren’t making a film about Ali,’ says Gardner. ‘When you’re making a film about him you’re a kid in a candy shop.’ Still, there were sweets to be picked from the approximately 36 footage, audio and stills sources. While the bulk of the fight footage came from ESPN and Chartwell LLC (the company that owns the rights to the first fight), other important material came from BBC Motion Gallery/BBC Sport, NBC and Australia’s Channel 7, which provided some of Gardner’s favorite interview footage from Ali used in the film. As the film was aiming to show the ugliness into which the pre-fight hoopla degenerated (including the infamous clip from the BBC’s Parkinson in which Ali calls Frazier an ‘Uncle Tom’ and a ‘gorilla’), obtaining the more rare and incendiary clips was integral to the story. ‘A lot of people, after seeing the film, say they see Ali through different eyes now,’ says Gardner.
Still, the intent of the film is not to condemn Ali for the tactics he used to drum up interest in the fight, but rather to reveal more about Smokin’ Joe. Indeed, it’s the archival footage from the fateful third fight that provides one of the film’s more poignant sequences, when Frazier sits down to watch it for the very first time for Dower’s cameras.
‘Joe had a real fear of sitting down and watching the footage like that,’ says Darlow Smithson’s Elinor Day, executive producer on the film. ‘Even when they discussed watching it that day, he’d find endless ways to get out of it. You can see even in the footage that Joe has to be led to finally focus on what he’s watching – eventually it gets to him and that’s a very powerful thing to watch.’