There is a long and proud tradition of boxing themed films, but – surprisingly – ‘Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher’, released this week via Amazon Prime – is the first to solely focus on the sport’s late 18th and early 19th century heyday.
True, there has been the odd film that has touched on the ‘golden age’ of British boxiana – Henry Cooper portrayed champion boxer John Gully opposite Malcolm McDowell’s Captain Harry Flashman in 1975’s ‘Royal Flash’, while Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial ‘Barry Lyndon’ – released the same year – also featured a technically brilliant bare-knuckle boxing scene.
‘Prizefighter’ – however – is the first film to feature a narrative built around the days of boxing’s early evolution. In the 1700s and 1800s pugilism was – of course – still a gloveless sport, as well as something of a renegade activity, whose legal status was open to debate. Nevertheless, it occupied a prominent position within the British national consciousness and social-cultural landscape unmatched at any other point in its long history.
The rotating cast of colourful characters who populated the golden age of boxing – including Jack Broughton, Daniel Mendoza, Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux – were often as mercurial as they were talented. Many of them – alas – were also tragic figures, and none more so than the superlatively talented James ‘Jem’ Belcher, the Bristol stylist who many of his contemporaries regarded as the most talented pugilist of them all.
A teenage prodigy, when Belcher defeated Andrew Gamble on 22 December 1800 to become universally recognised as the Champion of England, he was just 19 years, eight months and seven days old. Famed Georgian boxing scribe Pierce Egan hailed Belcher as “a perfect phenomenon in the gymnastic art”, while Arthur Conan Doyle later featured him as a character in his novel ‘Rodney Stone’ and P.G. Wodehouse hailed him as a “genius”.
Jem’s fall from grace – sadly – was almost as rapid as his meteoric rise. An accident in 1803 deprived him of sight in one eye and presaged his pugilistic ruin – he fought three more times despite being dreadfully handicapped, losing on each occasion. Ultimately, he would not live to see his 31st birthday, succumbing to depression and drink. Friend and fellow boxer Bill Warr was so grief-stricken at Jem’s funeral – for which thousands lined the streets of Soho – that he hurled himself on top of Belcher’s coffin as it was being lowered into the earth.
It is to the credit of Matt Hookings – the star, producer and writer of ‘Prizefighter’ – that he spotted the dramatic potential of Belcher’s life story and career, while also possessing the drive and determination to bring the project to the screen, despite myriad obstacles and setbacks.
Indeed, ‘Prizefighter’ has been for Hookings – the son of former British heavyweight champion David ‘Bomber’ Pearce – a passion project which has taken around a decade of writing and rewriting, as well as financial wheeling and dealing, to reach fruition.
Along the way, ‘Prizefighter’ came close to collapse on several occasions. Hookings not only succeeded in rescuing the project, but also managed to attract A-list talent to the cast in the form of Ray Winstone and Russell Crowe (the latter – of course – has form when it comes to boxing biopics, having previously appeared as James J. Braddock in Ron Howard’s 2005 film ‘Cinderella Man’, while the former boxed as an amateur for Repton Boxing Club, and also appeared in the 2017 boxing drama ‘Jawbone’).
For the most part, ‘Prizefighter’ has been well worth the long wait. The film has many virtues. It is well paced and covers the major beats of Belcher’s career with heart and a fair amount of style. The fight sequences are professionally executed and manage to convey the violent reality of boxing, while neither glamourising nor condemning the sport.
The film’s biggest virtue – however – is its stellar and accomplished cast. Crowe perfectly captures the dangerous charisma, but also the drunken excesses, of Belcher’s grandfather Jack Slack, himself a former champion of England, while Winstone excels as Bill Warr, Belcher’s trainer, lending the role grizzled and earthy charm.
Jodhi May also impresses as Belcher’s mother Mary, and there are telling and compelling supporting turns from Marton Csokas as Lord Rushworth, Julian Glover as Lord Ashford and Steven Berkoff as Walter, a prisoner who imparts some crucial wisdom to Belcher while he is in prison.
Then there is Hookings himself, who manages to perfectly embody Belcher’s modest charm and style, while also impressing and convincing on a physical level. It’s a winning performance, all the more impressive given the experienced company that he is surrounded by. It is the chemistry between Hookings, Crowe and Winstone which lends the film its emotional weight, intensity and texture.
In his role as screenwriter, Hookings provides a well-paced narrative and several elegant flourishes, notably an adrenaline-inducing training montage scene, complete with a couple of neat homages to the ‘Rocky’ series. The relationships between the main characters are well-drawn and convincing, and the climax to the film is both dramatic and moving.
Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Ben Brahem Zinyab, ‘Prizefighter’ occasionally struggles to surmount its low budget origins – with some scenes too brief to achieve the depth they may have reached if they had been given longer to breathe. Indeed, the film as a whole would have benefited from a longer running time, enabling fuller immersion in its world and characters.
Purists may also baulk at some of the historical liberties taken – for example, Belcher and Henry ‘the Game Chicken’ Pearce wear gloves in the film’s final climactic showdown, despite the bout taking place decades before the Marquess of Queensbury’s rules were formulated.
These quibbles aside, though, ‘Prizefighter’ is a rollicking yarn with a side helping of emotional oomph, which shines a welcome light on one of the most compelling figures from boxing’s early history. Above all, it is a triumphant vindication of Hookings’ remarkable devotion and desire to bring to life the story of Jem Belcher – one of the greatest boxers who ever lived, and a man unjustly overlooked by the capricious nature of history.