Greatest, The (1977)

Greatest, The (1977)

“I’m known as Muhammad Ali; Cassius Clay is dead.”

Muhammad Ali (playing himself) reflects back on his life as a young man (Chip McAllister) and a rising boxing star, as he converts to Islam, refuses to be drafted into the Vietnam War, and receives support from his manager (Lloyd Haynes), trainer (Ernest Borgnine), and physician (John Marley).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Biopic
  • Boxing
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • Robert Duvall Films

Muhammad Ali starred as himself in this adaptation of his 1975 autobiography of the same name (which was purportedly heavily influenced by his manager, Herbert Muhammad). Indeed, it presents a highly sanitized version of Ali’s life, sugarcoating and distilling key motivational moments, and conveniently skipping a whole lot. Then again, that’s par-for-the-course with a biopic — especially one with such heavy involvement from the person being covered.

I’m aware this film may have played differently upon its release, when Americans were likely keenly interested in getting to learn more about one of their beloved sports idols; these days, the storyline simply feels self-laudatory, as Ali easily snatches up a bodaciously beautiful girlfriend (Mira Waters):

… and then shows off his newfound piety by pursuing a primly dressed bakery worker (Annazette Chase) who he chooses to become his wife. (On a side note, I was interested to learn about the history and relevance of “bean pie” in Muslim Black culture.)

The most exciting moments in the film by far are the (real life) fight sequences, which are expertly woven into the dramatized storyline. Meanwhile, the cast is an interesting one, with Borgnine and Marley in key supporting roles as right-hand men for Ali:

… and cameos by other well-known actors, including Robert Duvall as fight promoter Bill McDonald:

… Dina Merrill as a nastily racist spectator:

… and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Effective integration of real-life fighting footage into the dramatic narrative

Must See?
No, unless you’re an Ali fan.


One thought on “Greatest, The (1977)

  1. First viewing (2/6/21). Not must-see; only for boxing and / or Ali fans.

    One of many boxing or boxing-related films made on the heels of the runaway success of ‘Rocky’. This one is cheap-looking (made-for-tv-esque), though it somehow managed a script by ‘MASH’ screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. .(!) full of compact (sometimes effective) scenes. Another surprise is the addition of various Hollywood stars in small and large roles: James Earl Jones (as Malcolm X (!), Ernest Borgnine, John Marley, Robert Duvall, Ben Johnson, Paul Winfield and Dina Merrill.

    Basically a Reader’s Digest version of Ali’s life, covering the bullet points.

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