When We Were Kings Review

Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 2 release of When We Were Kings.

The Oscar winning and one-sided documentary chronicling the immense showdown between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, 1974 that was tagged ‘Rumble In The Jungle’.

When We Were Kings is an Oscar-winning documentary about arguably the greatest boxing fight of the twentieth century, and certainly the most famous. The setting was 1974, and the location was deep Africa, Zaire to be precise. The two fighters, under the extreme promotion of the unscrupulous Don King, were George Foreman and Muhammad Ali and competed in what the press called the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’. Every sports fan knows the result of the fight, and will have viewed it many times, and fortunately the actual fight only takes up fifteen minutes of the film’s eighty-four minute running time.

What makes When We Were Kings such a worthy documentary is that rather than focus on the fight itself and analysis of the two boxers’ styles, director Leon Gast chooses to focus on the phenomenal racial tone that the fight brought to Zaire. Here were two Black American world-class fighters returning to the supposed land of their slave ancestry. What is most interesting about the film is that it depicts Ali as an African messiah returning to his people, whereas Foreman is almost demonised as a white American, even if he is in fact no different to Ali.

Originally, When We Were Kings was supposed to be an African Woodstock. Don King had arranged for various top-billing Black artists such as B.B. King, James Brown, The Spinners and The Crusaders to travel from the States to Zaire to form a black origin music festival, and the music was to be filmed by Gast and assembled into a concert film. However, Foreman’s eye was cut in training, and the fight had to be delayed by six weeks, giving Gast the chance to spend a lot of time filming the build-up proceedings, and also making him realise that he may have a better film if he directed it instead towards a boxing angle. Unfortunately for Gast, financial difficulties over the years have caused the film to gather dust on the shelves. However, in 1996, Gast was able to find enough financial backing to complete When We Were Kings, and enlisted acclaimed producer/director Taylor Hackford to film some new interviews with the various sports press involved in the 1974 fight.

Watching When We Were Kings is like watching enjoyable propaganda. The film is geared tremendously towards Ali as opposed to Foreman, and Foreman is presented as an ignorant, commercial American who is only in Zaire to participate in a fight. Ali on the other hand, is presented as a cultural icon and god-like intellectual who in the few weeks he spent in Zaire managed to unite the black people of Africa. Yes, in Gast’s defence, most of the footage taken was of Ali, but Foreman has clearly been given the rough end of the bargain. Considering the abundance of bad press and publicity Foreman received during the fight, it’s a testament to the man’s inner strength that he bounced back to become one of America’s most endearing celebrities. Ali comes across as an egotistical joker who talks in fast-forward mode constantly, and his rapier wit seems to act as a ploy to hide his insecurities about fighting the ‘unbeatable’ Foreman. The interviews are all nostalgic recollections as opposed to cutting comments, but they do break up the archive footage nicely, and on the whole, proceedings are edited together in a slick and concise way (although further establishing explanations in some sequences would have been preferable). The musical concert numbers contained in the film are good quality, and feature some intense performances from James Brown and B.B. King.

In short, When We Were Kings is a very good documentary that will please non-boxing fans as well as Ali/Foreman enthusiasts. It contains some excellent archive footage, and is very entertaining if completely one-sided. Whether it deserved an Oscar is debatable, but the film certainly deserves praise, if just for Leon Gast who devoted nearly twenty years of his life towards finishing it.

Although the Region 1 version has both fullscreen and widescreen versions (compared to the sole Widescreen version on Region 2), the Region 2 is, unlike the Region 1 version, anamorphic matted 1.77:1, and is generally pleasing if inconsistent. This, however, is due to the various types, ages and quality of archive footage used for the film, and on the whole the varied visual look gives a distinctive documentary feel and doesn’t detract at all from proceedings.

Presented in Dolby 2.0 surround, the soundtrack is essentially mono due to the age of the footage, but glorious stereo for the concert scenes, and both the old footage and the music have been remixed and are clearly audible. The concerts scenes in particular are mixed well, and given added bass to add to the funk level that is so predominant with artists such as James Brown and B.B.King.


Menu: Static menus with the cover poster as background. This is uninspired, as it could at least contain footage from the fight incorporated into the menu somehow.

Packaging: Standard amaray casing with artwork lifted straight from the Polygram video release. Also comes with a four page booklet inlay (with no chapter details!) that describes Leon Gast’s struggle to bring When We Were Kings to the screen.

Two Ali Fights: ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ & ‘Thrilla In Manilla’: This is a truly superb extra that isn’t available on the Region 1 version. Two Ali fights are shown in their entirety, the aforementioned Foreman fight in 1974 and the Joe Frazier fight in 1975. There are presented with brief introductions by Sky Sports Commentator Ian Darke, and are intensely exciting to watch, and are a clear example as to how boxing has declined in the twenty-first century in comparison. Universal have even provided chapter stops for each round, and the whole extra lasts for over an hour and forty minutes. The sound is slightly hissy, but this helps give a seventies feel to the fights.

Theatrical Trailer: The trailer also is confused, as it carries the title ‘The True Story Of The Rumble In The Jungle’ yet is assembled as a trailer for a documentary solely about Muhammad Ali. Even so, the trailer is quite exciting, and feels like a Rocky trailer.

When We Were Kings is worth watching once, but only true boxing fans will want to own it, especially considering the two classic fights that are generously included as extras. Picture quality beats that of the Region 1 version, and although an interview with Leon Gast is omitted from the Region 2 release, it still is the best available version, and could possibly be the most-inspired Universal back-catalogue release. It’s a pity however, that the obvious deleted footage and a commentary from Leon Gast couldn’t have been included. Even so, the DVD is a valued showcase for Ali’s tremendous all-round charisma and supreme fighting ability.

Raphael Pour-Hashemi

Updated: Nov 25, 2001

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