Fight films: The gospel according to Rector

Harry Mullan pays tribute to the men who committed canvas to celluloid
Click to follow
Nobody with such a resounding Victorian name as Enoch Rector deserves to be forgotten, which is one reason why we should be grateful to the British Film Institute for reviving interest in his work. Rector filmed the heavyweight championship fight between James J Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons 100 years ago, the first time boxing had been successfully filmed and, indeed, the first full-length feature film of any kind. In its original form, in a unique wide-screen format, it ran for around 100 minutes.

The restored work, of which around 25 minutes survives, is being screened at the BFI on 10 June as the centrepiece of a unique selection of boxing- related clips ranging from early newsreel footage of John L Sullivan, Jack Johnson and Sam Langford to championship fights such as Johnson's famous victory over James J Jeffries, Jack Dempsey's 1921 defeat of Georges Carpentier (shown in its entirety, including the build-up) and the two epic confrontations between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. There is even a one-minute glimpse of the first boxing film ever made, a studio fight between Jack Leonard and Mike Cushing filmed at the Edison Studio in 1894. But it is Rector's unique contribution which will steal the show.

Few outside the narrow world of cinema history will have heard of him, yet boxers and bank managers around the world should light candles in his memory. Without his vision and imagination, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield would not be sharing anything like the pounds 50m they will split later this month for their heavyweight championship rematch in Las Vegas. Rector was the first to recognise the commercial potential of the link between boxing and cinema, to appreciate that boxing, with its unlimited potential for the dramatic, cried out for the camera. It is a link which has been profitably exploited for a century in cinema's various branches of actuality, documentary and fiction, in a chain which reaches from Rector all the way down to Leon Gast's homage to Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings.

The BFI's presentation is the result of a long friendship between Clyde Jeavons, curator of the National Film and Television Archive, and the late Jim Jacobs, the former world handball champion who, with his partner Bill Cayton, built up the world's largest collection of fight films and, as a sideline, managed the young Mike Tyson. Jacobs, an engaging character, scoured the world for obscure fragments of forgotten boxing films, and would think nothing of flying from New York to Paris to chase a flickering image of Billy Papke battling Frank Klaus in 1913, or some lost triumph of a young Carpentier. I edited the sport's trade paper at the time, and Jacobs was a frequent visitor to our offices. He had the passion of the true obsessive, and lived in dreams that one day some old widow would turn out a cardboard box in her attic and discover the only surviving copy of Mysterious Billy Smith's 1898 draw with Joe Walcott, or something equally obscure.

Such little miracles happened more often than you might expect, and often in those kind of circumstances. When they did, and Jacobs managed to obtain the film, he would donate it to the BFI who would preserve the unstable nitrate originals and provide him with copies, which were added to the hugely impressive film library which formed the basis of Jacobs and Cayton's Big Fights Inc. business. Jacobs died in 1988, but Cayton has maintained the BFI relationship to their mutual benefit.

Luke McKernan, a NFTVA cataloguer with a special interest in sports films, is co- organiser with Jeavons of the BFI show. He describes the restoration of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons film as the highlight of their association with Jacobs and Cayton. "It was shot on a unique 63mm format, and producing a satisfactory copy on modern 35mm stock proved an extremely complicated task," he told me. "About a quarter of the original survives, some in a very fragmentary state, but we have managed to produce an edited, coherent version of the material."

The show forms the centrepiece of the NFT's season of boxing films this month, including Gentleman Jim (3 June), Jack Johnson and The Great White Hope (9 June), The Prizefighter and The Lady (13 June) and The Joe Louis Story (22 June). The Louis film, made in 1953, starred Coley Wallace in the title role. Wallace, an astonishing lookalike for the old champion, once beat Rocky Marciano as an amateur, but the film ends with Marciano giving Louis a savage beating in his 1951 comeback. In boxing, art too rarely imitates life.

"Battles of the Century: A Celebration of 100 Years of Boxing Films" will be staged at the National Film Theatre on 11 June, 6.30pm.