After recently rewatching, The Harder They Fall, I considered writing something about the differences between the movie and the novel on which it is based. As it turns out, the author of the book, Budd Schulberg, beat me to it – by more than fifty years.
In a June 1956 Sport Illustrated piece, Schulberg calls Humphrey Bogart’s last film “an inaccurate and overstated picture of boxing evils” and contends that “to suggest that every fight is fixed, every manager venal, and every fighter a victim is to do a large injustice to hundreds of fine fighters and reliable trainers and managers whose careers ride on the unknown outcome of every big fight.” He complains that the director, Mark Robson, sensationalized his story by imagining improbable fixes, disregarding boxing’s rules and misrepresenting fans’ response to a fighter being carried out on a stretcher. He objects to the depiction of a fighter (played by a former heavyweight champion, Max Baer, no less) as eager to receive credit for the death of another boxer. Schulberg knew several boxers who “figured in fatalities or near fatalities” and reports: “Not one ever voiced any other sentiment but anguish for any permanent damage inflicted on an opponent.”
Even before the film was released, Schulberg objected to Bogart’s sportswriter character calling for the abolition of boxing, something the novel doesn’t do and something Schulberg never supported. The producers agreed to change the scene so that the ex-press agent instead says “the boxing business must rid itself of … evil influence – even if it takes an act of Congress to do so.” But this too was something Schulberg didn’t endorse. Instead, he believed boxing needed a strong commission similar to the one governing baseball.
I knew Schulberg wanted boxing reformed. In the 1995 foreword to his 1947 novel, he expresses the hope that “maybe one of these days we’ll rescue a fascinating sport, full of brave warriors and honest practitioners, from the gutter which it still finds so congenial.” I use that line as an epigraph to one of the section of Fighters & Writers. While I was familiar with some of Schulberg’s work while writing the essays in that volume, I had yet to read his 1995 collection Sparring with Hemingway, where the film critique “Hollywood Hokum” is reproduced.