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MUHAMMAD ALI
Through the Eyes of the World

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Earl Jones, Dick Schaap, Billy Crystal, Lennox Lewis, Tom Jones, Maya Angelou
Director:  Phil Grabsky
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  January 29, 2002

“I shook up the world!”

Film ****

Muhammad Ali turns 60 this month…it’s almost hard to imagine.  I wasn’t born yet when a young, hungry fighter named Cassius Clay began his trek to becoming “The Greatest”, but I was around through most of his 70’s heyday, riding the wings of an unprecedented comeback after years of setbacks and hardship. 

Here was a man who set the world on fire.  He was a big, strong man, yet he moved as quickly and gracefully as any featherweight.  He never minced his words, in fact becoming just as famous for his antics outside of the ring as his boxing prowess in it.  When he said he was the greatest, it wasn’t an empty boast.  He had the skills to back it up.

Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World is a terrific new documentary that shows the life and times of the legendary champ through a mixture of interviews with friends, reporters, family, and even the occasional opponent, along with plenty of vintage footage of Ali in action, both in and out of the boxing ring.  It’s a solid, entertaining film that is both an insightful look as well as a tribute to the man who changed the face of modern sports.

From his humble beginnings, we learn that young Cassius learned how to fight after his bicycle was stolen.  He was determined to find the thief and teach him a lesson.  He never found the thief, but he found the path that would lead him to international fame…and sometimes, infamy.

The movie collects terrific archive footage, from Clay’s Golden Glove amateur appearance, to his first professional fight, to the moment he becomes the youngest world champion ever.  It was on the heels of that monumental event that he stunned the world by declaring himself a member of the Nation of Islam, and changing his name to Muhammad Ali.

Charismatic and poetic, with a loud voice but a soft smile, became an international celebrity, even crossing his day’s delicate color lines.  In a land where segregation was still the law of the land, he had an impressive number of white fans as well, both here and around the world.  He was as outspoken an activist as either Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X (both of whom he befriended).  Those civil rights leaders met with unhappy endings, and Ali himself would soon find himself facing the greatest challenge of his life.  

When his Selective Service status was inexplicably upgraded from 1Y to 1A, it meant only one thing…Uncle Sam was going to enlist Muhammad Ali at the apex of his career.  Standing by his religions and civil beliefs, Ali chose not to accept the draft.  He knew if he had been inducted into the Army, he probably never would have seen combat, merely serving a comfortable couple of years as a celebrity fighting occasional exhibition matches for troop morale.  But to Ali, that wasn’t the point.

He was stripped of his title and his license to box.  For the next few years, Ali would struggle to make ends meet, taking whatever menial job came his way to keep food on his family’s table.  He never backed down.

Those who reflect on Ali in this film do so with an understandable reverence, especially when remembering this critical time in the champ’s life.  Very rarely had principle come at such a cost, but Ali never wavered on what he believed was right.

At that point, as one reporter puts it, you’d have been a fool to bet that Ali A) would ever box again, much less B) regain his title and C) eventually be named by Sports Illustrated as the Athlete of the Century.  But Ali wouldn’t have been Ali if he hadn’t done all three…in fact, he regained his title not just once, but twice.

All of this and more are covered in Through the Eyes of the World.  This is a terrific documentary film that will serve as a perfect reminder to anyone why Ali was called The Greatest…or for the rare person who may not know about the champ, this is a good place to start. 

Now in the twilight of his remarkable life and battling a debilitating disease, the champ moves a little slower and speaks a little more softly.  The tremors remind us that he’s just a man after all, even though he once walked the earth like a giant.  Yet even now, he’ll look toward the camera with a smile and that same mischievous twinkle in his eye, put up his dukes, and look like he’s ready to spar for a round or two.  And we remember that life may be fleeting, but glory can go on forever.  That is the legacy of Muhammad Ali.

Video ***1/2

This is a quality anamorphic transfer from Universal that maintains a good sense of consistency despite the fact that a certain amount of included footage is several decades old.  It all holds up well and cleanly.  The modern segments boast good coloring and sharp images, with good levels of detail.  The archive clips range from black and white film to color video, and it all has held up pretty well.  Overall, you can consider this a very good offering.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack makes only sparing use of the rear stage for effect, and of the .1 channel for the music, but the front stage is dynamic and lively, with some good panning effects here and there.  Dialogue is clean and clear, and every word the champ says rings out loud and true!

Features ***

My favorite feature is a chronology of Ali’s fights…each showing his win or loss and how many rounds the matches lasted.  Some of them have links to the movie’s footage of the fight, so you can go to them and see the Greatest in action…very cool.  There is a feature called “Through the Eyes of the World”…an interactive map where you can pick locations and see interview footage from people there offering their thoughts and reflections on Ali.  There are some extra unseen interviews, a stills gallery, a tribute music video by Faithless, a promo for the Ali Center, a trailer, and a short featurette.

Summary:

Whether you like boxing or not, whether you’re a devoted Ali fan or just mildly curious, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World is a superb, can’t miss documentary about a true living legend and one of the greatest sportsmen in history.  No one who watches this film will walk away wondering why the man was called “The Greatest”.