If it weren’t for rhyme and Muhammad Ali’s love of taunting his opponents, this film might not have been made. Without the racial slur of “gorilla” that is at the centre of their personal feud, it would have lacked punch except in the literal sense.
The documentary has historical significance although little is added to our understanding of Ali’s complex and at times contradictory personality. Smoking Joe believes that his former opponent’s current illness is a punishment from god.
The fight itself is heralded as the greatest of all time. It was close and extremely brutal. It is beyond dispute that both men did themselves irreparable physical harm. Their two previous encounters were one a piece. This treatment of their bitter rivalry, shown from Joe Frazier’s point of view, leaves a bitter taste that the classic When We Were Kings (Rumble in the Jungle) did not. Neither the duelling duo or the world of professional boxing comes out looking pretty. Suffice it to say that Joe had lost the sight in one eye in 1964, eleven years before this match. It had gone undetected by the authorities or perhaps was just overlooked.
It is hard not to compare Thrilla with the Rumble, Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary about Ali regaining the title from George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Dower had to rely on limited original footage and resorted to a lot of repetition of the clips available. Gast had extensive footage of both the fight and the long weeks beforehand. They seemed to be having a three month long concert with James Brown and company while Foreman’s hand recovered from injury.
Dower used a similar narrative structure. Both films examine the choice of a third world dictatorship as the location and the odd hour chosen to meet television commitments in the U.S.
Much is made of Ali’s political involvement with the Nation Of Islam, most of it covering the same ground as the earlier film.
If Frazier had given up his bitterness, this film would have lost much of its sting. Sadly there was no real winner in the Thrilla in Manila.