It was May 16, 1956 when it was released in wide release The Clay Giant by Mark Robson, with a cast that included stars of the caliber of Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger, one of the most beautiful and forgotten boxing movies to date.
Those were the years in which the noble art had returned to being the great mass ritual for an incredible number of spectators, thanks to boxers whose deeds are alive and remembered as those of some of the greatest protagonists of the ring ever. It was the era of the legendary Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Willie Pep, Carmen Basilio, Ezzard Charles or Cleveland Williams.
Boxing was the most followed activity in the world at the time, certainly it was the American sport par excellence, even more than baseball or football, by virtue of an inclusiveness that in the ring cleared the boundaries present in society.
Blacks, whites, natives, Cubans, Latinos, Europeans … everyone was the same, everyone was followed and everyone tried to become the best. In this panorama, Robson’s film came to lash the myth of the Kings of the ring, reminded everyone of the dark face behind a very violent and thankless sport.
The last great “Bogey” movie
The protagonist of the film was a magnetic and aching Humphrey Bogart, as disillusioned and battered former sports reporter Eddie Willis, who got out of work ended up getting involved with an obscure sports manager named Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to help the rise of rock-hard Argentine boxer Toro Moreno (Mike Lane).
Of course Willis would find he was far less cynical and ruthless than he thought, especially in the face of the dangers and damage that Moreno would have faced, a man of colossal physical strength but very little gifted with technique and above all with the ruthlessness that made the difference in the ring.
Disappointed and angry, he would help the boy return to Argentina, despite Benko’s threats, re-embracing his career as a journalist with even greater passion.
Beautifully directed film, enhanced by a photograph by Burnett Guffey that made history, The Colossus of Clay was Bogart’s last film, who already on the set began to show the first symptoms of that esophageal tumor that would tear him away from his earthly life only the following year.
However, despite the precarious health conditions, he was able as always to use his great charisma to paint a character who is above all passive in the narrative iter outlined by Philip Yordan, which was based on the novel of the same name by Budd Schulberg.
In all respects, the novel was connected to a man who is still alive today in the memories of the Italian people and above all of the lovers of noble art: Primo Carnera, the Mountain that Walks.
Sequals boxer used by the mafia
Carnera, born in Sequals, had been one of the first, true, titans of Heavyweight boxing, in an era in which 185 cm tall beings was considered really significant, he showed up 198 cm strong for more than 105 kg of weight: a kind of tank.
As the protagonist of the film (played by former wrestler Mike Lane) Carnera was a meek and generous man, not at all aggressive or unpredictable. He had come up from the circus, where he performed as a wrestler, thus escaping misery.
Noticed by former French boxer Journeé, Carnera was persuaded to embrace the noble art, meeting manager Leon See, who guided him to several matches around Europe.
Briefly became a symbol of fascist propaganda, Carnera was brought to the Mecca of boxing: the United States. Here he ended up without realizing it under the control of one of the most ferocious gangsters of the time: Owney Madden, who just like Nick Benko de The Clay Giant it guided him to numerous victories against a tide of hired or not very consistent boxers.
Carnera, like the Toro Moreno in the film, was not a particularly technical fighter but endowed with courage, pride and enormous physical strength. Although conditioned by mixed fortunes, his path as a boxer finally saw him become World Champion in June 1933.
Having become the symbol of fascism in the world, Carnera would lose the title the following year, against the American boxer Max Baer, the villain of Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man.
E in The Clay Giant, starring Buddy Brannen, the Champion against whom Toro Moreno was put, there was him, Max Baer, the man who subjected an unfortunate Carnera (sprained his ankle already in the first round) to an authentic torture.
A film that is too anti-American for the general public
Baer wasn’t the only boxing “big” featured in the film. In fact, the cast also included one of the greatest boxers of all time, one of the first African American boxing stars: Jersey Jay Walcott. In conclusion, The Clay Giant was a film that had great consistency.
Fans and aficionados of the generous Carnera already at the time were infuriated by the clear references to the rumors and accusations that still today see the Italian boxer portrayed as a sort of “White Hope” squeezed by the mafia.
In reality, almost all boxers had to submit to the commands of the Mafia bosses, give most of their bags, lose matches on command. Carnera, however, fought against opponents like Sharkey, Joe Louis, Uzcudun, Levinsky, Young Stribling, Gains, always showing courage and humility.
If we consider that he was also suffering from acromegaly (commonly called gigantism) and who never had coaches up to it, one can only see him in the role of victim, one of the many generated by an environment that this film described in a very different way from the Rocky Balboa epic, in some ways anticipating that existential drama that Scorsese would later make myth in Raging Bull.
The Clay Giant was also the subject of a libel suit by Carnera for this reason, which, however, was not successful. Certainly, it cannot be denied that it was a hard, raw, merciless film and in total antithesis to the American epic, to the rhetoric of the sports hero who came out of nowhere who conquered the world.
Perhaps this is why the film was put on the back burner by many, in spite of the incredible chemistry between Bogart and Steiner, of the never banal dialogues and the final full of dignity: it was too anti-American, too real to be accepted by a people who have always mythologized their lies on the big screen.