It took director-producer Leon Gast 22 years to edit and finance When We Were Kings, his thrilling documentary about the legendary 1974 heavyweight-championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. But the lag time has only deepened the impact of this thrilling documentary: All sad thoughts of Ali as a wounded warrior fall away in the glow of seeing the champ at his best.
The Ali who knocked out Foreman, wonderfully captured in finely chosen swatches of film, was beautiful, charming, self-confident, articulate, and burning with talent in his prime. But When We Were Kings expands on the greatness of two athletes in fierce competition to capture the dizzy excitement of the event: for the Africans who sang and cheered and chanted ”Ali, Boma ye!” — in other words, ”Ali, kill him!” — happily responding to the exhortations of the charismatic underdog; for swaggering fight promoter Don King, who bet on the success of the event to make him even more famous; for the electrifying black American musicians (including James Brown and B.B. King) who traveled to Zaire to put on a show and make a statement about black pride; and for the sportswriters who recognized in the showdown one of the defining moments in human athletic contests.
George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, two of that entourage of scribblers, provide incisive commentary on what the whole circus felt like. (Plimpton describes Don King’s ”great uprush of hair.” Mailer describes Ali’s fight tactics as those of ”a sleeping elephant.”) The music, by turns throbbing and sinuous, binds the images of African children and white music promoters, boxing coaches and photographers, press conferences and training sessions, into a gorgeous whole that brings the ”Rumble in the Jungle” alive with a vibrancy guaranteed to move the souls of even the most boxing illiterate. In one moment of poetry, Don King describes all the participants as being enveloped in ”an aura of scintillating splendor.” For once, he was simply stating the facts.