The Great White Hope


1h 46m 1970
The Great White Hope

Brief Synopsis

A black boxer and his white mistress face racial prejudice when he wins the championship.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Biography
Sports
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1970
Premiere Information
New York opening: 11 Oct 1970
Production Company
Lawrence Turman Films, Inc.
Distribution Company
Twentieth Century--Fox Film Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Glob, Arizona, USA; Barcelona, Spain
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (Washington, D. C.,, 7 Dec 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 46m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (DeLuxe)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

In the first decade of the 20th century boxer Jack Jefferson beats Frank Brady in Reno and becomes the first black heavyweight champion of the world. To the consternation of his common-law wife Clara and the militant Scipio, the irrepressible fighter takes as his mistress white divorcée Eleanor Bachman. After crossing the Illinois-Wisconsin state line with Eleanor, Jefferson is arrested in a hotel, charged under the Mann Act, and sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary at Joliet. Disguised as a member of a black baseball team, however, Jefferson escapes to Canada. Accompanied by Eleanor he travels to London, where he is refused a license to fight. In Paris he beats his white opponent so badly that none will challenge him. A pariah, he journeys to Germany. In Budapest the boxer is so reduced in circumstances as to play the title role in a cabaret performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although offered a reduced sentence by a federal agent in return for throwing a fight in Havana, Jefferson refuses. He retires to Mexico, where he and Eleanor eke out a marginal existence. In desperation Eleanor begs Jefferson to accept the Havana match. The infuriated boxer berates his mistress, blaming her for their hopeless situation. Distraught, Eleanor drowns herself in a well, after which Jefferson agrees to the fixed fight. During its final rounds he rebels and attempts, too late, to win the bout.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Biography
Sports
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1970
Premiere Information
New York opening: 11 Oct 1970
Production Company
Lawrence Turman Films, Inc.
Distribution Company
Twentieth Century--Fox Film Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Glob, Arizona, USA; Barcelona, Spain
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (Washington, D. C.,, 7 Dec 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 46m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (DeLuxe)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Award Nominations

Best Actor

1970
James Earl Jones

Best Actress

1970
Jane Alexander

Articles

The Great White Hope


Howard Sackler's play The Great White Hope centered around Jack Jefferson, a fictionalized version of Jack Johnson, the first black world's heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson was a proud, articulate man who refused to be less than he was to please white people. When he married a white woman at the turn of the century it caused a scandal and led to him being persecuted by the police and eventually leaving the country. The 1967 play, starring James Earl Jones as Jefferson and Jane Alexander as his wife, attracted much of the same hatred. Alexander countered it by saying, "Most of my life I had never been exposed to prejudice. My father is a bone surgeon, and color is not very relevant to a man's bones. I have no unusual feeling as an actress about kissing Jimmy and getting to bed with him. If I were in love with him in life and he asked me, I'd marry him. Color means nothing. And then, too, Jimmy Jones is a great human being. He never makes anything of his color, either." Two years later when the play was adapted into a film, Jones and Alexander reprised their roles with the cast rounded out with Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards, and Chester Morris. Film director Martin Ritt was chosen over the play's director Ed Sherin with the results uneven. Ritt himself acknowledged that it was one project he should not have accepted.

The Great White Hope was shot on the 20th Century-Fox lot, using the sets which had recently been created for Hello, Dolly! (1968) , and at various locations in Globe, Arizona and Barcelona, Spain. Jones remembered filming in Barcelona in his autobiography, Voices Chosen, "In Barcelona there was the tension of the Franco regime, and Marty Ritt could not be comfortable in Spain, even though the Spanish people themselves were wonderful. It seemed as if they had democratized themselves on a spiritual and human level in spite of Franco and the fascist regime, and there was great prosperity as long as the labor movements stayed in line. [...] I took photographs on the set. There were throngs of extras. Spanish soldiers were given ties, jackets, and straw hats, and marched in by the regiment for crowd scenes. On my birthday that January 1970, five thousand people sang "Happy Birthday" to me in Spanish in the Barcelona stadium. "

As Jones got to know the Spanish members of the crew, he found that Franco's reach extended beyond politics and the military. "In the last week of the filming, a lot of the crew began to invite us to their houses. They gave wonderful parties. Some of them played classical guitar. Many of them were fringe people and closet homosexuals, forced by the repression of the Franco regime to act out parodies of I am a Camera or Cabaret. It was something they had felt they could not share with us in the beginning, but toward the end, they let us into their world."

While Jones was falling in love with Spanish culture and flamenco music, there were tensions on the set of The Great White Hope, as Jones later said, "Filming was not going well. It had started going badly once 20th Century-Fox settled on the script. One of the ironies is that it should have remained a simpler movie with a smaller budget, and they should have had the wisdom to retain Ed Sherin as director. Marty Ritt, fine film director though he was, deferred too much to the stage performances entrenched in those of us who had been through the run of the stage play. Often, when were wrestling with a scene for the film, he would ask us to tell him what we had done on stage. We would demonstrate, and he would try to incorporate that into the film. From the beginning, he said, "Give me your stage performance, I'll modulate them."

The Great White Hope was released on October 16, 1970 to lukewarm reviews. Variety felt the film resembled "the best of the old Warner Bros. Depression dramas; but in the distended play-out of the fighter's tragic private life via involvement with a white woman, the picture sags. However, a superior cast, headed by James Earl Jones encoring in his stage role, a colorful and earthy script, plus outstanding production, render film quite palatable. Jones' re-creation of his stage role is an eye-riveting experience. The towering rages and unrestrained joys of which his character was capable are portrayed larger than life."

Vincent Canby in The New York Times thought that The Great White Hope was "never much of a play" despite winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. "The movie that Martin Ritt has made from it [...] is necessarily limited by nature of the original text. The Great White Hope is a polemical, black Passion Play about Jack Jefferson [...]. The film, like the play, progresses in terms of highly stylized scenes that dramatize Jack Jefferson's initial triumph, his subsequent persecution and his humiliations as if they were the Stations of the Cross. [...] As the movie progresses, the tableaux become increasingly overwrought, leading to the climactic one in Juarez, in which the body of a lady, who has just committed suicide by jumping down a well, is hauled on screen like one of Medea's children. That Mr. Sackler's talent cannot support his tragic design is apparent from the fact that one's sympathies are not as much concerned with the poor lady as with the poor peons, who still must use the well into which the lady so thoughtlessly threw herself." Canby, like Variety, reserved his praise for Jones, "I'd like to add that the film contains a performance that makes the windy, otherwise empty movie seem inhabited, if not by a life, at least by art. James Earl Jones [...] is marvelous to watch, combining heroic physical presence, technique and (to me) a completely mysterious way of projecting intelligence, so that the character commands attention even when the drama doesn't."

Unlike the critics, Jones was not happy with his performance. "The movie did not do well, but I was nominated for an Oscar® [as was co-star Jane Alexander], although I thought my chances were slim. As I expected, it went to George C. Scott for Patton, and, as it turned out, he declined to accept. I was actually disappointed in my performance, and in the ultimate quality of the film. The lesson may simply be that it is almost impossible to transmute one form into another – a novel into a film, a stage drama into a motion picture. Maybe!" Ritt, for his part, "felt the two actors were terrific and [Howard Sackler] was onto a very hot subject. I think the film suffered, it needed something that I didn't quite give it. The blacks I think really rejected the film.[...] I felt I could have done a better job on that picture."

Producer: Lawrence Turman
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Howard Sackler
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith
Music: Lionel Newman
Film Editing: William Reynolds
Cast: James Earl Jones (Jack Jefferson), Jane Alexander (Eleanor Backman), Lou Gilbert (Goldie), Joel Fluellen (Tick), Chester Morris (Pop Weaver), Robert Webber (Dixon), Hal Holbrook (Al Cameron), Beah Richards (Mama Tiny), Moses Gunn (Scipio).
C-103m.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
Voices Chosen by James Earl Jones
Variety 1970
The New York Times review by Vincent Canby, October 12, 1970 Martin Ritt Interviews by Gabriel Miller
The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope

Howard Sackler's play The Great White Hope centered around Jack Jefferson, a fictionalized version of Jack Johnson, the first black world's heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson was a proud, articulate man who refused to be less than he was to please white people. When he married a white woman at the turn of the century it caused a scandal and led to him being persecuted by the police and eventually leaving the country. The 1967 play, starring James Earl Jones as Jefferson and Jane Alexander as his wife, attracted much of the same hatred. Alexander countered it by saying, "Most of my life I had never been exposed to prejudice. My father is a bone surgeon, and color is not very relevant to a man's bones. I have no unusual feeling as an actress about kissing Jimmy and getting to bed with him. If I were in love with him in life and he asked me, I'd marry him. Color means nothing. And then, too, Jimmy Jones is a great human being. He never makes anything of his color, either." Two years later when the play was adapted into a film, Jones and Alexander reprised their roles with the cast rounded out with Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards, and Chester Morris. Film director Martin Ritt was chosen over the play's director Ed Sherin with the results uneven. Ritt himself acknowledged that it was one project he should not have accepted. The Great White Hope was shot on the 20th Century-Fox lot, using the sets which had recently been created for Hello, Dolly! (1968) , and at various locations in Globe, Arizona and Barcelona, Spain. Jones remembered filming in Barcelona in his autobiography, Voices Chosen, "In Barcelona there was the tension of the Franco regime, and Marty Ritt could not be comfortable in Spain, even though the Spanish people themselves were wonderful. It seemed as if they had democratized themselves on a spiritual and human level in spite of Franco and the fascist regime, and there was great prosperity as long as the labor movements stayed in line. [...] I took photographs on the set. There were throngs of extras. Spanish soldiers were given ties, jackets, and straw hats, and marched in by the regiment for crowd scenes. On my birthday that January 1970, five thousand people sang "Happy Birthday" to me in Spanish in the Barcelona stadium. " As Jones got to know the Spanish members of the crew, he found that Franco's reach extended beyond politics and the military. "In the last week of the filming, a lot of the crew began to invite us to their houses. They gave wonderful parties. Some of them played classical guitar. Many of them were fringe people and closet homosexuals, forced by the repression of the Franco regime to act out parodies of I am a Camera or Cabaret. It was something they had felt they could not share with us in the beginning, but toward the end, they let us into their world." While Jones was falling in love with Spanish culture and flamenco music, there were tensions on the set of The Great White Hope, as Jones later said, "Filming was not going well. It had started going badly once 20th Century-Fox settled on the script. One of the ironies is that it should have remained a simpler movie with a smaller budget, and they should have had the wisdom to retain Ed Sherin as director. Marty Ritt, fine film director though he was, deferred too much to the stage performances entrenched in those of us who had been through the run of the stage play. Often, when were wrestling with a scene for the film, he would ask us to tell him what we had done on stage. We would demonstrate, and he would try to incorporate that into the film. From the beginning, he said, "Give me your stage performance, I'll modulate them." The Great White Hope was released on October 16, 1970 to lukewarm reviews. Variety felt the film resembled "the best of the old Warner Bros. Depression dramas; but in the distended play-out of the fighter's tragic private life via involvement with a white woman, the picture sags. However, a superior cast, headed by James Earl Jones encoring in his stage role, a colorful and earthy script, plus outstanding production, render film quite palatable. Jones' re-creation of his stage role is an eye-riveting experience. The towering rages and unrestrained joys of which his character was capable are portrayed larger than life." Vincent Canby in The New York Times thought that The Great White Hope was "never much of a play" despite winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. "The movie that Martin Ritt has made from it [...] is necessarily limited by nature of the original text. The Great White Hope is a polemical, black Passion Play about Jack Jefferson [...]. The film, like the play, progresses in terms of highly stylized scenes that dramatize Jack Jefferson's initial triumph, his subsequent persecution and his humiliations as if they were the Stations of the Cross. [...] As the movie progresses, the tableaux become increasingly overwrought, leading to the climactic one in Juarez, in which the body of a lady, who has just committed suicide by jumping down a well, is hauled on screen like one of Medea's children. That Mr. Sackler's talent cannot support his tragic design is apparent from the fact that one's sympathies are not as much concerned with the poor lady as with the poor peons, who still must use the well into which the lady so thoughtlessly threw herself." Canby, like Variety, reserved his praise for Jones, "I'd like to add that the film contains a performance that makes the windy, otherwise empty movie seem inhabited, if not by a life, at least by art. James Earl Jones [...] is marvelous to watch, combining heroic physical presence, technique and (to me) a completely mysterious way of projecting intelligence, so that the character commands attention even when the drama doesn't." Unlike the critics, Jones was not happy with his performance. "The movie did not do well, but I was nominated for an Oscar® [as was co-star Jane Alexander], although I thought my chances were slim. As I expected, it went to George C. Scott for Patton, and, as it turned out, he declined to accept. I was actually disappointed in my performance, and in the ultimate quality of the film. The lesson may simply be that it is almost impossible to transmute one form into another – a novel into a film, a stage drama into a motion picture. Maybe!" Ritt, for his part, "felt the two actors were terrific and [Howard Sackler] was onto a very hot subject. I think the film suffered, it needed something that I didn't quite give it. The blacks I think really rejected the film.[...] I felt I could have done a better job on that picture." Producer: Lawrence Turman Director: Martin Ritt Screenplay: Howard Sackler Cinematography: Burnett Guffey Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith Music: Lionel Newman Film Editing: William Reynolds Cast: James Earl Jones (Jack Jefferson), Jane Alexander (Eleanor Backman), Lou Gilbert (Goldie), Joel Fluellen (Tick), Chester Morris (Pop Weaver), Robert Webber (Dixon), Hal Holbrook (Al Cameron), Beah Richards (Mama Tiny), Moses Gunn (Scipio). C-103m. by Lorraine LoBianco SOURCES: Voices Chosen by James Earl Jones Variety 1970 The New York Times review by Vincent Canby, October 12, 1970 Martin Ritt Interviews by Gabriel Miller

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Exterior scenes filmed in Barcelona, Spain, and Globe, Arizona. Episodes are based on the careers of Jack Johnson, James Jeffries, Jess Willard, and Tommy Burns.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Fall October 11, 1970

Released in United States on Video July 26, 1990

Play opened in Washington, DC December 7, 1967. Episodes are based on the careers of Jack Johnson, James Jeffries, Jess Willard and Tommy Burns.

Released in United States on Video July 26, 1990

Released in United States Fall October 11, 1970