Friday, April 1, 2011

Sam McVea vs Battling Jim Johnson 1910

Sam McVea vs Battling Jim Johnson
Neuilly, Hauts-de-Seine, France, 8/7/10
French Pathe Films 6:29

The Fight
Fight films were big business at the turn of the 20th century. During this period, the Europeans were often more faithful in filming and preserving fight movies than Americans. It has long been rumored that a treasure of vintage footage in France and England has yet to be made available. However, some films have recently come to light, including this rare and amazing film of two great African American boxers in action, Sam McVea & Battling Jim Johnson, filmed in Neuilly, Hauts-de-Seine, France, August 8, 1910. This same venue also hosted part of the 1910 Olympic Games.

There is some debate about the date and identity of this film. Sam McVey is easy to recognize, but some have said his opponent was either Jack Johnson or San Langford. After having researched photographs and records of the fighters, it’s clear that neither is Johnson or Langford. Jack Johnson’s record does not show him in France or fighting there in 1911. Sam Langford was in France at the time, but was much shorter than the boxer facing McVea. Photographs of Battling Johnson match the build and stance of the boxer shown in the film. There’s also the question of the date, since Johnson and McVea fought in Paris in August 1910 and again in November 1911. Here the answer is with the spectators. November in Paris is rainy and cold. The outdoor audience in the film is dressed in fashionable clothes, typical for the period in warm weather.

The fight itself begins at a pace much faster than other bouts of the day. McVea and Johnson appear skilled, conditioned and in their respective primes. A newspaper report of the fight mentions McVea as starting out smiling and confident in the opening round, and he appears this way in the film. However, Johnson takes the fight to McVea and the two are trading equally at the end of the round. It strikes me that the defensive tactical style that we associate with Jack Johnson was in fact common among African American boxers during this period. It’s thrilling to see two fighters in action.

The Film
Unfortunately this clip is very short. We see the boxers enter the ring; receive instructions, followed by the opening round. Brief portions of other rounds are also shown, but there is no continuity to the film. There are frequent cuts, and it’s impossible to tell if this was sloppy editing, or if the cameraman stopped and started the camera depending on the action. Notice at 4:52, McVea appears to be rising from a knockdown or likely a slip. It’s hard to tell if the referee was counting or just waving the fighters to resume. Pathe newsreels began in 1910, so the film may have been filmed for that purpose. In any case, the fight went to a 15 round draw. The film emulsion deteriorates and the movie comes to an end.

The original film is clear well exposed, having been shot under daylight. However, the camera was cranked very slow, so the movement runs extremely fast when projected normally. I adjusted the picture, enhancing the levels and contrast. The film speed was brought down 30% to approximate real time. Highlights are replayed in slow motion at the end.

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