The Character Assassination of Max Baer?

June 05, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story" - that's a good motto for narrative film makers to follow. While it's always nice to re-create history, sometimes a better story results from some improvisation. However, there are certain lines that are better left uncrossed, and, according to some, Ron Howard's ballyhooed and overrated Cinderella Man crosses one of those. It's certainly reasonable for Howard to do everything possible to bolster the heroic deeds of his main character, James Braddock. However, is Braddock's story amazing enough in itself that the film did not have to manufacture a villain where one may not have existed? (Spoilers for the movie follow.)

According to Cinderella Man, Max Baer Sr. was a nasty, arrogant man who relished his reputation as a killer in the ring. He had beaten two opponents to death and appeared ready to dole out a similar fate to Braddock. Of course, in the movies, good usually wins out over evil, so, in this tradition, Braddock defeats Baer. That's the way it happened in real life. The basic facts are not in dispute. What is in contention is the film's representation of Baer's character. The real Baer was actually as much of a hero as Braddock, having attained a revered status after beating German fighter Max Schmeling in a 1933 bout. This was during a time when anti-Nazi feeling was on the rise, and, to many, anything German was anathema. (Schmeling was Hitler's favorite boxer, although the fighter would later help hide Jews during the war.) According to Baer's family, he was tortured by the deaths he caused, although others claimed he boasted about those victories. (One thing not in dispute is that, after killing Joseph Campbell in a 1930 match, Baer donated purses from his next several fights to the dead man's family.)

Cinderella Man demonizes Baer in order to make Braddock's victory sweeter. After all, it's easier to root against a one-dimensional bad guy than someone who is being portrayed as a human being. But is this taking legitimate license or is it irresponsible? Is it one thing to do this with a distant historical figure (Napoleon, for example), but another to do this with someone whose children and grandchildren are still alive? Or should Cinderella Man have changed the name of the opponent in the final bout to that of someone fictional, thus deflecting criticism? All legitimate questions, none of which are easy to answer.

Max Baer was not perfect, but, by all accounts, he was not the ogre that he is depicted as in Cinderella Man. At a minimum, the movie shows insensitivity to Baer's family, but it could also be seen as besmirching a decent man's reputation. Exaggerating the qualities of a protagonist is a common enough practice, but what about turning an antagonist into an outright villain?

The filmmakers' argument is that by representing Baer in the way they have, they have told a better story. (It's certainly a more simplistic one.) Friends and family of Baer claim that Cinderella Man commits character assassination. The lionization of Braddock comes at the expense of Baer, and this lopsided portrayal is how today's generation of movie-goers will see a man who hasn't fought a bout in more than 60 years. It's hard to deny that they have a point, and it raises questions about what responsibility, if any, filmmakers have to the historical record when they use the names of real people. And that's a thorny briar patch into which I am not yet prepared to leap. But Cinderella Man has highlighted an issue that I will remember the next time I watch a movie that claims to be "based on a true story."