Leon Gast's When We Were Kings documents the "Rumble in the Jungle," the legendary boxing match between undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman against former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. The bout took place in Zaire, Africa (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) on October 30, 1974, and became the world's most-watched live television broadcast at the time with an estimated one billion viewers worldwide. Gast spent two decades editing the film.
Promoter Don King was involved in setting up the championship match as well as Zaire 74, a three-day music festival that featured James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and a collection of Zairian musical groups. The festival was supposed to lead into the fight, but a sparring accident to Foreman caused the fight to be delayed. The concert had to go on as scheduled, which is documented in Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte's 2009 concert film Soul Power. It is accessible in the Supplements, creating a stealth double feature.
For anyone aware of the man and his commanding personality whenever in front of a camera, it should come as no surprise that even though he was the challenger and an underdog, Muhammad Ali is the star of the film. Charisma oozes out of him and he captivates all of whom he comes into contact. Almost every Zairian apears to be rooting for him. As most fighters do, he predicts victory, but he also speaks about his place and the plight of his people in the United States, which fails in its claim of being “the land of the free” for all.
George Foreman is a presence in the film, looking fearsome while in the ring, and he has a good sense of humor, but he pales in personality compared to Ali, which is not a slight because most men do. He doesn't generate the same energy when out among people like Ali does.
The film presents excerpts of the fight, well known for Ali executing his rope-a-dope strategy. Interviews conducted years later provide context from writers/attendees Norman Mailer and George Plimpton offering their insight into the fighters and the match. Spike Lee speaks of Ali as a hero.
The video is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and encoded in 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC, the liner notes reveal “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director scanner from a 35mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.” As a documentary, most scenes weren't lit for the film so grain increases the lower the light gets. Primaries are strong hues and earth tones rich. Focus leans soft and depth is impacted by the limitations.
Also from the liner notes, “The 5.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm six-track full-coat magnetic tapes using Avid's Pro Tools and iZotope RX.” Dialogue is clear. Excerpts from the concert present music that fills the surrounds with a wide dynamic range, from the high-pitched notes that B.B. King coaxes out of Lucille to the powerful bottom end of James Brown's funky soul stylings.
The special edition features are:
- Leon Gast (1080i, 4 min) - From 1997, Gast talks about the film and the boxers.
- David Sonenberg (1080i, 16 min) - From 2019, producer David Sonenberg discusses working with Leon Gast and how it came together.
- Trailer (1080i, 2 min).
- Soul Power (HD, 92 min) - As both the concert and the fight were planned to occur and be filmed consecutively, there is some crossover with When We Were Kings and Kusama-Hinte's documentary, which combines pre-production and the concert.
Winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary, When We Were Kings is a marvelous time capsule, capturing multiple facets of Muhammad Ali in 1974. He is a showman who won an an epic boxing match and also a black man in America who wants better for his brothers and sisters and has ideas on how to bring that to fruition. While the source limits the high-definition expectations, Criterion's inclusion of Soul Power makes this a must-own.