When We Were Kings Worth the Wait

Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, James Brown, B.B. King, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, The Crusaders, The Spinners. Directed by Leon Gast. Aspect ratio: 16:9 enhanced widescreen, 1.33:1 pan&scan. Dolby Digital. 94 minutes. 1997. PolyGram 440 045 847-2. Rated PG. $29.99.

The Academy Award winner for Best Documentary feature of 1998, When We Were Kings, is the story of Muhammad Ali's 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing championship. It's a fascinating story. Foreman was so heavily favored to beat Ali that some sportswriters thought the fight should be called off; Ali's pride would never let him admit defeat, they speculated, and he might be killed in the ring.

But the fight in Zaire was more than simply a matter of boxing styles and personalities, and that's where Leon Gast's film excels. Through documentary footage and interviews, he sets the stage with the political backgrounds of Mobutu's dictatorship and Ali's rise to boxing greatness. (The bouts between Sonny Liston and Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, foreshadowed the arguments about Ali's boxing ability that later swirled around his fight with Foreman.)

Gast shadowed Ali and Foreman everywhere in the weeks leading up to the fight, shooting more than 250 hours of film and setting the stage for what must surely rank as one of the most dramatic boxing matches in history. My wife, no great sports fan, became so engrossed in the narrative Gast spins that she paused the film to demand, "Who wins?" If you don't know, I won't spoil it for you; even if you do, this is an extraordinary piece of storytelling.

But it's not some Hollywood story. It's a documentary, which means some of the scenes were shot with hand-held cameras in dark rooms, while others were filmed with startling clarity. In some spots, the sound overloads the microphones and breaks up, but mostly it's clean, and the dialog is comprehensible.

The DVD has the usual features: interactive menus, lots of subtitles, bios, and both standard and widescreen formats. In addition, it has a fascinating interview with director Gast, who tells the tale of how it took more than 20 years for When We Were Kings to make it to the screen. But with 20 years of perspective, we might finally be able to see how remarkable an event the "Rumble" was. When We Were Kings was definitely worth the wait.