February 10th 2009 23:53
Written by David O'Connell
David O'Connell is a guest writer on 20/20 Filmsight, and has his own excellent movie review site at Sceen Fanatic.
Lionel Rose, a world champion bantamweight at 19, had a destiny scripted from an early age. Born into poverty in country Victoria, he soon saw a glimpse of his own future when taken to a fight night in West Melbourne; there he watched champion Aboriginal lightweight George Bracken in full flight and became determined to follow in his footsteps - to claim his only chance at glory from the oppressive squalor of life in cramped surroundings, sharing property with numerous other Aboriginal families, many with as much as a dozen children attached.
Eddie Martinís unassuming documentary, "Lionel (2007)", three years in the making, traces the arc of his career from the early days of amateur bouts, under the tutelage of Frank Oates, to his transition to professional ranks, a decision which meant moving to Melbourne to find a new trainer. Jack Rennie, a leading figure in the sport, fitted the bill and under his care Lionel thrived, becoming a surrogate family member, living under their roof to help alleviate any feeling of dislocation or homesickness.
Watching Lionel speak itís clear that he hasnít changed much over the years from the shy kid he was at 19, a reluctant hero, to the equally humble man of today who just happens to be idolized by so many for his heroic deeds. Though not an articulate man, he has the ability to recall the past with occasionally minute details which give an impression of how his identity, in youth, may have been forged. With few opportunities at their disposal his family made the best of everything until Lionelís time to shine presented itself, luring him away to an alien world filled with bright lights, fame and strangers who recognized him by sight.
Lionelís dedication to his sport from the beginning was unquestionable: from fulfilling a boxing engagement on the night of his fatherís funeral all the way to world stardom, culminating with his victory over Fighting Harada in Japan in February 1968. Thereís fascinating footage of the momentous bout as well as the preceding training sessions as Lionel adjusted to foreign conditions and a growing sense of expectation.
The aftermath is even more fascinating: the heroís welcome, like something afforded a rock star, and the enormous underlying social significance attached to it, for the hostility towards Japan and its people was still something that lingered like a bitter taste in the mouths of Australians at the time.
Further honours lay in wait for Lionel down the track, including an M.B.E and title of Australian of the Year, but the gentle young man took it all in his stride, surviving a few title defenses before succumbing to Ruben Olivares in mid-1969. Returning home a proud but vanquished champ he proposed marriage to Jenny, his longtime sweetheart and daughter of Jack Oates. After an unsuccessful transition to Lightweight division he retired in 1971, and whilst there was an attempt at resurrecting his career in 1975, some disheartening failures followed and Lionel knew his days were finally numbered, admitting that he was ďfading out like an old cowboyĒ.
Martinís low-key directorial style allows for a tinge of melancholia to slowly seep in through Lionelís sparse reflections on his life. Though sprinkled with interviews from some of the significant figures from his past and present, there are no profound insights sought, only a celebration of a worthy, dignified life which continues to inspire young men, even in a time when the sport of boxing has lost much of its luster and allure.
Lionel was, and still is, a symbolic representation of his people, a shining example of an Aboriginal man good enough to conquer the world and embrace his dreams on their behalf. Though he admits to reporters at the time to never thinking of his deeds in that context, history itself tells a different tale - one whose proof is evident in the way Lionel is treated when mixing with old and young Aboriginal men today, many of whom would have had his name passed down to them growing up like a figure of legend or folklore.
Always uncomfortable in the limelight, Lionel has reconciled with the adulation he receives by greeting it with humility - and silence, if need be, should the headlines be less than flattering. He lives modestly today, ďa real homebodyĒ, never straying far from Drouin, and though he doesnít go into detail about it, he makes a fascinating admission early on, describing boxing as the loneliest sport he knows. Why? Perhaps itís the blinding lights, the millions of expectant eyes isolating him in that ring, reserves of primal reaction and brute force required to survive. Or perhaps itís something else we can only guess at. Regardless, Lionel Roseís proud name is set live on for generations to come.
"Lionel" is available on DVD in Australia from Siren Visual, and has appeared on SBS.
*this image is from MIFF
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