Written by Vince Freeman
Film, more than any other medium, has the power to move people by showcasing the struggle of the human condition. Heartfelt stories about authentic characters who confront harsh realities brought on by their own poor choices tend to have the most impact on an audience. There is no better example of this than Rod Serling’s masterpiece, REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT; a hard-hitting drama about an aging boxer who can no longer fight professionally, which leaves him unable to eke out a living for himself and his management team. Apart from an impeccable script, this movie has one of the best casts ever assembled. Anthony Quinn plays Louis “Mountain” Rivera, a good natured yet dim-witted, punch-drunk boxer who has little more than his pride to show for his long career. Mickey Rooney plays Army, the trainer and only real friend of the aging fighter. Jackie Gleason, the great one himself, plays Maish Rennick, Mountain’s manager whose poor decisions put the three men in a bind none of them can escape.
The audience is dropped into Mountain’s world with him taking a severe beating by a young Cassius Clay. This opening is seen through Mountain’s point of view getting pummeled by his adversary until he is knocked unconscious. Maish and Army carry Mountain out of the arena through a jeering crowd mocking and taunting him for his bad showing in the ring. Mountain passes a mirror on his way to the locker room and the audience sees first hand the damage of the beating he just endured. This opening establishes Mountain’s world almost instantaneously in a perfect example that it is always better to show the audience details of the story rather than describing them with dialogue or exposition.
In the locker room, a fight commission doctor examines Mountain. He looks at Maish, upset and asks, “You hungry, Maish?” This is a fantastic line that helps establish that Mountain should have quit boxing a long time ago and that his manager is taking advantage of him by risking his life every time he steps into the ring. Because, as the doctor tells Maish, if Mountain has just one more solid punch to his head, he could lose his sight or even die. Therefore, the doctor will not allow Mountain to fight anymore. Naturally, Mountain does not want to stop fighting but must accept that he has no choice but to quit. Maish and Army are the only people Mountain knows and boxing is literally the only thing he can do. The only bright spot that can be found in this moment is that after seventeen years in the ring at least Mountain “walks away with his brain.” A very strong commentary on how the world of boxing spits out fighters without any concern or regard for them.
This is just the beginning of Maish’s problems because he owes money to a loan shark and sees a couple of mobsters outside the locker room waiting for him. He tries to get past the gangsters by leaving through the now empty arena but they follow him and corner him in the boxing ring. The loan shark, Ma Greeny, a menacing woman wearing a fedora and trench coat, reveals that Maish not only bet on Mountain to lose, with money he did not have, but guaranteed that Mountain would get knocked out by the third round. Maish knowingly put Mountain in a dangerous situation which means that the boxer’s manager, and not time, is Mountain’s worst enemy. Ma Greeny’s muscle men give Maish a harsh beating (poetically, in the boxing ring) to let him know that he better pay the money he owes as well as Ma Greeny’s own money that she bet based on Maish’s assurance that Mountain would go down. Maish keeps all this from Mountain and Army. The world, characters and conflicts are masterfully established in this first sequence. Unlike so many films that waste valuable screen time with innuendoes and unnecessary exposition, Rod Serling uses tight and concise dialogue in pertinent situations that serve the story and keep it moving at a fluid pace.
Boxing is the only thing Mountain has ever known, which means he is unable to get the most basic of jobs, including usher at a movie theater. He goes to an unemployment office where he meets Grace Miller, a mousy spinster, who is impressed with Mountain and slightly taken with him. Through the course of his interview, Mountain reveals that he has never done anything except fight and only has a sixth grade education. He is ashamed that he has no skills other than boxing but he is very proud that he was ranked number five in the world ten years ago. Grace feels for Mountain but there is not much she can do for him. This scene is a perfect example of Rod Serling’s use of understatement to show what drives these two people, including Mountain’s overwhelming sense of loyalty to Maish.
Army hates to see Mountain try so hard to get menial jobs and then fail so miserably, which comes out in a scene where Maish and Army play gin rummy in their motel room. This hand of cards is one of the best examples of subtext found in any film. Both men have strong feelings about the situation in which they find themselves. Army worries about Mountain and Maish fears he will be killed unless he can pay the money he owes. The tension builds during their card game until Maish reveals that he wants Mountain to become a professional wrestler (which was not considered to be a respectable form of entertainment back in 1962 as it is today, apparently). Army pleads with Maish not to ask Mountain to humiliate himself but Maish counters by stating that Mountain owes him, considering Mountain’s win-loss record. This is a heartless act on Maish’s part but he is carrying around the burden of a pending death sentence and he concludes, correctly, that this is the only way he can survive. Maish is a pathetic character at this point which makes him extremely sympathetic. His motives, while despicable, are very believable and relatable. It is easy to feel for Maish despite, and because of, what his desperation has forced him to do to his long time friend.
While Maish and Army argue about Mountain’s future, Mountain is at a bar where old boxers hang out and talk about their past glory. Grace shows up to tell Mountain she found a position for him as a camp counselor for children. It is not much but it may be the best job Mountain can get. Of course, Grace did not go to the bar just to tell Mountain about the job, so she asks him if he could get her a beer and put some music on the jukebox. These are two lonely and, in many ways, inexperienced people from very different worlds who share a very sweet and dear moment together. Mountain is unable to talk about anything but boxing and tells Grace about a fight he had years ago. As he tells his story, he relives the bout and gets locked into a punch-drunk flashback where he relives the fight in front of Grace. The bartender comes over to help bring Mountain out of his stupor. This is another comment on the deplorable nature of professional boxing.
Mountain goes back to the motel room where he excitedly tells Maish and Army about the camp counselor job. Maish, Army and a wrestling promoter have been waiting for Mountain to talk to him about becoming a professional wrestler. At first, Mountain does not realize what Maish is asking him to do. As the conversation goes on and the prospect gets more degrading, Mountain realizes what is being asked of him. He does not see that wrestling is just a show, he sees that intentionally losing a wrestling match is the same as taking a dive. Mountain never took a dive in his entire career which is one of the few things for which he is proud. He begs Maish not to make him do this. Maish concedes because he sees that Mountain does not want to become a clown in the wrestling ring. Deep down, Maish cares about Mountain and wants the best for him. Despite Maish’s concern for his boxer’s wellbeing, he also has a sinister motive for relenting about the wrestling opportunity. He takes Mountain to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant and gets Mountain drunk to keep him from making it to his interview to become a counselor. Army shows up and reminds Mountain of the appointment. Even though he is drunk, Mountain heads off to meet with his potential employers. Army looks at Maish with disgust but at this point Maish is shameless in his efforts to stay alive, which he has still not revealed to Mountain or Army.
Grace goes to Mountain’s motel room to talk to him about the debacle at his interview. Mountain, still drunk, tells Grace he has accepted that he can do nothing other than become a wrestler despite how much it pains him to do so. Grace feels for Mountain and tries to get him to believe that he is more than just a washed up bruiser. She wants Mountain to see himself the way she sees him. Mountain responds by saying, “For a while you had me thinking it could be different.” Grace tries to get closer to him but Mountain is awkward and clumsy with her, so like everything else in his life, their relationship ends badly. On her way out of the building, Grace runs into Maish. In this beautifully crafted scene, both characters express their concern for Mountain. Grace wants something better for him than what Maish is offering and Maish tells Grace that giving Mountain dreams is just conning him because, “It all passed him by.” This is a very sobering moment for Grace as well as the audience because, unfortunately, Maish is correct. Grace leaves and has no choice but to accept the pain Mountain must endure because of his circumstances.
Mountain, Maish and Army go to the arena for Mountain’s debut as a professional wrestler. Mountain is dressed up as a horrible caricature of an American Indian which is what he is expected to act like in the ring. He pleads with Maish not to make him play a clown but Maish does not relent. Mountain decides he cannot humiliate himself in this way, so he changes into his street clothes to leave. In a perfect example of using conflict to relay exposition, Maish, desperate for Mountain to stay, reveals that he bet on Mountain to lose in his recent fights. Mountain loved Maish like a father which is why this betrayal hurts him more than anything and makes him ashamed of his seventeen years fighting for Maish. Ma Greeny shows up and sees that Mountain is not going to wrestle, which means that Maish won’t be able to pay her the money he owes. She wastes no time and tells her muscle men to take Maish to the back alley and kill him. Mountain sees this and agrees to become a wrestler but wants nothing to do with Maish anymore. At this moment, Maish looks like the pitiful man that he is. His horrible scheming has taken its toll on the three men. In the ring, Mountain dances around and makes Indian calls which sound like painful wailing caused by his broken heart. The crowd ridicules and mocks him for playing a fool. Army watches Mountain and cries for his friend who has lost what little he had in life. This is one of the most powerful and hard-hitting endings ever filmed and one that will not soon be forgotten by the viewer.