When We Were Kings (1996)

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Released 30-May-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Theatrical Trailer-1:41
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1996
Running Time 83:56
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Leon Gast

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Muhammed Ali
George Foreman
Don King
Sese Seko Mobutu
Spike Lee
Norman Mailer
George Plimpton
Thomas Hauser
Malik Bowens
James Brown
B.B. King
Case ?
RPI $36.95 Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    I don't like boxing. I can see no attraction in watching two large, powerful, fit men, each attempting to inflict serious brain damage on the other. So it may seem odd that I'm reviewing When We Were Kings

    This documentary is about a boxing match, dubbed The Rumble In The Jungle. This match happened in 1974, in Zaire, between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman. Don King organised it by promising the combatants $5 million each, and the head of the Zaire government (Mobutu Sese Seko) was the only one willing and able to put up the $10 million.

    At this time, Ali had lost his world title, but not by losing a match. He had refused the draft - he went to jail rather than be conscripted to fight in Vietnam. That was a stupendously brave (or possibly arrogant) thing for a black American to do. George Foreman was the new champion, winning the title by destroying each of his opponents in less than three rounds. He was extraordinarily powerful, and there were huge doubts over whether Ali could defeat him (Howard Cosell is convinced that he can't, for example). This documentary focuses on Ali.

    There is surprisingly little boxing in this documentary. It is more about Ali, his life, and the things he did outside of the ring. Oh, there are many clips, mostly only a few seconds, of boxing matches, but most of them show the end of a fight, with one man standing and another lying down. Some of them are shown repeatedly. There's probably more footage of sparring than there is of actual matches. In this, I guess the documentary is reflecting real life - most of a boxer's life is spent preparing for a match, rather than fighting it.

    This particular match was surrounded by considerably more hoopla than most. There were a large number of musicians flown over for a concert before the fight - BB King and James Brown amongst them.

    The documentary begins well before the fight. It starts with a brief summary of Ali's career before the fight. It doesn't mention the events which caused him to change his name from Cassius Clay to Mohammad Ali - there is a single reference in the film about Ali as a minister of Islam, and a member of the Nation of Islam, but that's all. George Foreman doesn't get much coverage - we hear a little about his earlier fights, but that's all. It's understandable - he is being cast as the obstacle Ali must overcome.

    We see Ali on the plane on the way over to Zaire. He's expressing his pleasure that the pilots and crew are black. This is one of the major themes of the documentary - Ali's concern about black people, both African-American, and African. There are two pieces of footage where he asks kids to avoid drugs, to make something out of their lives. He was genuinely concerned that kids get the chance to be everything they could be - he donated part of the money from this fight to that end. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this was his commencement address to Harvard - a dyslexic man, without a degree, addressing students at Harvard, and getting a standing ovation. But then, Ali could always speak.

    Once we're in Zaire, the documentary concentrates on the preparation of the boxers. This preparation took rather longer than was originally intended because George Foreman was injured in a sparring accident, and they had to wait an extra six weeks for the injury to heal (you'll have to watch the documentary to find out what the injury was!).

    Much of the documentary consists of footage shot at the time. A lot of it was news footage, shot with small cameras on inferior film stock. It may be grainy, but it is real, which makes a big difference. There are numerous interview segments filmed much more recently; the participants are much older than they are in the news footage, but the film quality is far higher. It is very interesting to hear from the people who were there, and hear how they feel about things now, but the footage from then is more compelling. The choice of interviewees is interesting: Spike Lee (film-maker), Norman Mailer (writer), George Plimpton (writer), and Malik Bowens (artist), amongst others.

    There are some amazing photos in the montage that closes the film - Ali with Malcolm X, the Beatles, the Jackson 5, Elvis Presley, and many others (those were the ones I recognised beyond doubt). Ali has led an interesting life. This documentary covers one of the most interesting periods.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


    This transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced. The original ratio was 1.85:1, so this is very close.

    The image varies immensely. The news footage is black and white, soft and grainy, with dreadful shadow detail and lots of low-level noise. The modern (1990s) interview footage is a touch soft, but is clear and has excellent shadow detail with no trace of low-level noise. There are pieces of older documentary footage, which fall in between. (Have pity on me trying to give a grade to the video quality!)

    Colour varies from none (black-and-white) through to somewhat muted. There are no moments of vivid colour, save for a couple of moments of concert footage. That's not a problem - this documentary doesn't need intense colour.

    There are lots of artefacts on the older footage - examples of pretty much everything you'd expect in the way of film artefacts: flecks, spots, scratches, and so forth. There are no MPEG artefacts - they obviously put some effort into encoding this. There are reel change markings, which is a shame. I'm moved to forgive most of the artefacts - there is a frisson associated with the footage that would be diminished by perfect video.

    The only subtitles are English for the Hearing Impaired. They are accurate, well-timed, and easy to read, and helpful in moments when the dialogue is less that perfect.

    The disc is single-sided and single layered. No layer change.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is only one soundtrack: English Dolby Digital 2.0, not surround encoded. 

    The dialogue is mostly quite clear and comprehensible.

    The score is comprised mostly of songs. It is evocative of the times. There's a rap over the closing credits that was composed specifically for this film

    The soundtrack doesn't use the surrounds or subwoofer - they aren't missed.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



    The menu is silent and static.

Theatrical Trailer (1:41)

    The trailer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, not 16x9 enhanced.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 version of this disc includes an interview with the filmmaker, which we don't get. They also get both full-screen and widescreen versions. It sounds as though the quality of the transfer is no better than ours, though.


    When We Were Kings is a documentary about a charismatic man, a man who had a dramatic impact well outside his sport.

    The video quality is variable, but acceptable.

    The audio quality is adequate.

    The extra is basic.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Tony Rogers (bio-degrading: making a fool of oneself in a bio...)
Saturday, January 26, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDArcam DV88, using Component output
DisplaySony VPH-G70 CRT Projector, QuadScan Elite scaler (Tripler), ScreenTechnics 110. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVC-A1SE
SpeakersFront Left and Right: Krix Euphonix, Centre: Krix KDX-C Rears: Krix KDX-M, Subwoofer: Krix Seismix 5

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