Our archive holds a large collection of small pieces of film, examples of many of the wonderful and varied film processes and formats from the last 100-plus years.
One such piece resurfaced recently. Initially acquired by the Science Museum in 1969, this is a small fragment (just five frames) of what is considered to be the earliest feature-length film—and also the earliest widescreen feature film, it being shot in 63mm.
It is the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. A record of the entire 14 rounds of the boxing match between James John Corbett and Robert Prometheus Fitzsimmons, which took place on 17 March 1897.
Boxing had been a popular cinema subject from the earliest days, and fight promoters had wished to stage and film a bout between Corbett and Fitzsimmons for some time. However, wrangling over royalties, the illegality of prizefighting in most U.S. states, and the death of Fitzsimmons’ sparring partner during a public exhibition by the two, all caused delays.
Eventually, the promoter Dan A. Stuart was successful in lobbying the state of Nevada to legalise boxing, and an arena was erected ready for the fight in Carson City. An agreement was made that 30% of profits would go to the promoters; 40% to the film’s director, Enoch J. Rector; and the remainder split between the two contestants.
Three Veriscope cameras were used to shoot the fight, each taking 6 minutes of footage before re-loading and with all three shooting continuously through the 14 rounds. In total 11,000 feet of film, running nearly 2 hours, was exposed.
In an effort to ensure that none of the action would be missed, Stuart had carpenters reduce the width of the ring by two feet the night before. However, the referee spotted the change and had it put back to the normal size.
In the 14th round, Fitzsimmons was victorious, knocking out Corbett. There were rumours that an agreement had been made between the fighters and the film-makers to ensure the fight lasted long enough to create a true film original, but this was never proven.
The finished film ran for an estimated 100 minutes and had its first public presentation on Saturday 22 May 1897 at the sold-out Academy of Music in New York. Unfortunately most of the film is now lost, with only fragments remaining.
As Paul Rotha said in his book, The Film Till Now, in 1930:
Exceptionally dull as this enormous length of film must have been, its novelty was probably astounding.
A portion of the film can be seen on YouTube:
To find out more about the history of cinema and boxing, try Fight Pictures by Dan Strieble (University of California Press, 2008).