The world of boxing, at least our world of boxing, includes cannibalism (Tyson v. Holyfield 1997), trash-talk (Ali-Forman 1974) and thugs (Don King). English boxing -- except as embodied by Lennox Lewis -- remains pretty obscure. Something about their culture seems too reserved and haughty for such barbarism. This is exponentially true for the students of Oxford University and the subjects of Blue Blood. Perhaps because the denizens of the Ivory Tower prefer not to be punched in the face until they become unconscious or perhaps because Mike "Interested in the politics of representation in post-Lacanian pre-Foucaldian gender studies" Tyson doesn't quite have the ring as "Iron Mike," but pugilists have rarely been philosophers and philosophers rarely pugilists.
Blue Blood seeks to formally acquaint the two disciplines. Oxford, it turns out, hates Cambridge ever since 1209, when some Oxford scholars defected to the nearby twon to found their own University. Both schools have turned out their fair share of scholars over the years -- Cambridge: Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, Charles Darwin. Oxford: Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Lawrence of Arabia -- and since 1887, have been punching each other in the face annually at the Oxford v. Cambridge Varsity Match. Blue Blood traces the budding boxing careers of five young Oxford students: An astrophysicist, a philosopher, a biochemist, a fine artist and a mathematician. The joke -- that smart kids don't box -- rests on the stereotype of the effete intellectual. The chalkiness of the boys' spindly arms against their loose tank tops, twiggy wrists in massive gloves, and little faces in big headgear don't do much to break that stereotype. But, the movie isn't really about boxing. It's about courage, determination, shame, and moxie. Things these boys have in ample supply.
For many of the boys, becoming an Oxford Blue represents the apotheosis of masculinity. Blues get girls. Blues get glory. Blues get to be Blues their whole life. And these boys are willing to work for it. Charles Ogilvie, the film's hero, is an easy man to hate: an aspiring opera singer, a rowing champion, a golden boy for whom everything has fallen into place. Except maybe boxing where, let's be honest, he punches like an effete intellectual. But he tackles the challenge like he would a particularly difficult passage in Verdi. It's hard to hate someone trying so hard, especially when, in talking head interviews, he shows himself understated, wry and funny. Fred Brown, another Oxford boxer, has not had the opportunities afforded Ogilvie. The Bristol-born biochemistry student who is on scholarship was raised by his mum after his father deserted the family. In contrast to Ogilvie's almost diffident demeanor in the ring, one can see the rage scrawled over Brown's face.
The most surprising aspect of the rivalry is the vehement and enthusiastic hatred each school shows for the other. These are basically peers. At one point, Boiler, a heavyweight mathematician, scorns Cambridge for their hideous light-blue blazers. Oxford wears dark blue. Wars, I guess, have been fought over less. But one can't help but be reminded of Star-Bellied Sneetches even as young Boilers face erupts into a bloody mess. And yet, despite the absurdity of the situation, the courage shone in it is real.
The climax of the film obviously the final fight at Cambridge. And, as you might hope, Blue Blood has a happy ending, despite the director's propensity for a Roger and Me approach to verisimilitude. Blue Blood could have easily been a trifling film, a who-cares documentary. Happily, the ring and the rivalry are just excuses for bravery and props for heroism.