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By Jay Hardwig

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

Knute Rockne, All-American
D: Lloyd Bacon, 1940


The Longest Yard
D: Robert Aldrich, 1974
with Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert


North Dallas Forty
D: Ted Kotcheff, 1979
with Nick Nolte, Mac Davis, Charles Durning, Dayle Haddon


We know, by now, that baseball is a beautiful game. We know this because we have been told so, many times, by very important people. While football wins the Nielsen ratings every time, baseball wins the poets and philosophers. You don't have to look far in the fields of Americana to find some goateed eminence holding forth on the purer qualities of baseball -- its aesthetic appeal, its contemplative pace, its decidedly mythic past. Baseball, we know, is pregnant with meaning.

While the slow dance on the diamond gives poets pause, what meaning can football possibly carry? Fat guys butt heads: where's the poetry in that? Precisely, say your more successful football flicks. Fat guys buttin' heads ain't pretty, it's violent ... which sells twice as well as poetry anyway. Baseball can have its gauzy summertime grace, its magical bats, its corn-fed cornfield Field(s) of Dreams. Football has bloodshed. And where better, truly, to find the masculine heart? Play ball.

The violence in Knute Rockne, All-American is admittedly subdued. These were the ol' leather helmet days, after all, when 150-pound weaklings pranced in every backfield and steroids were but a glimmer in some trainer's eye. In this sappy and melodramatic account of Rockne's rise to greatness, football is foremost a metaphor for the American dream. And so soon enough, the vonderful Norvegian aksents that pepper the first part of Knute Rockne are subsumed into director Lloyd Bacon's Forties-style melting-pot patriotism, with football as the vehicle. "Papa, don't talk Norwegian," the young Knute says. "Talk American. We're all Americans now. Especially me. I'm left end." The script is likewise pure American. Like American cornball, for instance: It is in Knute Rockne that we find a smoothly pomaded Ronald Reagan as the tragic George Gipp, uttering his famous deathbed "win just one for the Gipper" line. Or American virtue: Knute Rockne is a testament to team spirit, moral fortitude, and the salubrious effects of nifty broken-field running. Or American opportunity: Football is painted as the great American equalizer, building character while dissolving difference, turning boys to men with "clean sportsmanship and right living." By the end of the film, football itself is on trial (before a Senate subcommittee), with manly man Rockne defending: He goes right for the testicular, calling football an outlet for the "natural spirit of combat" in men, renewing our "forceful heritage" to work "the flaccid philosophy . . . out of our boy's minds and bodies." K'nuff said, Knute -- but did you have to use the word flaccid?


The pre-White House Reagan
Football is also an equalizer in The Longest Yard, although of a decidedly different stripe. Whatever else you might say about it, The Longest Yard passes the testosterone test: prison, football, and both a car chase and a fistfight in the first 10 minutes. What more could a self-respecting Y chromosome want? As it turns out, The Longest Yard is more than all that: Despite occasional turns towards a nonchalant sadism, it is a nuanced, humorous, even sensitive film, with ex-Florida State tailback Burt Reynolds taking a star turn as the reluctant quarterback who leads a team of inmates against a prison guard squad. In the context of the game -- with its smart action shots, transvestite cheerleaders, and jubilant pro-prisoner slant -- the power, pride, and violence of prison life is explored. The inmates are plainly aware that the playing field will only be level for 60 scant minutes, and take full bone-crunching advantage. Students of Hollywood scriptwriting won't be surprised at the game's predictable outcome or its redemptive moral, but they may find themselves cheering anyway. This well-made tale is as defiantly bracing as a swift kick in the shins.

While he does take a few hits, Reynolds' wince-lipped limping is no match for Nick Nolte's broken Phil Elliot in North Dallas Forty. From its opening montage -- a bloody-nosed beer bottle morning that must rank as one of the most painful rise-n-shines on recorded film -- it is evident that North Dallas Forty is a different kind of football film. Nolte is the disillusioned veteran with good hands and a bad attitude. Banged up over a career of crossing patterns, he does his level best to survive on painkillers and sarcasm. Almost makes it, too. Football here is the game that got away, a sport that has evolved from a bit of non-flaccid American fun into a cold and calculating American business -- one that harbors more shoddy morality and misplaced aggression than any ol' Florida prison. As for Knute's take on football as character development, that notion is dismissed quite plainly as "the usual bullshit": Far from a Rocknean picture of clean sportsmanship and right living, North Dallas Forty is a raunchy, raucous, locker-room keg party of a film. You want character development? Try love. Nolte does, with humanizing results, engaging a romance that is certifiably more sane than the abusive, tendon-tearing world of pro football. (The NFL, understandably, disowned this film.) The message of North Dallas Forty? Something stinks here, and it ain't the jockstraps.

Football and violence: two words that go hand in eye-socket. The difference in these three films is how they view that marriage: Knute Rockne's forceful heritage becomes The Longest Yard's sadistic revenge becomes North Dallas Forty.


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