I had two doubts about this movie before re-watching it: 1) How would it age? I remember seeing it as a kid and loving it, then re-watching it again years ago, and still loving it. But it had been a while, and it is almost 50 years old. Would it hold up? 2) Could it be considered a football movie? I remember a lot of prison scenes in the film, and there is only one game at the end. Did it have enough football to make the list?
Those concerns were answered quickly. While the opening of the movie couldn’t get green-lit in today’s politically correct climate (more on that shortly), it fits the main character’s arc. And the rest of the film, while dated, is more charmingly old-fashioned than distractingly so.
As for football, there isn’t much in the first half of the movie, but the second half is almost all football. The entire last hour of the film is one extended sequence -- the long-awaited game.
It might also be the best story of any movie. Certainly, it’s the best concept among all the fictional stories. Keep in mind, about half the movies on this list are based on real life -- four are based on true stories, another two inspired by actual events.
The idea of a convicts vs. guards football game is the kind of big concept Hollywood loves but didn’t come into vogue until the ‘80s. When this film was made, the industry spent more time producing off-beat character-driven stories. Movie ideas didn’t need elevator pitches and loglines with a hook. An approach like this was ahead of its time. Maybe that’s why the studio was so anxious to remake it. (The remake is inferior, but feel free to voice your disagreement in the comments if you like being wrong in public.)
Directed by Robert Aldrich, best known for The Dirty Dozen, the film is impossible to define in standard terms. It’s a comedy and also a drama. Both silly and dark. It’s character-driven but filled with action and violence— a sports film with life and death stakes.
Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:
As alluded to above, Paul Crewe is a bad guy at the beginning of the movie. He’s violent towards a woman — even if she’s also violent to him. He steals her car and leads cops on a high-speed chase through a park and a supermarket parking lot, putting innocent bystanders in danger. He assaults police officers. And then we find out he’s a former NFL MVP who shaved points. There’s no good reason to continue to root for him, but somehow Burt Reynolds keeps us engaged.
Part of that is Reynolds’ performance -- his likability, charming wit, devilish smile, and irreverent attitude. Part of that is that the character doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously and isn’t afraid of anything. That doesn’t excuse his behavior -- even in the counter-culture early ‘70s -- but it allows us to see beyond that. We’re willing to wait him out, to see if there’s more underneath.
Then the film goes about showing us there’s a lot more there once the layers are removed. Paced throughout the movie, and holding off until the end of the film for the final reveal, we learn Crewe is capable of taking things seriously and making the hard, right choices. It’s screenwriting 101 that a character’s true nature can only be revealed in moments of true crisis, and screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn does a great job of using that.
The battle for Crewe’s soul becomes intertwined with the battle on the field. In the final moments of the film, Crewe dramatically wins both battles, and Reynolds has a whole lot to do with that.
Key role players
There’s almost too many to choose from here, what with all the charismatic and mysterious inmates who come together to make the team. A few favorites:
- Jim Hampton is excellent as James “Caretaker” Ferrell, providing the heart for the film. Caretaker is so funny and sweet; his horrific end comes as a devastating blow -- to Crewe and the viewer. Again, this is cinematic storytelling 101 -- if you want a character’s death to hurt, make us care about them first. All the better if they make us laugh. His death and funeral just before the game provide Crewe and the team all the motivation they need. You can have your “Win one for the Gipper,” I’ll take “For Caretaker. Let’s do it.”
- Harry Caesar as Granville (aka “Granny”), the inspirational leader of the black inmates, and eventually the entire team. While Crewe feels badly about his decision to throw the game, it isn’t until Granville tells him how disappointed he is in him -- then gets his collar bone broken -- that Crewe has a crisis on conscience and re-considers.
- Michael Conrad as Nate Scarboro, former New York Giants All-Pro, who serves as mentor and assistant to Crewe, but is motivated to get into the action when he sees Crewe willing to do whatever it takes to win. His TD in the 4th quarter starts the Mean Machine’s comeback, and his knee injury -- on a cheap shot afterwards -- provides extra motivation the team needs to complete the comeback. Him rooting on the team from the infirmary next to Granny could easily be below in the highlights.
Headed up by the dastardly Warden Hazen, played by Eddie Albert, and populated all the way down by guards, the penitentiary is not a place for “corrections,” but an evil empire built on greed and cruelty. The warden only cares about one thing: seeing the team of guards he’s built win the semi-pro football title. To that end, Hazen wants to see his team get a warm-up game against a team of convicts. When Crewe refuses to put a team together, the warden threatens to extend his sentence.
Hazen is backed up by his second in command (and QB), Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter). Knauer leads a cruel gang of guards -- and even one inmate, the super-creepy Unger (Charles Tyner) -- who conspire against Crewe and his team. But they’re all just pawns in the warden’s game. Hazen is a great villain who’s easy to hate. His most mustache-twisting moment comes at halftime of the big game (see in the below clip before the same scene in the remake).
Rookie of the year
Hall of Fame LB Ray Nitschke, who played 15 seasons for the Packers and won five NFL championships (including the first two Super Bowls). Nitschke only had two credits, but he made the most of this one, playing Bogdanski, a violent hothead of a guard, who gets his comeuppance near the end of the game.
Crewe has caved. Hazen’s threat to keep him in prison for life has scared him into giving in. He’s actively throwing the game, and his teammates know it. Unable to bring himself to do it any longer, Crewe leaves with a fake injury. On the bench, he averts his eyes from his teammates angry, disappointed stares. As upset as they are with him, he’s no less disgusted by himself.
Watching his team getting slaughtered -- and purposely injured, on orders from Hazen -- Crewe can barely live with himself. Questioning his choice, he turns to grizzled old con Pop (John Steadman), who’s in prison for 30 years after punching out Hazen back when he was a guard. Crewe asks him it was worth it. Pop says it was, inspiring Crewe to do what‘s right rather than give into fear of the repercussions.
- I’m a sucker for “getting-the-gang-together” sequences. It’s my favorite movie trope. Whether it’s a team of criminals for a caper, a team of soldiers for a mission (as in Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen), or in this case a team of convicts to form a football team, I’m here for it. The less apt the team members are for the challenge they’re about to undertake, the more mismatched the personalities, the more unlikely their success, the better. All those factors come together to make Crewe’s recruitment of inmates for his team great (even if this clip fails to capture all of it).
- Another favorite staple of mine, particularly in sports films, is the training sequence. It’s always satisfying, with or without a montage. In this case, it’s particularly entertaining, given these aren’t just non-athletes learning to play football and work as a team, but violent, anti-social criminals. How could that not be fun?
- The racial element. At first, none of the black players want to play. Then Crewe is able to recruit one: Granville. Once the guards learn Granville is a promising player, they do their best to haze him into quitting. This angers the other black inmates, who decide to also join the team.
- The last play of the game, as the Mean Machine has one chance to gain that titular final yard to paydirt.
It has to be Caretaker’s death. Not because it isn’t well done, but because it is. I still remember being haunted by it as a kid. (Here with the same scene from the 2005 remake, because that’s apparently that’s a thing.)
The game takes up an entire hour of the movie, so it has to be involved, or the whole film would fall flat. That’s never an issue as the game is filled with thrilling plays, hilarious action, and dramatic twists. Aldrich also effectively uses visual “tricks” -- split-screen, wipes, freeze-frames -- to bring the game alive.
It would be entertaining if it were just the inmates acting out their violent fantasies on the guards, who’ve given them plenty of reason for revenge. Instead, we’re also treated to a fun and exciting game. Not the most realistic football you’ll see, but entirely believable, particularly given we’re watching correctional officers and inmates play, not true athletes.
There are even a couple of plays that display a serious knowledge of football. Crewe executes a dropkick at one point, which is a rule hardly anybody knows about, and a tackle-eligible play that gets the Mean Machine down to the goal-line in the final minute.
The entire game could be listed as a highlight. As could everything after the final gun:
Besides Nitschke, there’s former Cal and Vikings QB Joe Kapp, who had a 12-1 record as a starter in 1969, making the Pro Bowl and leading the NFL in TD percentage while leading Minnesota to a Super Bowl berth, plays the Walking Boss.
Not the most realistic scenario, I’ll admit -- a football game between convicts and guards. Particularly one in which the convicts are better people than any of the guards or the warden, who is easily the worst of them all. Because it’s 1974, it’s not all that surprising to see the “bad guys” painted as good and vice-versa, but it does strain credulity a bit. Still, we’re having too much fun to question it.
Caretaker: “You coulda robbed banks, sold dope, stole your grandmother’s pension checks, and none of us would’ve minded. But shaving points off of a football game, man, that’s un-American.”
My favorite movie on the list (and yet not the No. 1 film). Hint: It’s based on a novel written by an ex-NFL player.