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Game Film, No. 2: North Dallas Forty

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number two: An incisive satire of pro football, released 40 years ago next month, and still relevant today.

This is the one for me: my desert island, all-time go-to football movie. But I made a point before I started this list to make this about more than just my personal taste. Of course, my bias enters into it — it’s unavoidable. If someone else made this list, Rudy might’ve been higher, Friday Night Lights lower, and All The Right Moves probably doesn’t make it at all. But I’ve done my best to look past how much I enjoy each film. I judge their craft — storytelling, acting, direction, football chops, etc. Because of that, this film falls just short of the top spot. But it holds the top spot in my heart. To borrow from an earlier entry on the list, it completes me.

Speaking of borrowing from other movies, North Dallas Forty influenced many films that followed. It’s the wild yet poignant look at the pleasures and ills of pro football that Any Given Sunday emulated. It examines the “boys will be boys” culture that Varsity Blues and The Program seized on. It’s based on a novel, just like The Blind Side. But this film did it first. And in many ways, it does it better.

A unique and unflinching look at pro football; it made people see sports movies differently. Looking closely at the darker side of the sport was groundbreaking for its time, even if that is commonplace today. And it was a rare sports movie which got rave reviews.

It’s hilarious and filthy, dark and silly, dramatic and heartbreaking all at once. It also helped launch multiple careers and has aged surprisingly well. It still works because it feels real. It feels like what the life of a pro football player was. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s based on a semi-autobiographical novel by ex-Cowboys WR/TE Peter Gent.

Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer -- which is absolutely terrible (more on that after the clip):

How does such a good movie have such a bad trailer? I’ll leave that to legendary sportswriter Frank DeFord, who said it better than I could in his review in Sports illustrated:

“I suppose it is against all the rules to review a movie’s advertising campaign, but in the case of North Dallas Forty the advertisements are so blatantly misleading and do such a disservice to the film that it’s important to set the record straight...

“Having made a very serious sports movie, it’s apparent that Paramount lost the courage of its convictions. Will Americans go see a “serious” movie about sports? Probably not, unless a handsome athlete is dying slowly of a mysterious disease. So, push North Dallas Forty as giddy, maybe even kinky—an adult version of Meatballs for the Celebrity-Superstars fan mentality. Indeed, though the movie occasionally does pander to raunchiness, the main thrust of North Dallas Forty is to indict the National Football League as an evil institution on the nether side of civilization.”

MVP

Nick Nolte as WR Phillip Elliot is the heart of the movie. Surveying the world around him -- sometimes enjoying it, other times just trying to survive -- Elliot provides our point of view, and our reason in an often unreasonable world.

The opening of the film introduces us to him, and thanks to Nolte’s performance, we have a great idea of who he is without so much as a word.

Elliot wants to start, but doesn’t want to adjust his attitude or “play the game” -- and not the one on the field. The movie portrays pro football as a world where politics means as much as what happens between the lines, and Elliot is bad at the political game. Exhibit A: he’s sleeping with the girlfriend of Emmett Hunter (Dabney Coleman), team executive and brother of team owner Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest).

This dynamic paints Elliot as a tragic hero who would find himself at home in our modern world filled with complicated anti-heroes. He’s a good player and a flawed man. A disgruntled backup and drug-using wiseass, Elliot is selfish and egotistical. His intelligence and ability to see the dynamics in play in the locker room and front office complicate his life in the NFL. Management wants robots or mad dogs, who will fight for them on command. Elliot is intellectually curious and semi-moral. That’s enough to make him an unpopular man.

In the end, Elliot realizes his talent on the field won’t ever be enough in a sport that’s more business than a game. The realization is heartbreaking, in no small part due to Nolte. Sadly, the entire scene is not on YouTube. This clip misses a chunk of Nolte’s bravura performance in the emotional climax, but provides a taste:

Key role players

Nolte may be the MVP but QB Seth Maxwell, played by Mac Davis, is probably the highlight. If not, their friendship certainly is. Again, I’ll call upon a better reviewer than myself -- the New York Times’ estimable Janet Maslin:

“The central friendship in the movie, beautifully delineated, is the one between Mr. Nolte and Mac Davis, who expertly plays the team’s quarterback, a man whose calculating nature and complacency make him all the more likable, somehow.”

Davis could’ve been MVP, and should’ve been Rookie of the Year (it’s his first movie role), but like Jerry Maguire, there are several candidates for that crown. His Maxwell character, based on Gent’s QB with the Cowboys, Don Meredith, is a wild card, calling his penis “John Henry” and talking to him in public. He’s a good ol’ boy, ladies man, and heavy drinker (among many other substances), and Davis plays him to perfection. Arrogant yet irresistible, as charming as he is conniving.

Maxwell is never short on quips. He explains to Elliot that he’s important to him, but not as much as his offensive linemen, “You may keep me on the sports pages, but he keeps me out of the obituaries.”

But nothing beats his story on a speaking engagement he and his bible-beating backup went on the previous night:

A few other standouts:

  • G.D. Spradlin is great as head coach B.A. Strothers, based on Gent’s head coach Tom Landry. He loves Elliot’s talent but hates his attitude. Obsessed with statistics, and even shown poring over them on his desktop computer (in 1979!), Strothers is clearly ahead of his time. In one film session, he quotes advanced stats and says, “Not one of you is as good as that computer.” Remember, this is 20+ years before Moneyball!
  • Bo Svenson as Joe Bob Priddy is the animalistic id of pro football. He does what he wants, and his team and his teammates give him a wide berth, allowing his neanderthal nature to run wild because they need him feeling invincible on gameday.
  • Charles Durning is typically great as Coach Johnson, a red-faced, demanding, screaming, Pepto Bismol-chugging dynamo.

The opponent

The life of a pro football player: the pressure, the pain, the business, the competition, the medication, and as Nolte points out early on, the fear.

That fear manifests itself in several ways -- fear of playing poorly, of embarrassing oneself, of losing, and most of all, of being replaced. Whether Emmett Hunter knows Elliot is sleeping with his girlfriend or not, he talks up a rookie WR they’ve drafted to replace him, asking Elliot, “Do you speak Canadian at all?”

Maxwell is shown to be a successful player, not just because of talent, but by being a pragmatist, and understanding they’re all pawns in the larger game. When one of his linemen is released, he moves on without sentimentality:

Elliot: “Can you believe they cut Stallings?”
Maxwell: “Who’s Stallings?”

While injuries, drugs, and self-abusive lifestyle play roles, the head coach and front office are portrayed as the players’ real enemy. The players are replaceable commodities, and management will do whatever it takes to control them -- including employing a private investigator to break into their homes to dig up dirt.

Rookie of the year

John Matuszak made his acting debut as offensive lineman OW Shaddock while still an active NFL player. A year after this movie, he played all 16 games for the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. The next year he’d retire and move fully into acting, appearing in TV shows like M*A*S*H, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Fall Guy in the next five years, before his signature role as Sloth in The Goonies. Despite dying of heart failure less than ten years after this film, he compiled 34 credits.

It’s not surprising they gave a real NFL player, especially one as charismatic as “The ‘Tuz,” a shot at playing one on-screen. The shocking part is that they gave him maybe the most emotional and poignant (and NSFW) speech in the movie.

Key moment

The whole final game sequence -- from the tense, apprehensive pre-game...

...to the climactic (and anti-climactic) end of the game, which this (long) clip features...

...right through the emotional post-game locker room, highlighted by the Matuszak speech. It’s a raw, up-close-and-personal look at what a big game does to a team -- before, during and after.

The highlights

Most are already listed, but a few slipped through the cracks:

  • The early party sequence sets the stage for the wild and crazy world the movie is introducing us to (both clips NSFW):
  • The scene where Elliot and Maxwell break into the team’s medicine cabinet:
  • The practice scene in which Elliot sees the coaches manipulating players to help the overall attitude and competitiveness of the team (again, NSFW):

The lowlight

You could say the romantic storyline, featuring Dayle Haddon as Phil’s love interest, Charlotte, takes away from the main storyline. I think it provides a nice contrast -- the “real world” away from football -- but you could argue, as Maslin did, it’s an unwelcome diversion.

Football scenes

The film does an excellent job of pacing the football action. We start after a game and see only brief flashbacks. Then we’re shown a few more brief clips in the film room. We watch multiple practices throughout the middle of the movie, but it isn’t until the big game at the end that we see live game action.

That helps build anticipation and make the game footage play as well as it does -- which isn’t perfect, but good for its time. And it finishes with an exciting (and ironic) sequence:

NFL cameos

Besides Matuszak, they are several other NFL players who moonlighted as actors in the movie, including former Kansas City Chiefs DT Cliff Frazier, who went onto extensive work on the HBO football series 1st & Ten, where he again worked alongside Matuszak.

Two former 49ers are also featured -- DT Louie Kelcher and LB Dan Bunz, who combined to win three rings with the Niners. Belcher, who played one season for the Niners at the end of his career, is an extra. Bunz, a 49ers 1st round pick who made the signature play in the goal-line stand which highlighted San Francisco’s first championship (one of the most famous tackles in NFL history) is an actual character, though a small one.

Realism

The film earns its authenticity by being written by an ex-player, starring several current players, and using NFL personnel as technical consultants. Again, DeFord:

“Jeff Severson, formerly of the Cardinals, says that North Dallas Forty has “the authenticity of a news-reel”; John Matuszak of the Raiders, who plays a major supporting role with considerable ability, endorses the movie as “the most honest film about players, particularly about the pain they must endure.” Furthermore, two experts on the film’s technical staff were Tom Fears, the superscout who has been an NFL head coach, and Frank O’Neill, one of the country’s foremost physical therapists. Have all these Judases sold out pro football for a payday? Hard to believe.”

Best line

Seth Maxwell: “Hey, we’re all whores anyway. Might as well be the best”

Up next

The winner and champion, the No. 1 movie. Hint: It’s like a “best of” compilation of previous movies on this list -- it’s about a high school football team pursuing a state title like Friday Night Lights, it’s a true story like Rudy, it confronts 1970’s era racial tension like Brian’s Song, and features a cast led by an Oscar winner playing the head coach like Any Given Sunday.

Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves
No. 8: Any Given Sunday
No. 7: Rudy
No. 6: Jerry Maguire
No. 5: Friday Night Lights
No. 4: Brian’s Song (1971)
No. 3: The Longest Yard (1974)