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Laramie Movie Scope:
North Dallas 40

The best football movie ever

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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June 7, 2006 -- I saw this DVD of “North Dallas 40” down at the pawn shop yesterday and I couldn't resist buying it. It was in perfect condition, by the way. I've seen this movie many times. I think it is the best football movie ever made, although “Any Given Sunday” and “Friday Night Lights” are also very good. Football players star in this movie and a football player co-wrote the screenplay (former Dallas Cowboys football player Peter Gent helped to adapt the screenplay based on his own book). This film, more than any other, strips away romantic, idealistic notions of football, deals with the business side of it, and centers the story squarely on the players. The film does an excellent job of balancing drama, comedy and romance. It tells a grim story about professional football. We all know that football destroys player's bodies, but this film shows how it also destroys their souls.

Heavy as the film's message is, it is also very funny, even funnier than those other celebrated football films, “Semi-Tough,” and “The Longest Yard.” It is a fierce, biting comedy, leaning toward satire and tinged with darkness. In one scene, our hero, wide receiver Phil Elliot (played brilliantly by Nick Nolte) kids another player, Joe Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson of “Speed 2: Cruise Control”) about a new restaurant Priddy is opening. He suggests a sign for Joe Bob's restaurant: “Joe Bob's Fine Foods. Eat here, or I'll kill you.” For some reason, Joe Bob becomes enraged and tries to attack Elliot, but is restrained by two black teammates. Joe Bob snarls at them. “It always did take two of you to handle one of me.” In that one scene we see the film's multiple levels of humor and darkness. On the top layer we have Elliot's sharp humor, then we have Jo Bob's steroid-induced rage (he stopped by the locker room to get his steroid injection from the team trainer) and then we glimpse the team's ugly underlying layer of racism.

The romance in the film is between Elliot and the beautiful Charlotte Caulder (played by former model Dayle Haddon). In Charlotte, Elliot begins to see a future beyond football. He may at last begin to grow up. He still likes football, however, but he is increasingly angered over attempts by management to turn the game into some kind of industrial process where scoring is manufactured, where individuality, spontaneity and creativity are punished. Although this film was made in 1979, when computers were in their infancy, computers play a central role in how head coach, B.A. Strothers (G.D. Spradlin of “Apocalypse Now”) evaluates each game. At one point, he tells the players, “None of you is as good as that computer.” I suspect a lot of people nowadays can relate to the players being measured by, and against, a computer. This film was way ahead of its time.

This film depicts an era where misarrangement of football by coaches was accelerating. In one telling scene, a TV broadcaster wonders allowed if the quarterback is calling the plays or the coach. In the old days, quarterbacks called their own plays. Now coaches call every play. Players can change the play, but at their own peril. In the old days there was less specialization, players played multiple positions. Now players are very specialized, sometimes playing a single position for their entire careers. This is an idea borrowed directly from the manufacturing industry. Each player becomes a cog in a military-industrial machine known as the team, which itself is only a tiny part of a vast business empire. In this dehumanized model, conformity and the sacrifice of the individual will for the good of the team are greatly overemphasized.

Elliot is a throwback to the old ways of football, when players were individuals and performance is all that mattered. During the course of the film, Elliot discovers this has all gone away. In a climactic scene, Elliot tells his coach, “We're not the team! We're the equipment!” The players and coaches had become no different than the team's helmets, pads and jock straps. No longer were they treated as human beings, they are mere cogs. This is yet another one of the film's universal themes. This same impersonal attitude of business toward its employees and government toward its citizens has permeated the rest of American society. The latest manifestation of this is the elimination of pensions, to be followed soon by the elimination of social security.

My favorite scene in the movie happens in the locker room after a big game when a player, O. W. Shaddock (played by former Oakland Raiders star football player John Matuszak) confronts Coach Johnson (Charles Durning of “Tootsie”) about the semantics of pro football, which coaches and owners shamelessly use to their own advantage. “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business,” Shaddock roars at the coach. “Every time I call it a business, you call it a game.” Shaddock says that the trouble with football being a soulless business is that it doesn't provide enough inspiration to play harder when he is exhausted. He is looking for team spirit, and the impersonal nature of the business doesn't supply that. In that scene, the frustration of Shaddock seems very real. I suspect that the feelings Matuszak was expressing were genuine, born of years of playing professional football. This film launched a successful film and TV career for Matuszak. Sadly, Matuszak died at a relatively early age less than 20 years after this film was made. Heavy steroid use during his playing days are a suspected factor in his early demise.

Another main character in the film is quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis of “Where the Red Fern Grows”), Elliot's best friend. Max knows how to work the system to his advantage, but he is afraid his days are numbered. Max is a good old boy in the best sense of the word. He is laid back and easy going and he knows how to have a good time, but he is also a fierce competitor. Reportedly, this character was modeled after famed Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith. He knows his friend, Elliot is treading dangerous waters because he won't conform. Max warns Elliot: “You'd better learn how to play the game, and I don't mean football.” Max is determined to have as much fun as possible before his playing days are over, but he doesn't want to rock the corporate boat. He will not oppose those higher up in the power structure.

One of the recurring themes in the movie is how sports enables players to continue adolescent behavior as long as they can play. When their playing days are over, they will be confronted with the real world and they will have to grow up. When Joe Bob tries to rape Charlotte at a party, Elliot tries to save her, and pays the price when the powerful Joe Bob chokes him. This forces Max to rescue Elliot. Max scolds Elliot for upsetting Joe Bob. “He's just a baby,” Max says, “don't lower yourself to his level.” Joe Bob and others on the team behave like juvenile delinquents. They make their own rules. Elliot says men like Joe Bob are here to remind us that the biggest and strongest make the rules. The coach hates Elliot for what he calls his “childish behavior.” In the end, however, it turns out that Elliot is the only adult in the story.

The performances in this film are outstanding, headed by Nick Nolte and Mac Davis. Bo Svenson reveals a character who is both angry and emotionally fragile. It may be his best performance ever, and he is physically imposing enough to be convincing as an offensive lineman. Matuszak's acting career was successfully launched with this film. Veteran character actor Charles Durning gives another fine performance in this film as does G.D. Spradlin. It is hard to think of Spradlin in any other role after you've seen him in this one. Dabney Coleman of “Tootsie” gives a fine performance as Emmett Hunter, brother of the team's owner. In one scene he really lights up in a rare fit of anger. Coleman's specialty, of course, is comedy, but he shows his great dramatic chops in this film as a truly evil little man. Dayle Haddon gives a good performance as Charlotte. I can never take my eyes off her. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She appeared in very few films, unfortunately. Grant Kilpatrick, who plays the hapless Monsignor, is a riot. He is on center stage in one of the film's funniest scenes, giving a blessing to the team just before the big game.

This is the best football movie I have ever seen, but it is more than that. It is about trying to live a good, meaningful live in an age when soulless corporations run everything. It is not just football players who are in that situation. Almost all of us are in that boat. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2006 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)