I typically don’t watch sports or movies about sports, but I’m a big fan of North Dallas Forty. I can’t quite explain it, you like what you like. The movie celebrates its 40th Anniversary this year, so why not talk about this exception to my no-sports rule.
Based on Peter Gent’s semi-autobiographical novel, NDF follows the players on the North Dallas Bulls football team. Gent, a former wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, knew that world firsthand. Nick Nolte plays Phil Elliott, a veteran wide receiver who has seen better days. His body is broken from years of playing in the league and only a steady stream of drugs (pot and painkillers) can get him out of bed. A love for the game also keeps him going. But he understands that the men in charge don’t share that same passion.
Head coach B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin) obsesses over figures and percentages, wanting to win at any cost. The owners, the powerful Hunter family (Steve Forrest, Dabney Coleman), seek the money and bragging rights. Football is an industry for these men and the players are just commodities. Phil’s best friend Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), the charismatic Bulls quarterback, knows how to play the “game”. He warns Phil about toeing the company line. But, Phil rebels, making him a target for B.A. and the Hunters. This David & Goliath story forms the crux of the movie. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s less about football and more about the little guy beating the cold evil corporation. At one point, lineman O.W. (John Matuszak) rails at assistant coach Johnson (Charles During), “Everytime I call it a business, you call it a game. And every time I call it a game, you call it a business. It’s a powerful truthful statement.
Of course, the actual football scenes aren’t so bad. The lead up to the big game in Chicago is one of the best sequences in the movie. All of the players are huddled in a small locker room with nothing to do but wait. Director Ted Kotcheff focuses in on their anxiety as he cuts from player to player. They pace around, fidget, perform pre-game rituals, punch lockers, and even pray. As a viewer you feel anxious yourself as the minutes creep by. The few moments we see of the game are filled with tension as we wonder if this weathered team can actually win. It’s incredibly stressful, yet entertaining. Much better than any real-life game I’ve ever seen.
Now, all this praise doesn’t excuse the problematic moments in this movie. Several women are sexually harassed, lineman Joe Bob (Bo Svenson) says questionable things to his black team mates, and all of the players are quick to throw around homophobic slurs. Yes, this came out in 1979, but they really should have known better even then. I still enjoy the movie, but I don’t condone their behavior. On the flip side, there’s a clear romance going on between teammates Balford (Alan Autry) and Partridge (Jeff Severson). They enjoy wrestling around a little too much, have a very intimate conversation in the locker room (complete with a cheek caress), and they actually kiss “jokingly”. It would have been nice if that B-story had been explored.
I first heard about NDF when I read the coffee table book, The Stewardess is Flying the Plane: American Films of the 1970s. A great book, by the way. I remember thinking that I should check out this movie sometime and I’m happy I did. Warts and all, it’s an interesting look at football in that era, on and off the field.
What’s another good thing about this movie? The Gibson Brothers’ “Cuba” on the soundtrack. Such a fun song.