Knute Rockne All American (1940)

Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Robert Buckner

The game of football has changed and evolved a lot over the past century. What started as a tough game for college men to compete in, has become a billion dollar professional industry where star players make millions of dollars, and team owners make millions more. Even when you consider the college game, it has become such a corporate thing, with the top schools netting millions of dollars for their institutions. The conversation has even been had about college players being paid for their play. Viewing Knute Rockne All American under the current climate of the game seems a little odd. This film, made in 1940, depicts the more innocent times when the game was played for fun, for pride, and making a living out of football was frowned upon, not celebrated.

After coming to America from Norway, the Rockne’s were doing everything they could to make a new dream in a new country. When Knute (Pat O’Brien) was ready to go off to college, he chose Notre Dame, a small Catholic school in Indiana. Soon, Rockne was starring on the football team, helping advance the art of the forward pass in the game. After upsetting the perennial powerhouse that was Army, Rockne used his success and fame to become the head coach at Notre Dame, where he lead championship teams with star players like George Gipp (Ronald Reagan) leading the way. Even after Gipp tragically passed away, Rockne continued to mold and inspire young men.

The romance of old time college football is on full display here, with Rockne celebrated as a legend, and Gipp memorialized as a hero. For some, this may be a turn off to the film, but I loved the tone and overall romanticism of it. In many ways, I could say the film overdoes things. It holds Rockne up on too high a pedestal, and has tunnel vision when it comes to Rockne and Notre Dame’s accomplishments during the era. There were many innovators and powerhouse football programs. Rockne and Notre Dame were among the top, and this film deservedly celebrates them as such. But it does make for a rather narrow view of the culture and expanse of the game.

Of course, Pat O’Brien as Rockne himself is suitably dramatic and over-important. Reagan on the other hand brings a charm and charisma to the role of the Gipper that O’Brien lacks. Interesting how time seems to have remembered Reagan more for his role here over O’Brien. The football action in general is fine, mostly in the style of a news reel as director Lloyd Bacon neatly montages the games in favor of more character moments outside of the game itself. For instance, the moments between Rockne and Gipp on his deathbed, or the famed speech from Rockne to “win one for the Gipper”, which will reappear in Rudy later in this marathon, are touching.

I have had some experience with Lloyd Bacon before, and I’ve always found his films to be good, but never great. His is a workmanlike style which assures entertainment, but basically guarantees a lack of greatness. The same can be said of Knute Rockne All American, which entertains, but fails to stay with you the further you become removed from the experience. It’s a fine couple hours to spend, especially for fans of old time college football, or more specifically Notre Dame, but not a film to which I will soon return. In terms of its place within football movies, it marks an important document of an era of college football, but otherwise it’s a rather bland entry.

*** – Good

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