Paper Lion (1968)

Directed by Alex March
Written by Lawrence Roman

Okay, let’s get back on track. This football marathon was meant to take me right up through the football season and here we are already well into both college and pro seasons and I’ve just barely gotten started! While it has been a busy summer for me, I have to say Paper Lion was one of the more intriguing titles on my list for a few reasons. First, George Plimpton, who wrote the book about his experiences trying out to be the quarterback for the Detroit Lions, is a wonderful writer. I was exposed to him as part of his commentary within Ken Burns’ phenomenal Baseball documentary. Plimpton is eccentric, but his passion and curiosity always shine through. Second, the opportunity to explore what it means to play in the NFL and to make a team. I’m not sure any of us who have never done it could ever fully understand.

George Plimpton (Alan Alda) is a renowned sports writer for Sports Illustrated, specializing in quirky and immersive journalism that includes going three rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson and pitching to the American League All-Star team. Certainly these are not acts that would be recommended for the common man. But Plimpton is not a common man, which is why when his new story idea is to tryout to be an NFL quarterback with the Detroit Lions, he catches hell from just about every member of the team. Plimpton has some natural athletic talent, enough to not be a complete trainwreck, but when the players catch on to his angle, they initially rebuke him, eventually warming to Plimpton’s delightful persistence and faithful attitude to his attempt. This is no gimmick, Plimpton wants to make the team.

Anyone who has played high school sports has probably had the thought: how would I cut it at the pro level? For me, a baseball player, it was always “could I make contact against a major league pitcher”? I never played organized football in my life, but I imagine that George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion” experiment is the dream of thousands. What would it take to go through an NFL camp? This experiment is much more realistic in the 1960s than it is now, in a time of specialized athletes, advanced training, and players taking it as a full time job. That’s not to take away from players from yesteryear, many of whom make appearances here, I am sure they were all supreme athletes and would mop the floor against any lesser competition today, but athletes today are freaks, with lineman easily surpassing 300 pounds. 300 pounds back then was considered too big.

Alda is the only star here, as I mentioned a number of players playing themselves inside the Lions locker room, which is both a blessing and a curse. Alda is just fine as Plimpton, though perhaps not quite as charming. But the players really do show themselves as amateur actors, but their presence is also welcome on the field, where it matters most. This marathon has featured very little in the way of realistic football action, but the bar has now been set. NFL Films became popular in the 1960s, and continues to impress and raise the bar for football photography. I am not sure whether some of their footage was used here, but the football action is certainly realistic, with the scrimmage against the Cardinals being the high point. If anything else, Paper Lion showcases just how brutal the game of football can be.

As a narrative, the story is subpar, with very little focus on Plimpton’s talents and his journey to make the team. It is treated as a gimmick, even though Plimpton was dead serious. That doesn’t come across as well as I would have hoped. The relationships he forms with his teammates is nice to follow, as some of them appreciate his courage and passion for the project, but in general, the story plays second fiddle to the dream, making the film play more like a television documentary. Today we have Hard Knocks, a documentary showcasing one team’s training camp, the star players, and the fringe players struggling the make the team. For its era, Paper Lion is impressive, albeit lacking in a formed narrative. For now, it stands as the best example of football action to date. We’ll see it that can be surpassed.

*** – Good

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