Brian’s Song (1971)

Directed by Buzz Kulik
Written by William Blinn

While I have plenty to chose from while compiling my list of films for the Baseball marathon, Football was much more scarce, for whatever reason. I have often wondered what it was about the sport of football that makes it so much harder to film, so much harder to tell a story around. Is it the action that makes it difficult? Is it the popularity? Football has long been pushing baseball for most popular in the United States, having likely surpassed it in the last decade or two. I’m not sure my exercise here will be able to find the answer to this question, though if I had to guess it would have to do with the violent nature of the game, while baseball is a far easier sport to romanticize. Whatever the case, I was forced to dip into the well of made for television movies to fill out my roster, but Brian’s Song is so much more than a TV movie, and earns its spot on the team.

I have often heard of the greats of the game, but never had a chance to truly witness their greatness. Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) was one such great. A running back for the Chicago Bears who was so fast, so agile, so light on his feet, capable of running either around or through the defender to gain a yard on the field. I, on the other hand, have never heard of Brian Piccolo (James Caan), a fellow Bears running back. The two played on the same teams lead by legendary coach George Halas (Jack Warden), but they formed a unique bond off the field as well. At a time when black and white was just that, separate, the black Sayers and white Piccolo found a way to become great friends. And while competing for the same spot on the field, they found themselves pulling for each other’s livelihoods off of it.

Brian’s Song is a brief film, registering under 80 minutes, but it packs enough of a punch in that short time to be remembered. It should not be taken as high art, as it very much feels like a made for television film, but I mean no disrespect by pointing out this lack of technical achievement. In fact, the film plays within its constraints by focusing on the central relationship in the film, connecting to the audience in its screenplay and performances. Billy Dee Williams and James Caan have remarkable on screen chemistry, with Caan giving such vitality to Piccolo, and Williams providing necessary perspective to the Sayers character.

The film is mostly short on football action, but that is simply because it is made to show the bond which can be formed between players off the field, not just on it. What limited in game action is showed appears to be archival footage of the actual Sayers and Piccolo, and it’s a joy to watch, as I said earlier, to watch Sayers glide on the football field to gridiron glory. Piccolo, while not garnering the same historic praise, shows himself a capable player as well. There is some training camp action, mostly featuring Sayers and Piccolo racing each other, as they also end up doing during the course of Sayer’s recovery from injury. It doesn’t rival Paper Lion for its depiction of game action, but that is not its intent.

Instead, Brian’s Song soars in its communication of the heart and relationship of these two men, at a time when society thought they ought not to be friends, they were there for each other, steadfast and unflinching, even in the face of death, forming a bond that could not be broken. It’s very sentimental for that reason, but it also works for that reason. It’s such a touching story, in fact, that it was re-adapted into another TV movie in 2001. And while that film was not included in my marathon, I see no reason to, as Buzz Kulik’s 1971 version is all the more one could ask for about the story of Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, especially too since it features a wonderful score from Michel Legrand. It’s a film that may be limited by its resources, budget and ambition, but it also succeeds in spite of these limitations.

*** – Good

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