The Longest Yard (1974)

Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Tracy Keenan Wynn

It seems every good sports movie deserves a remake. At least it would seem that way based on what I have seen from my Baseball marathon, and now rolling into my Football marathon as well. The Longest Yard is the only remake on my football movie list, but it seems to be quite the peculiar choice. This review concerns the original film from 1974. I will revisit the 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler later on in this marathon. I am sure I will revisit this topic upon reviewing that film, but after seeing the original once again (one of the few films on this list I have already seen), I am not quite sure what it is about the story which requires an updating to current pop culture. I guess I will find out when I get to the 2005 version. But for now, the great 1974 version starring Burt Reynolds…

Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) is a former star professional football player, spending his retired days drinking too much and neglecting his woman. After a fight, Crewe goes for a joyride in his girlfriends car, landing him a few years in Citrus State Prison. Upon learning of the star quarterback’s arrival in his prison, the warden (Eddie Albert) is excited to have a celebrity among his inmates, especially as he takes great pride in his prison guard football team, lead by Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter), who is competing for a semi-professional national championship. After originally declining his offer, Crewe agrees to round up an inmate team to face the guards in an exhibition game to help the team gain confidence. But when the inmates learn about the opportunity to play football against the guards, they happily enlist for every cheap shot they can possibly get in before the whistle.

It’s kind of hard to put my finger on why this film is so entertaining. At the surface it feels juvenile and simple, but perhaps that is its charm exactly. Unlike what you would expect from an Adam Sandler movie (I am sure we will discover the remake is exactly what we think it will be), though juvenile and simple do come to mind, the comedy here is more effective than simple slapstick, and it has social undertones which run throughout which give the film a little more weight than one might expect. These are criminals behind bars, facing time for crimes committed, and that should not be forgotten. I don’t think director Robert Aldrich neglects this, but his narrative does bring a sympathetic focus which paints them as human beings, instead of the thugs and animals the guards seem to think they are based on how they treat them. By framing the inmates as the heroes against the evil guards, Aldrich turns the narrative on its head. It’s always more fun rooting for the bad guys.

But Aldrich humanizes the inmates to make them easy to root for. Crewe has a chip on his shoulder, out to prove himself after ruining his life with gambling accusations. His redemption is more than simply about atoning for the crime that landed him in jail in the first place. Others, like Scarboro (Michael Conrad), Granville (Harry Caesar) and Caretaker (James Hampton) all have something to prove as well. Something to redeem their faults and past missteps in life. This is more than just a game for the inmates, and Aldrich captures these stakes with great care, while also making sure the setup is fun as hell and funny.

A number of the actors had played professional football before, including Mike Henry, Joe Kapp, Ray Nitschke, Ernie Wheelwright, Ray Ogden and Pervis Atkins. As one might imagine the actual football game is brutal as hell, but the way in which Aldrich films it makes it the marquee sequence in the film. Scarcely remembering the film from my first viewing years ago, I was expecting a fun time, especially during the game. And I got that. This is not the first time that a football film culminates in a featured game, but The Longest Yard features the most effective game played in the marathon thus far. What surprised me was everything else, which was a compelling story of redemption. At the end of the day, above all else, The Longest Yard is just a fun as hell film.

*** – Very Good

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