North Dallas Forty (1979)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Written by Frank Yablans & Ted Kotcheff and Peter Gent

Football is a brutal sport. Part of that very fact is why I believe that the Football Movie is not as popular, nor as successful as the Baseball Movie. I started this marathon with the intent of finding out not just why there were fewer football movies, but why there were also fewer good football movies. Less than a quarter of the way through the marathon, I hesitate to say I’ve figured it out, especially after seeing what I consider to be a good football movie in North Dallas Forty, but I think I’ve figured it out. Especially when compared to baseball, the brutality of football makes it a difficult sport to film, and one which is difficult to not just romanticize but also sympathize. For much of the 20th century, baseball was the American Pastime. That has changed here in 2018, but the sheer volume of baseball movies also aids that sports case as the king of sports movies. It will be interesting to see whether this theory plays out to the conclusion of this marathon.

The North Dallas Bulls, purportedly based on the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s, are lead by quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis) and his buddy, aging wide receiver Phillip Elliott (Nick Nolte). Elliott is a bench player, who sees limited action each game. Striving to see more playing time, Elliott makes a bad drop in a game in which he went on to catch the game winning touchdown. However, it’s the drop that haunts him, and which the coach (Charles Durning) doesn’t let him forget. At the tail end of his career, he contemplates what his career has been, the sacrifices he has made of his body and personal life as he begins seeing Charlotte (Dayle Haddon), who wonders why Elliott continues to batter his body for a game.

More than any other film thus far in this marathon, North Dallas Forty takes the game of football seriously, which is surprising to say, but I believe it provides the first look into what the game means to its players in both a positive and negative way. The competition which Elliott gains from playing is like a drug, he keeps coming back for me, hoping to improve and come our victorious each time. But in the process he is also battering his body to death, to the point he can barely lift his shoulder, or move his fingers. This movie shows football as being a game for tough men, but also stupid men. So what drives these players to continue to play this brutal game, knowing the toll it is taking on their bodies? Seeing this film in 2018, with the current CTE controversy and multiple steps taken by the NFL to provide a safer game for players is truly eye-opening.

I think that is what this movie gets right above all else, the brutality and fragility of the game. Elliott is a sad sap of a character, but one with which the filmmakers manage to make us sympathetic. He drinks too much, takes too many painkillers, surrounds himself with disgusting chauvinist pig teammates, and yet we get an idea of why he continues to play, what the game means to him. And yes, there is plenty depicted which goes back to what I had said in my review of Semi-Tough. Plenty of “locker room” talk, in other words, men saying and doing disgusting and nearly unforgivable things to each other and in particular women. That aspect of the film has not aged well, and even Elliott partakes some, but the film succeeds in putting his experience within the context of his career goals. So while these elements felt gratuitous in Semi-Tough, it feels like Kotcheff includes them here to make a point about football culture in general, for better or for worse.

It’s a fine line to walk and in many ways Elliott becomes an anti-hero. Someone who we learn to sympathize with, but I’m not sure we’re ever really meant to root for him. Nick Nolte’s performance is very good, and subtle, giving Elliott just enough humanity for us to pity him, but not enough for us to be able to fully explain why he has decided to live this way, to destroy his body. Like The Longest Yard before it, North Dallas Forty manages to put the brutality of the game into context while also crafting meaningful characters. This is a film which managed to creep up on me as it continued on, sneaking up and surprising me at just how good it really was. I think more than most other films in this marathon, North Dallas Forty does a great job at capturing what it means to play the game of football. And for that it is special.

★★★ – Very Good

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