Football on Film: North Dallas Forty (1979)

In honor of Super Bowl Week, Fante’s Inferno is highlighting the sport of professional football on film:

North Dallas Forty

North Dallas Forty Movie Poster

Release Date: August 3, 1979

Directed by Ted Kotcheff; Written by Frank Yablans & Ted Kotcheff and Peter Gent, based on the novel North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent

Starring: Nick Nolte, Mack Davis, G.D. Spradlin, Charles Durning, Bo Svenson, John Matuszak, Dabney Coleman, Dayle Haddon

North Dallas Forty is the football movie I measure all others up against.  That’s a big statement considering the classic football films that have been released over the last forty years: Brian’s Song, The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans and Paper Lion just to name a few.

I’d seen North Dallas Forty several times from my childhood through my teenage years and always enjoyed it, but always at face value as a good film with football as a backdrop.  But as I got older I developed a greater appreciation for it because of how much professional football has changed since then.  Watching it again this week, North Dallas Forty resonates with me on a completely different level now.  It reminded me of what professional players of the 60’s and 70’s went through to play the game on Sunday, warts and all, and gave me a greater sense of the physical toll the game took on their bodies while earning a fraction of the money today’s players make.

Writer Peter Gent took his experiences was a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 60’s and wrote the novel that would become the film.  The North Dallas Bulls football team in the book and film is loosely based on the Cowboys, with characteristics of that NFL team represented by the hyper-professional atmosphere, the team’s over reliance on a computer to gauge performance (and even attitude), and the Tom Landry-esque hat worn by the stern, icy head coach B.A. Strothers (played by G.D. Spradlin).

The movie begin’s with Bulls wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) waking up bloody and sore from the previous night’s game, each ache and pain represented by flashbacks to the hits that caused them the night before.  He gingerly gets out of bed and limps to his kitchen, his ankles still taped up, to start the day with a painkiller and a beer.  He limps like an old man throughout the film, except when he’s on the field.  His routes are precise, his hands the best in the league, and his bum knee numb from the needle.

Elliot’s partner in crime is North Dallas quarterback Seth Maxwell (played by Mac Davis).  They’re two players on the wrong side of 30 doing whatever it takes to make it another week.  But despite their cohesion on the field and their antics off of it, their differences become more evident as the film progresses: Elliot sacrifices for the game while Maxwell games the system.

Director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun with Dick and Jane, First Blood) does a good job balancing  the on and off the field storylines.  On one level you’re looking at this team of characters as they enjoy the lifestyle the game affords them, fueled by alcohol, drugs and women.  On another level you get a peek behind the curtain to see the pressure they’re under to perform and the lengths they’ll go to keep their spot on the roster.

One of the harder hitting scenes in the film occurs as the Bulls watch the game film from their last win.  Despite winning the game, Coach Strothers and his Maalox swilling assistant coach Johnson (Charles Durning) pick apart each play looking for flaws.  Offensive tackle Stallings (played by Jim Boeke, Peter Gent’s real life teammate on the Cowboys in the 60’s) is called out by Strothers for losing his footing and tripping on a play during a crucial drive.  The next scene shows his locker being cleared out by the equipment manager.  This is the moment you realize that even with success, no one is safe.  The film’s score even lends a sense of the sinister, highlighting  B.A.’s mind games, Elliot’s feeling of being watched, the fear each player has of losing his job, and the team doctor’s complicity in allowing them to harm their bodies even more just to play another game.

One of my pet peeves when watching sports films is how unrealistic the extras sitting in the stands can look during the game scenes, particularly in the reaction shots.  Having worked as an extra in a couple of sports films myself, when this is done wrong it can cheapen the look of the film (I may write a blog post on one of my experiences).  But Kotcheff made what I thought was an effective choice as a director by blacking out the stands in shadow during the game scenes.  You become so drawn to the emotion and action of the game that you barely notice that there are no fans visible.

The film has a strong cast down to the supporting characters.  You feel Phil Elliot’s physical pain in Nick Nolte’s performance.  Mac Davis’ nails the part of Maxwell in his first film role, and the confidence he infuses in his character makes you think he would really be able to lead an offense downfield with time running out.  Other notable performances include Bo Svenson as offensive lineman Joe Bob Priddy, the big ox that can snap at any moment, and Oakland Raider great John Matuszak as offensive lineman as O.G. Shaddock.  This was also Matuszak’s first movie, highlighted by a passionate monologue after their division championship game with Chicago.  In his 1987 autobiography Cruisin’ with the Tooz, Matuszak wrote about his audition for this role.  He had never acted before and didn’t really know what to do when he arrived for the audition.  Another actor also auditioning for the role of Shaddock told Matuszak to ask the casting director to let him give a cold reading, thinking that Matuszak’s lack of experience would show.  Matuszak nailed the audition.

North Dallas Forty is more than just a football film.  It’s a film about the pain and sacrifice players make for the game and for the team, only to find out that loyalty doesn’t always go both ways.  As Elliot says towards the end of the film, “The only thing that’s real in that game is me.  And that’s enough.”

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