Tag Archives: Super Bowl

Football on Film: Paper Lion (1968)

In honor of Super Bowl Week, Fantes Inferno is highlighting the sport of professional football on film.

Paper Lion

Paper Lion Movie Poster

Release Date: October 23, 1968

Directed by Alex March; Screenplay by Lawrence Roman based on the novel Paper Lion by George Plimpton

Starring: Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Joe Schmidt, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill, Roger Brown

One of my favorite parts of the NFL season is training camp.  Every July brings a sense of optimism as draft picks and free agents arrive to camp to compete with returning veterans for a spot on 53 man the roster.  Sadly, my team rarely makes it to the playoffs, so training camp usually ends up being the only positive part of my season.  But it’s the time of year in which the fans of pro football can evaluate the talent on their team going into the season, and see the level of competition and talent it takes to make it in the NFL.

Paper Lion is the football film that speaks to the Average Joe who dreams of lacing up a pair of cleats and playing for their favorite NFL team.  In the film, writer George Plimpton, on assignment for Sports Illustrated, seeks a tryout as a quarterback with an NFL team.  His goal is to chronicle his progress through training camp with the ultimate goal of playing a series in a pre-season game.  After rejections by several NFL teams, the Detroit Lions give him an opportunity to compete for the third string quarterback position on the condition that he doesn’t reveal to the team that he is a writer.  He has even created a backstory that he played quarterback for a semi-pro football team in Canada called the Newfoundland Newfs.

Soon enough, Plimpton’s secret is revealed and a group of veteran players led by Alex Karras and John Gordy make subtle and not so subtle attempts to get George to quit.  To them, an Average Joe in his late 30s trying out for a professional team would make a mockery of what they do for a living, and Plimpton’s inexperience playing football could potentially expose them to injury.  In spite of their attempts, George perseveres and not only makes progress at the position, but wins over his teammates over the course of training camp.

The film is based on George Plimpton’s 1966 non-fiction book of the same title but there are a few notable differences.  In the book Plimpton gets a tryout with the 1963 Detroit Lions, but in the film Plimpton (played by Alan Alda) tries out with the 1968 team.  Joe Schmidt  was a linebacker for the 1963 Lions in the book, but by 1968 he was the head coach of the team.  Defensive lineman Alex Karras was not part of the 1963 team due to a suspension by the NFL for gambling, but was back on the squad in 1968 and a prominent figure in the film.

Director Alex March also drafted members of the Lions roster to play themselves in the film, including receiver Pat Studstill, linebacker John Lucci, and Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney, and was able to get admirable performances out of them despite their lack of acting training.  There are several other notable cameos in the film, particularly NY Giants great Frank Gifford and legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, who takes a swipe at the AFL when he insinuates Plimpton might have an easier time trying out for one of their teams.

Paper Lion is by no means a documentary, but director March gives it that feel with effective use of the training camp sequences that give the audience the opportunity to experience the drills, hits and repetition of training camp from a player’s point of view.  But he also shows the camaraderie and teamwork from the daily drills and team meals to the pranks and rookie talent show.  It’s a more sanitized version of professional football compared to North Dallas Forty, but this subtle comedy, highlighted by Alan Alda’s performance as Plimpton, is fun to watch and makes you root for (and laugh with) the underdog.

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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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