Paper Lion (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Scrawny guy plays quarterback.

            Lighthearted adaptation of George Plimpton’s best-selling novel detailing his account of playing for the Detroit Lions football team as a back-up quarterback despite having no real experience.  Alan Alda plays Plimpton and the movie’s main focus is during the team’s training camp and his shock at just how hard and rigorous being a pro-quarterback really is.

The film’s most amusing moments come during the many weeks of practice when Plimpton finds that even throwing a pass is difficult because the defenders are so quick that they are in his face and have him on the ground before he is even able to react. Even taking a hand-off from his center proves to be a difficult process as it jams his thumb. Director Alex March does a fine job of giving the viewer a feeling of Plimpton’s experience by having the defenders come barreling towards the camera until you feel like you’ve been tackled yourself.

What makes the story interesting is the fact that despite being an intellectual man from Harvard Plimpton still ends up having the same competitive spirit as the rest of the players. He becomes determined to prove himself by memorizing the playbook and practicing until he is able to function decently in the position. He even finds himself getting into a potential fist-fight with another man at a bar when the man makes a disparaging remark about the team.  Although the players quickly realize that he is not a legitimate athlete and try to scare him away they become impressed enough with his perseverance and fiery spirit to eventually be willing to play for him, which is a nice touch.

The cast is loaded with actual players and coaches incluing: John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Alex Karras, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roger Brown, Frank Gifford and the then head coach Joe Schmidt. All of them are given a lot of screen time and a surprising amount of lines. Despite what one may think they do an exceptionally good job. They are likable and believable especially coach Schmidt. In fact it is their presence that really helps make the movie succeed and gives the viewer the impression that they are experiencing the NFL as it is, or at least as it was at that time. There is even a segment featuring legendary coach Vince Lombardi, which is special.

Probably the only character that I felt wasn’t necessary was Lauren Hutton as Plimpton’s super-hot model girlfriend.  Now, I have never read the book, so I am not sure if Plimpton had an attractive girlfriend in real-life, or not, but the character here seemed to be put in for eye candy and added little if anything to the story.

The footage shown of an actual exhibition game that the Lions play against the St Louis Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium is vivid. So many times film of this nature will borrow footage from another source and then incorporate it in, but the grainy film stock always makes this evident and distracting and here that wasn’t the case. The camera gets right down on the field with the players and you see the plays and hits up close. You even hear the trash talk and a bit of cursing although they do edit some of that out.

The film’s drawback is that it is too serene for its own good. There is never any dramatic tension, or conflict. The pace and music is so easy going that at times it seems ready to put you to sleep. The film had the backing of the league, which I felt ended up compromising it. Some of the harsher ugly elements of football boot camp were clearly glossed over. I would have wanted something a little bit meatier, even if it had been for a only a few brief scenes. The film hasn’t particularly aged well. The ‘big’ players of yesteryear look rather puny by today’s standards. The game and conditioning has evolved a lot and I felt this story should be revisited in the modern day setting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 23, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alex March

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, Netflix streaming

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