By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Prisoners play football game.
Burt Reynolds is Paul Crewe a down-on-his-luck former professional football player who was kicked out of the league due to a point shaving scandal. After going on a long car chase with police he is thrown into the Georgia State Penitentiary where the crooked warden (Eddie Albert) tries to get him to coach the prison football team. Initially he refuses, but after some ‘convincing’ he eventually agrees to play in one game that will feature the guards versus the inmates. The prisoners use this contest as a way to get back at the guards and their brutal treatment of them while the guards approach it as a way to instill their authority.
Some consider this one of the best sports movies of all-time and I would have to agree it is up there. One of the things I liked about the movie is the way it taps into the emotional aspect of not only playing the sport, but watching it. There can be deep seated psychological reasons for why a spectator, or fan, roots for one team over the other. The prisoners that cheer on their team use the game, as fleeting as it may be, as a sort of equalization and revenge factor to the guard’s authority and corruption. Watching the scenes showing the prisoners cheering their team as they score a touchdown is almost as emotionally charging as the action itself. Director Robert Aldrich does a great job of using the prison setting and the game as a microcosm of 70’s society and the conflict between the counter-culture and the establishment as well as the haves and have-nots.
The game is nicely choreographed. The hits look real and the plays are shot in a bird’s eye view just like watching an actual game on TV. The action is easy to follow and it is evident that the filmmakers have a good understanding and appreciation for the sport. Outside of the final play that is done in slow motion there is none of the fluky, theatrical stuff thrown in that you usually see in most other films of this type. I found myself getting emotionally tied into the action even though I had seen the film many times before.
The only misgiving I had was the segment where the Richard Kiel character slams an opposing player to the ground and announces “I think I broke his fucking neck.” Of course this has become one of the film’s most popular lines and is made funnier when other players and even the game announcer repeats it several more times, but when the injured player is unable to come-to even after being given smelling salts and is carted off motionless from the field it starts to seem cruel to be laughing.
Another scene that I found surprising and had almost as much impact as the climatic contest is at the very beginning when Paul is shown arguing with his girlfriend Melissa (played by Anitra Ford one of the original models on ‘The Price is Right’ game show). She calls him a whore, which has to be the first and only time in film history that a woman has called a man that, but what is even more amazing is when he violently slaps her and knocks her to the floor. I don’t think I can remember another time where a protagonist male character has done that to a female and yet the audience is still expected to sympathize with the male, which is interesting. The ensuing car chase is one of the better ones you’ll see and the part where he drives the car into a lake while the song ‘Saturday Night Special’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing on the car’s radio and gets muffled as it goes under the water is cool.
Burt is perfect for the role. I love the glib way he delivers his lines and his laid back persona. The fact that he is an anti-hero with obvious personal flaws makes him even more fun. He seems right at home in the southern setting and filming it at an actual state prison gives the film a nice gritty subtext.
The supporting cast is unique. John Steadman as Pop, one of the prison’s oldest members, is memorable and he is the only other actor with a nose big enough to rival that of Karl Malden’s. It is nice to see Richard Kiel, one of the tallest actors you will ever see, with a speaking role. The part where he starts to cry when he gets hit in the nose is funny. Charles Tyner is perfectly creepy as Unger and Michael Conrad is compelling in his role as Nate Scarboro. This is also a great chance to see Bernadette Peters in an early career role as the warden’s ditzy and amorous secretary Miss Toot. She wears one of the worst looking beehive hairdos you’ll ever see although there probably isn’t a beehive hairdo that looks good anyways. Former football player Joe Kapp is good as one of the evil guards.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: August 30, 1974
Runtime: 1Hour 1Minute
Rated R: (Adult Theme, Language, Violence)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix Streaming