By Christopher Kennedy
The Super Bowl will be played on February 1, 2009 in Tampa, Florida and following that game, pro football junkies everywhere (myself included) will spend the next six months jonesing until the preseason games begin in early August.
However, getting through those barren six months is a little easier with films like “The Longest Yard” (1974). The film is everything the shoddy – and unnecessary – 2005 remake featuring Adam Sandler isn’t, with excellent acting, a superb script, good character development, and a lengthy, first-rate sequence of a football game between prison inmates and prison guards.
Burt Reynolds is the lead as anti-hero Paul Crewe, an aging ex-college football star whose fight with his girlfriend opens up the film and leads to his arrest. I won’t spoil the fun by detailing too much of the beginning, but the police chase – with Crewe in a stolen Maserati – is in and of itself a gem of flawless directing by Robert Aldrich.
Crewe is sentenced to a prison run by slimy Warden Hazen (played nicely by Eddie Albert), who eventually succeeds in convincing Crewe to field a team of prisoners to play football against the guards. The scenes where Reynolds recruits various inmates are classic, and familiar character actors including Richard Kiel, James Hampton and John Steadman are all perfect in their respective roles. Hampton in particular shines as the affable “Caretaker,” assisting Crewe and acting as point man on various schemes in their effort to assemble the best players in the prison. There is also a short scene featuring then 26 year-old Bernadette Peters as Warden Hazen’s secretary, “Miss Toot,” that is not-to-be-missed.
Director Robert Aldrich does a superb job of blending comedy and at times poignancy against the unlikely backdrop of a brutal prison. However, the ultimate star is Reynolds, who is at the top of his game here, even better than his performance in “Deliverance.” Reynolds succeeds in making Crewe more than what he at first seems – an arrogant, aloof, selfish, one-dimensional character – and conveys Crewe’s true nature; that of a man who wants to be part of something bigger than just himself, without sacrificing his basic nature. The game between the guards and inmates accounts for the movie’s final 47 minutes, and while that may seem lengthy on paper, the action is so engrossing that it leaves you wishing for more. The film also features appearances by gridiron greats Ray Nitschke, Joe Kapp, and Ernie Wheelwright.