Whether an inspirational tale about a legendary figure or a cynical exploration of the seamy underbelly of professional sports, there’s a classic movie about football for just about everyone. Some are straightforward biopics about a player or coach, while others use football as a metaphor for rebellious heroes to clash with authoritarian powers-that-be. But the elements are typically the same: a game is played and a win leads to cathartic release or a loss triggers deeper enlightenment that extends beyond the field. Regardless of the outcome, the hero typically triumphs in the end.
Mostly remembered for Pat O’Brien’s emotional “Win one for the Gipper” speech, Knute Rockne, All American was actually a compelling biopic about the legendary Notre Dame coach who’s considered one of the greatest in all of college football. Future U.S. president Ronald Reagan delivered his career’s finest performance as the aforementioned George “Gipper” Gipp, a versatile star who dies a tragic death, but not before telling Rockne to inspire the team to win a game for him. A rousing story that has served as both inspiration and political fodder, Knute Rockne, All American remains one of the greatest football movies ever made.
More a biopic about a versatile athlete than a movie about football, Michael Curtiz’s Jim Thorpe – All American starred Burt Lancaster as the titular Thorpe, a gifted athlete who won Olympic gold in track and field while excelling as a running back in football at the college and professional levels. But conflicts due to his mixed Native American heritage began a slow steady decline that was exacerbated by the revelation he played semi-professional baseball, which broke Olympic rules of amateurism and cost him his medals. Following the death of his son, Thorpe’s marriage falls apart and he finds comfort inside the bottle, though he does land a shot at redemption years later – a twisting of the truth, since the real Thorpe never had such a chance. While the movie was by-the-book as a biopic, Lancaster was exceptional as Thorpe and delivered one of the best performances from the early part of his career.
Tapping into the counterculture ideal that authority is inherently evil while the rebellious are the true heroes of society, Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard starred Burt Reynolds as Paul Crewe, an ex-pro football player who winds up in prison where he’s compelled by a sadistic warden (Eddie Albert) to form an inmate team to challenge his guards on the field. To make the game more interesting, the warden dangles the promise of a pardon, but only if Crewe throws the game. With a team consisting of the prison’s most violent offenders, including a former professional weightlifter (Richard Kiel) and a serial killer (Robert Tessier), Crewe angrily agrees to lose, but finds new purpose and leads his team to victory, consequences be damned. Though technically a prison movie, The Longest Yard spent a good third of its running time on the game itself, which included a number of professional football players like Mike Henry, Pervis Atkins and Ray Nitschke.
Not to be confused with Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy of the same name, Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait is actually a remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, starring Robert Montgomery as a boxer who dies ahead of schedule and comes back in the body of a crooked businessman to fight a championship match. Here, Beatty is a quarterback for the L.A. Rams about to play in the Super Bowl when he meets his premature fate. The names remain the same, but Beatty replaced corporate greed with a more environmentally friendly theme while also switching boxing to the more popular football. A feel-good film that was a giant box office hit, Heaven Can Wait earned a total of nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but only took home one Oscar for art direction.
A cynical examination of the anything-goes-to-win nature of professional football, North Dallas Forty dared to reveal the unseemly undercarriage of a sport worshiped by millions. Nick Nolte played independent-minded wide receiver Phillip Elliott, a troublesome sort nearing the end of his career who rankles his coaches (Charles Durning and G.D. Spradlin) while downing painkillers like candy in order to make it through the next game. Elliott’s only goal is to make it to retirement in one piece, but constantly clashes with a coach who turns a blind eye to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of his players who epitomize the sex, drugs and alcohol-fueled attitude of the era. Nolte was exceptional as the calculating Elliott while director Ted Kotcheff earned high praise from critics.