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The Longest Yard (1974)

October 9th, 2008 · 2 Comments

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Synopsis
“How long do we have to keep watching this crap?” whines a pampered beauty (Anitra Ford) while her boy toy Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) lays next to her in bed. Crewe finally has enough of her harangue, throws on the clothes she bought for him and snatches the keys to her Maserati on his way out. When she tries to stop him, Crewe pushes her onto the floor. Whipping through the streets like a speed demon, Crewe outfoxes the law and parks his ex’s sports car in a bay. He then finds his way to a bar to wait for the Highway Patrol.

Dealt a minimum eighteen month sentence at “Citrus State Prison,” Crewe is brought before the dapper but sadistic Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert). Hazen hopes the former All Pro quarterback will coach the warden’s pride and joy: a semi-pro football team consisting of the guardsmen. Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter) and his baton convince Crewe that his input is definitely not needed, while his fellow prisoners shun him. The joint’s best smuggler, Caretaker (James Hampton) explains why: “You could have robbed banks, sold dope or stole your grandmother’s pension checks, and none of us would have minded. But shaving points off a football game, man, that’s un-American.”

The warden threatens to deny Crewe’s parole unless he leads a team of convicts in a tune-up game against the guardsmen before the start of their season. A hulk named Samson (Richard Keil) and “the baddest cat in the joint” – a black belt named Shokner (Bob Tessier) – recognize the once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a free crack at the guards. Crewe confides to their coach – former pro baller Nate Scarboro (Michael Conrad) – that this is just a game to him. All he wants to do is survive it. Scarboro contends that this isn’t a game to the warden. “He’s givin’ us this chance to be free for a few hours, try and be men again, so he can destroy us.”

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Production history
The Longest Yard began with a character producer Al Ruddy knew, an All American football star who was drafted number one by the Rams. He married a woman of great wealth that Ruddy had gone to USC with, but the All American blew out his knee. Ruddy ran into the couple at a mens store in Westwood, where the star was trying on tweed jackets. “And he says to her, ‘Well, should I take the blue or the green or the brown?’ She says, ‘Take all three because when I kick you out you’ll need them.’ So I started hypothesizing taking that character with a rich woman, beats her up, ends up in jail and gets one last chance, one last chance to find dignity for himself.”

Ruddy ultimately went to Utah to visit Burt Reynolds on the set of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. He didn’t have a script, just a story, which he pitched to the rising star. Reynolds – who’d played halfback for Florida State University – loved the concept and suggested Ruddy direct it. The producer knew someone better. With a screenplay commissioned by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Ruddy landed Robert Aldrich. Even though the most recent film Ruddy had produced – The Godfather – was playing to record box office around the world, Paramount remained so dubious about the commercial prospects of The Longest Yard that the studio shuttered the movie three weeks before filming was set to begin.

Shooting finally commenced in October 1973 at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. Without the budget to hire the actors he’d worked with in movies like The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich substituted Ernest Borgnine with Michael Conrad in the role of Nate Scarboro, and instead of Richard Jaeckel, cast Ed Lauter as Captain Knauer. Equally unknown to movie audiences were the pro football players who made their acting debuts in the picture: Dino Washington, Ernie Wheelwright, Ray Ogden, Pervis Atkins and Sonny Sixkiller were cast in the Mean Machine, while Ray Nitschke, Joe Kapp and Mike Henry played guardsmen.

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The script was so hard-edged that Crewe was shot at the end, but Aldrich – having never directed a comedy – dumped that idea and used Reynolds’ charm to lighten the mood. Released August 1974, audiences embraced the movie, while critics dismissed it. Over time, The Longest Yard topped lists of the best sports movies of all time. For its reissue on DVD in 2005, Ruddy recalled, “The interesting thing about the movie is this was the first sports movie that had ever become a big commercial success at the time. This kicked off a whole genre of movies. Paul Newman did Slap Shot, there was suddenly twenty sports movies. Nobody wanted to do this movie … Nobody wanted to touch sports.”

Opinion
The Longest Yard may seem chock full of juvenile mayhem with little substance, but it’s endured as a classic because of how short tempered, surly and gloriously mean it is under the surface. Paul Crewe throws his girlfriend to the floor, endangers the city of Savannah by tearing around in a Maserati and shows nothing but contempt for both authority and the men he’s serving time with, playing one against the other for his own personal benefit. Somewhere in there, he discovers his dignity and gets one play to turn his life around. Rarely will you see a movie combine raucous humor, gritty drama and slick entertainment as beautifully as this one does.

Instead of looking for the joke, the writers, directors and actors seem fully committed to playing football here. The 47-minute grudge match which concludes the film works both as a piece of technical virtuosity – with Aldrich and editor Michael Luciano utilizing split screens and slo-mo – as well as brass tacks filmmaking that shows the game unfold as if we were in the bleachers. As for the players, they seem like they’re trying to stomp each other as opposed to play acting. The final scene – where Ed Lauter has a second to use between humanity and brutality – puts the film in the caliber of a Sam Peckinpah western as opposed to a mass entertainment cranked out by Hollywood.

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Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “Clearly, The Longest Yard is a bit of a mixed bag, alternately silly and somber from scene to scene in a way that doesn’t always mesh.  The direction by Robert Aldrich is perhaps the biggest reason why film scholars have occasionally praised the film, although one could presumably argue that Aldrich simply didn’t know how to make a sports movie and instead made a political movie instead.  There is an existential quality to the film that makes it transcend being a mere ‘pros vs. cons’ football flick.  There is a moral center to it that is sometimes difficult to grasp, yet always present, showing that you can take a man’s freedom but you should never take a man’s dignity along with it.”

Mike Sutton at DVD Times writes, “On the surface, The Longest Yard is simply a vehicle for Burt Reynolds and, as such, it is a triumph. Reynolds was one of the first actors to enjoy being a celebrity to such a degree that his public persona gradually became tangled up with his characters. Though always capable, when the spirit moved him, of genuinely interesting performances – Deliverance, Hustle, Starting Over, Boogie Nights – Reynolds has always seemed most at home when playing something not too far from himself. Indeed, Paul Crewe could be Reynolds’ own comment on his fame as half-beefcake, half-clown.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Cult favorite · Famous line · Interrogation · Man vs. machine · Master and pupil · Sports

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 christian // Oct 15, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Good stuff as I’ve always loved this film for its hard 70’s edge. Eddie Albert rules.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 15, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Christian: Good observation, Christian. I never even entertained the thought of watching the remake, but “edge” is not a word that comes to mind when you’ve got Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Nelly in your football prison movie. Ugh.

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