Films

Girding loins for gridiron

Richard Corliss August 13 1979
Films

Girding loins for gridiron

Richard Corliss August 13 1979

Girding loins for gridiron

NORTH DALLAS FORTY Directed by Ted Kotcheff

What does it say about the ’70s that some of the highest scoring movies have been about football? For almost half a century, since the college gridiron comedies of Harold Lloyd and the Marx Brothers, football movies were considered box-office poison. Then came the boisterous scrimmage at the climax of M*A*S*H (which also set the tone for an entire decade of locker-room hipsters). Since then, two Burt Reynolds hits—The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough—have tackled the subject with enthusiasm and brass knuckles. Warren Beatty played a quarterback in the top-grossing Heaven Can Wait. And now Nick (Poor Man) Nolte lumbers downfield in North Dallas Forty. The surging popularity of the sport in the U.S. helps explain this crimson tide of football movies. Even more to the point is the split personality of the professional gladiator—he’s both a macho man and an organization man— which surely reflects the modern American male’s desire to be a free spirit as well as his need to belong to the corporate machine.

Say this for North Dallas Forty; unlike the other football movies, it is concerned with the pleasure and the business of America’s most profitable sport. Nolte plays Phil Elliott, a wide-receiver with the North Dallas Bulls who is just at his peak as an athlete for hire—or perhaps, with all that cortisone shot into his damaged knee, just past his peak. But his great flaw is deviating from the game plan. He’s a little too liberal, too flaky, too cocky to his coaches, too friendly with the woman who’s engaged to one of the owners. If you’re not a “team player”—one of the North Dallas 40—well, someday you could be ambling down the field of life and get hit by a blind-side tackle.

*®1959; Schwartz Music Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

Peter Gent, on whose novel the film is based, was once a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, so pro football fans will be excused if they see some similarities between the North Dallas Bulls and the Cowboys organization; between the movie’s perfectionist head coach (G.D. Spradlin) and the Cowboys’ Tom Landry; between the smooth-talking owner (Steve Forrest) and Dallas’ own Clint Murchison. North Dallas Forty wants us to see this team as a microcosm of American business, where the first rule is: produce for the team, or get out.

The movie boasts some fine performances—by Nolte, Mac Davis as the Bulls’ quarterback and John Matuszak as a fired-up lineman—but it’s too concerned with celebrating the mating and bonding rituals of overgrown adolescents. The direction of Ted Kotcheff (an import from the CFL) is frequently incoherent and its narrative flow is too often broken up by what look like lastminute editing decisions. Worst of all is the 20 or 30 pounds of unsightly flab Nick Nolte had to put on for the role. It’s a desecration of one of America’s natural resources. It’s like casting Jacqueline Bisset in the title role of The Mama Cass Story. Richard Corliss

Richard Corliss