Rah rah: Notes on a football film

Breakfast of champions

Two football players (Nick Nolte and Mac Davis) steel themselves for the day ahead. Screen photograph from original cinematography by Paul Lohmann.

Because Thanksgiving means football, I watched North Dallas Forty yesterday. It was released in 1979; after all these years, I’m still unsure what the title means. It vaguely suggests the 40 acres and a mule that was promised, but never given, to freed slaves after the end of the Civil War. Given the film itself, the idea seems to be this: what awaits football player Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) if he ever frees himself from the servitude of his contract with the North Dallas Bulls team? He’s halfway to the 40-acre ideal: he has managed to buy 20 acres of land somewhere outside of Dallas. And he has a girlfriend, a woman named Charlotte (Dayle Haddon), though she doesn’t correspond to the mule; she has money, doesn’t need to work, and belongs to no one. Alternatively, maybe the title evokes “the north 40,” a piece of land to be worked; read that way, the issue is what Phil is working and what he gets out of it.

The script, based on a novel by a former Dallas Cowboys player, sometimes seems simplistic, and the budget looks to have been pretty modest, but the film nonetheless pulls off a substantial critique of high-level American football and more. Charlotte is rather a bird in a gilded cage; she has little with which to occupy herself beyond books, seems to want both love and marriage, gets something short of love from Phil, and has no better option for marriage than the brother of the team’s owner, who, like all the other men in the film (even the monsignor), is totally caught up in football. Phil doesn’t know how to love her, and his pal, the star quarterback (Mac Davis), admits he’s never even been in love. The all-consuming sport has eaten their lives like it’s doing to their bodies. Tellingly, very little of the film takes place on the field during a game. The dialogue often discusses football as a business and the game-playing that the corporate structure demands. Phil has been benched as punishment for his anti-authoritarian attitude; the head coach relies on computer-based statistics in evaluating everything (when we meet him, his eyes remain fixed on a screen for much of his talk with Phil). An assistant coach is regularly seen swigging a bottle of Maalox. Godly talk is dispensed like tape and bandages; among the players, no one takes it seriously except the upright and uptight backup quarterback. The team management expects the players to rely on drugs to numb their pain but condemns a bit of pot use when it serves their purpose. Injury is a constant threat but also a tool. In the guise of a lightweight comedy-drama (look at the poster), North Dallas Forty serves up a picture etched with acid. To my knowledge, nothing made before or since has matched it.

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