The Longest Yard

"... you spend fourteen years in this tank, you begin to understand that you've only got two things left they can't sweat out of you or beat out of you. Your balls. And you better hang onto them, because they're about the only thing you're gonna have when you get out of here." -- Nate Scarboro

Director: Robert Aldrich

Writer: Tracy Keenan Wynn, Albert S. Ruddy

Principal cast members:

Hope for the Hopeless

No disrespect to the 2004 remake with Adam Sandler - it was an entertaining remake. But it was a different film with a different tone entirely.

The 1974 original, The Longest Yard, was a dark comedy with elements of social commentary and high drama mixed with a few macabre laughs. It was a showpiece of good casting and disturbing violence mixed with jokes. That blend of frighteningly real drama and violence with moments of absurd comedy is very difficult to pull off. In the hands of a lesser director or screenwriter, I doubt it could have succeeded and if you ever doubted that Burt Reynolds is more than a mustache, this movie proves it.

It is the story of a one-time college football superstar who falls from grace for shaving points during his NFL career. Following a drinking binge and an argument, Paul Crewe wrecks his girlfriend's car and is arrested. He winds up in a hard-core Florida prison where the local warden takes his football very seriously indeed. As fellow inmate Caretaker, played by James Hampton, explains, "All I'm saying is that 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 of a football game, man that's un-American."

Warden Hazen is played with ultra-stern menace by Eddie Albert. His prison has a football team made up of guards which plays in a semi-pro league. He offers Crewe a little lenience if he will put together a team of inmates to practice against the guards. At first Crewe rejects the idea, not wanting to be used by the Warden, But faced with the alternative to lenience, he reluctantly gives in.

He quickly learns that the idea isn't exactly popular. Racial issues between the black and white inmates mean that many of the best athletes among the blacks aren't going to play. But Crewe gradually wins them over and also begins working the system. He succeeds in drafting a dangerous felon named Connie Shockner, a martial arts expert capable of killing with his bare hands. He also offends an elderly trustee in the prison, a convict named Unger who responds to Crewe's rejection by attempting to kill him. The attempt mistakenly claims the life of Crewe's assistant manager, Caretaker. The incident adds to the dark tone of the story line and helps lead to the climactic game between convicts and guards.

The game begins on a high note with the convicts having stolen the guards' snazzy black and red uniforms. By halftime, it is clear the guards may have taken on more than they can handle. The inmates aren't giving up and they are also taking advantage of the fact that they can get free legal (and illegal) hits on the guards without adding to their sentences. But Crewe is taken aside by the warden and it is made clear to him that if he fails to lose the game, his sentence will suddenly increase in length.

Consequently, Crewe begins stumbling, playing badly, and finally leaves the game complaining of an ankle injury. The inmates aren't the least bit fooled. They know he shaved points and sold out his teammates before and now he's doing it again. They aren't terribly surprised and they also aren't the least bit happy. But watching them suffer on the field and watching the warden's satisfied smile as the guards pull ahead, Crewe suddenly has a change of heart.

He approaches Pop, the oldest inmate in the prison, who had his sentence extended by the warden after hitting the warden in the mouth. He asks Pop if it was worth it. Taking a moment to consider, Pop nods and says, "For me it was." Crewe puts his shoe back on and puts himself back in the game.

For the first few plays, his teammates react with predictable scorn, refusing to block for him, catch a ball, or take a handoff. This results in Crewe being savagely tackled several times before the inmates decide maybe they need to take him seriously. In the end, the game will be decided on a final play from the one-yard line - the proverbial longest yard.

The quality of the film has little to do with the actual football game. The story's strengths are tied closely to the character of a man who has betrayed his teammates in the past and is put in a position to betray them again in the present. It is about the interactions between athletes who off the field, are the ultimate antagonists as guards and inmates, but on the field are suddenly positioned as equals and opponents. Such men cannot possibly forget who and what they are off the field, yet for sixty minutes they must face each other in a different way.

There is enormous power in these themes and director Robert Aldrich does a superb job of delivering them with both the brutality and humor of the film. Aldrich has an impressive history of screen credits for mostly action-oriented films, including The Dirty Dozen and the original Flight of the Phoenix. In all his films, despite the action and conflict at the core, he does a masterful job of building the film around the psychology of the characters. For me, this is what ultimately gives The Longest Yard its power.

We understand the conflict within Paul Crewe. This owes much to Aldrich's direction but even more to Burt Reynolds, who I think is under-appreciated as a dramatic actor. A lot of credit also should be given to Ed Lauter, a veteran character actor who shines here as Captain Knauer, a guard who seems to have a better understanding of the mentality of the inmates than anyone else.

The making of the movie brought in a number of actual football players. One of the best known was Green Bay Packer linebacker Ray Nitschke who seemed to think that the fact Burt Reynolds once played college ball gave him license to tackle the star with the same ferocity he used on the NFL playing field. Reynolds himself was remembered by everyone in the film as being exceptionally friendly to the actual cons in the Georgia prison where the film was made. Despite the warnings from the guards and the film crew, Reynolds ate meals with the prisoners and socialized with them on a regular basis. He posed for pictures with many of them and even paid the photographer for the photos out of his own pocket.

There are certain qualities and character traits that are difficult to fake. I think the essential qualities of Reynolds' character have a lot to do with the battle of conscience that takes place in the film and the impact with which it hits the audience. They may remake this film again and again - football seems unlikely to disappear from our culture and as a theme for this sort of film, is likely to appear again.

But this will always be the original and there is much to be said for that.

Coolness factor: 6

Writing: 7

Acting: 7

Overall entertainment: 7