“North Dallas Forty” is funny and brilliant, a classic that has held up remarkably well over the years.
Every year, I take a moment to rewatch it, and it reconfirms all the reasons why it’s the ultimate sports movie.
It’s important to share my runner-ups in that category:
“Breaking Away” (1979) — First, the cast. Daniel Stern is awesome and so is Jackie Earle Haley. And Dennis Quaid and Dennis Christopher do solid work as well. It’s a story of class, small towns and bigger dreams.
“Vision Quest” (1985) — You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better foe in a sports movie than Shute (Frank Jasper). Why? Every single high school in America has a Shute. Outside of the “Rocky” franchise, which are great sports movies, to be sure, but not personal favorites, “Visions Quest” has the best prep/training sequence as he generates the momentum to take on Shute.
“Inside Moves” (1980) — It’s beautiful, tragic and real, plus it’s about brotherhood. This is one of the all-time under-appreciated movies, and yet there’s not a single guy (and many women) who don’t get this on some deep level within.
“All The Right Moves” (1983) — The best Sports movies are always about class. Before “Friday Night Lights” there was Tom Cruise in “All The Right Moves,” and it’s better than you remember. The story follows a high school football player (Cruise) who is depending upon a scholarship to get him out of a dying steel town in rural Pennsylvania.
Okay, so why does “North Dallas Forty” come out on top?
- Drugs: It was one of the first movies to really take on sports injuries and drugs. We
see a number of players use drugs as both performance enhancers and as cheats to speed recovery after taking a beating. The one player who doesn’t use drugs is injured and loses his place on the team.
- Class System: The class system of owners, coaches, players and fans is made clear to the
audience. This movie understands the power structure of the NFL and how owners
have a put together a kind of gladiator system with distinct hierarchies. The real “joy” for
them is the prestige of ownership itself.
- Metrics: Way ahead of its time, this movie explored how technology (computers) are used to crunch stats and develop metrics that shape the game. “We let you score those touchdowns!” B.A. Strothers (G.D. Spradlin)
- Players as Gods: We see how the community surrounding the team and the fans view players as gods where a different set of rules apply. The movie gets how violence in players is viewed differently than the violence of “average” men.
- The Mystique of the Dallas Cowboys: Having this movie set on “America’s Team” was
perfect as the Cowboys were in ascendance in the late ’70s. They had a mystique. Everything from that weird “up and down” thing the O line did before every snap, to Tom Landry’s hat to the cheerleaders meant something special.
- Cleat Chasers: “North Dallas Forty” highlights the women who chase athletes and see them
as wild rides.
- Race Relations: The movie didn’t shy away from racial tensions in the locker room.
- Contracts: The power of the contract, or the threat of losing one, wills athletes to play hurt and give it their best even at risk to their own health.
- Christianity in the NFL: The Dallas Cowboys at the time had Roger Staubach (outspoken
Christian and rising star) fighting for a spot on the team against noted party boy “Dandy” Don Meredith. In “North Dallas Forty” we see this tension with Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis) fighting to retain his spot as starting QB against up-and-comer Art Hartman (Marshall Colt) who is leading prayer circles on the team. Christianity is a big part of the NFL, now but back in the ’70s this was an emerging trend.
- Chemistry: Every great sports movie has to give you insight into the game itself, and “North Dallas Forty” does a brilliant job of giving us a peak into the importance of the relationships between QBs and receivers. Nowadays, this chemistry is well known, and there’s been a ton of reporting on the NFL of off-season get togethers between QBs and their receiving corps. In 1979 that was revelatory.
- Impact on Relationships: The game packs a terrible toll on players’ minds and bodies as well as their relationships. We’ve seen that recently with Tom and Giselle, but when you give your life to something that demands all of you, 24/7, everything and everyone else comes second.
- Leaving: It’s very hard to leave the game and, once you’re out, you’re no longer held
in that special light.
Peter Gent, the author of the book, “North Dallas Forty” that inspired the movie, was an interesting character. He played college ball with the Michigan Spartans before joining the Dallas Cowboys and then, at the end of his career, the New York Giants.
After the NFL he was part of a Texas writers’ group known as the “Mad Dogs” which included Larry L. King, Billy Lee Brammer, Gary Cartwright, Bud Shrake, Jerry Jeff Walker and the most famous and successful of the bunch Dan Jenkins, “Baja Oklahoma.”
The book “North Dallas Forty” is, of course, better than the movie, but for all Gent’s wit it might have been “Dandy” Don himself who got the best laugh.
Several former Dallas Cowboys attended the film’s premiere, and when asked about the movie Meredith quipped, “Heck if I knew that [Gent] was that good of a receiver I’d have thrown to him more.”
The ’70s Dallas Cowboys are legends, but Gent’s insight and willingness to speak the truth about the NFL has stood the test of time for its insight, humor and courage. There hasn’t been anything like it before or after.
I use this quote from the movie often:
“Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game!” – O.W. Shaddock (John Matuszak)
If that isn’t America’s Team well, it certainly is America’s psyche.