All American End Zones

A chronological rundown of the up and down history of American Football on screen.
Thomas Quist

Above: Easy Living (Jacques Tourneur, 1949)

In football, the American film industry found a setting to prattle its American platitudes—their -isms (perfectionism, heroism) and -ivenesses (stick-to-it-iveness, competitiveness) that titivate the truth. By making a mill from America’s most popular sport, which was already riddled with truisms, Hollywood strove to insulate itself with lush banalities of American exceptionalism. They glommed to the mythology and readymade drama of the gridiron. Underdogs with long odds, inner crises, and familial strife—all seem to be absolved on the football field. Yet, as Don DeLillo writes in End Zone, the regnant work of fiction on football, “whatever complexities, whatever dark politics of the human mind, the heart—these are noted only within the chalked borders of the playing field. At times strange visions ripple across that turf; madness leaks out.” The tired tropes of the sport give way to something else, something unpolished but no less telling, all braced by the game’s inclusion into cinema’s elastic images.

The history of the football film began in the silent era. Not the first, but perhaps the most notable was Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925). As the titular frosh, Lloyd joins the football team to raise his popularity. The film’s financial success consecrated the genre as profitable and more movies followed. From 1925 to 1941 a healthy number of football films came out every year, many obliquely dealing with football’s seedier subjects. In 1930, William Wellman directed a young Joan Bennett in a film where she recruits all-American players to her school’s team through implied sexual quid pro quos—the film’s distribution title, Maybe it’s Love (1930), is bit less suggestive than its television retitling to Eleven Guys and a Girl. Other topics, such as gambling, pay for play, and violence, all contemporary issues in the sport, were raised in the 1930s. The Van Heflin starring Saturday’s Heroes (1937) deals with a ticket scalping scandal, for example. Even the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932) shows recruits being bribed.

Above: The Freshman (1925)

The early period culminates in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), about the famed Notre Dame head coach played by Pat O’Brien. Here is the urtext for all those rah-rah platitudes and bootstrap pulling, where a Norwegian immigrant inspires both team and nation to persevere in hardship. While remaining thematically wholesome, the film is perhaps most famous for its “win one for the gipper” line spoken by a young Ronald Reagan. The line reentered the mainstream years later at the 1988 Republican National Convention when Reagan, now a superannuated sitting president, reread the line to obligatory applause like a child’s over-rehearsed joke at a party.

By the late 40s the football film had slowed down, likely due a rise in televised games and the saturnine miasma of a postwar society. 1949 saw the release of two films that showed the genre at a riverbend: John M. Stahl’s superficially wholesome Father was a Fullback and Jacques Tourneur’s sordid Easy Living. The Stahl film has Fred MacMurray as the head coach of a struggling university squad. The story focuses on the coach’s home life where MacMurray’s oldest daughter’s inability to snag a beau is mirrored by the football team’s inability to score. MacMurray eventually catfishes his own daughter by setting her up with a local boy who, unbeknownst to all, is the star recruit that might save the coach’s job. Unfortunately, the Stahl who deftly explored the psychosexual leaks in the American family in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is absent. And the film’s attempt to gentrify itself with suburban cliches is undermined by a slinking odiousness. Jacques Tourneur’s vastly underrated Easy Living features Vic Mature as the reigning league MVP, Pete Wilson, quarterback for the New York Chiefs. The film is one of the first about professional football, which had gained popular appeal with increased television broadcasts. The new notoriety of pro football positioned successful athletes as the nouveau riche while the backups remained working class. Pete Wilson hobnobs with Manhattanites and is married to an aspiring trendsetter (Lizabeth Scott) while a player cut from the team worries about making ends meet. Wilson’s life-threatening ailment supplies the dramatic thrust before it teeters into the plangent trope of many football films: what is life like after the game? On this point, Tourneur ends the film with one of few acts of genuine cruelty in his entire body of work, an act that portents decades of player violence towards women.

To move back to the DeLillo momentarily, End Zone luxuriates in another conspicuous cliché: the language of football (Air Raid offense, ground attack, and blitzes) mirrors the language of modern warfare. DeLillo, who sees America’s dark reflection in oblique institutions, finds the self-annihilating sublimity in both. Released in 1972, the book makes a suitable herald for the films to come when the genre was marshaled for institutional and social critiques. The first and best of these is Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard (1974), which finds football as a humanizing force in the face of the prison industrial complex and the gridiron as the only permittable place to retaliate against the legalized violence of the state. Later that decade, another Reynolds-led film, Semi-Tough (1977), and Ted Kotcheff’s North Dallas Forty (1979) detailed the private lives of NFL-ers. The former is an asinine comedy that satirizes new-age wisdom more than football, while the latter, adapted from former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent’s roman à clef, exposes the league’s drug pushing and lack of regard for player health. Nick Nolte plays a fictionalized version of Gent, a soulful receiver who recognizes the accruing corporatization of the league.

Above: Knute Rockne, All American (1940)

The 1990s saw the football film rise in public popularity by way of the box office. The most famous examples are Jerry McGuire ($273.6 million) and The Waterboy ($190 million). Before those successes, in 1993, like 1949 before it, two films were released exemplifying the variance of the genre. First, in September, was The Program. James Caan plays the coach of fading powerhouse college football team dealing with the gamut of football issues: steroid use, sexual assault, alcoholism, and academic scams. Despite these firebrand topics, the film is quite comatose with the usually irascible Caan reduced to playing a befuddled schoolmarm. Rudy (1993) was released less than a month after The Program. While both films made about $23 million at the box office, Rudy lives on in the cultural realm, its persevering and underdog mentality likely preening the same national ego that Knute Rockne did. The movie contains some rousing sequences and subtle depictions of class and academic elitism. Unfortunately, it has influenced a rash of hygienic imitations—Radio (2003), Invincible (2006), We Are Marshall (2006), Gridiron Gang (2006), The Blind Side (2009)—that forgo nuance to doggedly chase the glory of Rudy’s stirring finale.

At the end of the 20th century, Oliver Stone released the apotheosis of the genre: Any Given Sunday (1999). Running nearly as long a televised game, it is not better than Aldrich’s or Tourneur’s but does succeed in imitating football’s aesthetic intemperance. The film’s dealings with concussions and race were far ahead of the NFL and thus far ahead of broad cultural awareness. Both of these issues, which have plagued the game for decades, have reached new levels of cultural concern in the 21st century. Race in particular, with the primarily white owners and media moguls profiting off of black labor, is due for a larger reckoning. But the film falters some on a formal level. Stone’s mise-en-scène is dazzling, with the varied settings—locker rooms, player mansions, and coaches’ homes—remaining note-perfect. However, he lacks the same composure behind the camera and is prone to pretentious editing tricks. The most egregious example is his intercutting of Ben-Hur into a scene, literalizing the football player as gladiator. Without any of DeLillo’s irony, Stone cannot skirt such a cliché without falling into obviousness.

If anything, the history of the football film has shown that it is easier to provide the color commentary than give the play-by-play. Which is to say, filming football games is a difficult task. Notably, the football film predates televised football, which began in 1939, so one would assume cinema exerted influence over how the game was filmed for television. The post-1940 football films, however, have largely ignored the aesthetic forms of the televised game. Zoom lenses (modernized by Frank G. Back to film sports) and press box angles are eschewed for quick edits and excessive slow motion. Gameplay scenes are often ham-handed; plagued by unathletic actors, logical gaffes, and overdramatic hokum. Luckily, any aesthetic salience is not dependent on realistic or dynamic gameplay scenes. Easy Living, perhaps the best of the lot, contains some laughable football sections. Tourneur is said to have never seen a game in his life. It shows. On the other hand, the football scenes in The All American (1953), not a good film, are quite stirring. The director, Jessie Hibbs, an all-American tackle at USC in the late 20s, enlivens the action with some whirring crane shots that replicate the game’s natural liveliness. The Longest Yard (1972) smartly lets the action play out in regular durations; it is awkward and sloppy play but so is amateur football. Knute Rockne contains an inspired passage when the coach pioneers motion movement on offense. The scene’s innovation can be attributed to a lowly montage assistant, Don Siegel, who was in charge of its filming. Siegel wrote of the scene, “it was like a ballet: precise movements, speed, grace, splendid blocking and vicious, elusive running.”1

What is the difference between the football image and cinematic football image? If they were homologous, then would Kansas City coach Andy Reid’s chaotic pre-snap frames render him football’s Renoir? Or would the zone blitzes by Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer be akin to Malick’s technique of torpedoing actors into frame? The discontinuity is primarily attributable to a difference between cinema and football’s naturalized home, TV. The images of the former are not in the present, they exist within a temporal continuum running from their recording to their projection. Television, however, is phenomenologically in the present. Jerry Lewis once remarked that TV was only good for news and games; not coincidentally, both are broadcast live.2 The televised football image has no past (try watching a recorded game where you know the outcome), it is virtually in the present making it fundamentally at odds with the film image. Thus, the inclusion of football into a film creates some frisson by virtue of appearing immiscible with the form. When the gameplay is good, when it approaches the sensation of the real thing like in Any Given Sunday, the aesthetic pleasures overlap with routine pleasures of watching sports. Namely, a fourth down stop can feel like a fourth down stop, not a record of itself.

The football film, too prone to cliché, has run fallow this century. Perhaps it was never that fertile to begin with. Yet, as both football and cinema face some cultural rarefaction its noteworthy that even the most cynical of the football films (Any Given Sunday, The Longest Yard, North Dallas Forty) yield to a tender theme: no matter what off-field problems, playing the sport offers an art-like chance at something empyrean: a brief feeling of corporeality. If cinema is, as Jean-Louis Schefer intimates, memory without the body, then the potential of the football film is that it can momentarily reorder this experience. It is the body without memory.

1. From A Siegel Film: An Autobiography

2. Quote by Serge Daney here:

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FootballSports MoviesJacques TourneurJohn M. StahlOliver StoneHarold LloydWilliam A. Wellman
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