There are few sports movies that rise above the tried and true conventions of the genre. For every Bull Durham (1988) that gets it right, there are a hundred ones like The Scout (1994). The 1970s was a particularly strong decade for sports movies with the likes of The Bad News Bears (1976) and Slap Shot (1977) offering gritty, funny takes on baseball and hockey respectively. These films dug a little deeper and were unafraid to present a cynical and irreverent look at sports, offering unfiltered insight inside the locker room. More so than these two sports, American football was scrutinized and satirized with comedies like The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977).
It was North Dallas Forty (1979), however, that stirred up a fair amount of controversy with its highly critical look at the professional game. Adapted from Peter Gent’s novel of the same name, the film focused on the hard-partying and hard-playing team known as the North Dallas Bulls, based on the Dallas Cowboys. Gent had played for them for five seasons and then wrote a fictionalized account about his experiences. His uncompromising take on the physical punishment players endured on the field and the toll that the mind games of the coaches took on them in the locker room was authentically conveyed in director Ted Kotcheff’s film. So much so that upon its release there were accusations that the NFL blackballed some of the players that appeared in the film.
The first image we get of Nick Nolte’s character is his disheveled mug waking up after what I can only imagine was a hell of a bender the night before. His nose is bloodied and he looks beaten up. There are all kinds of scars running up and down a leg from numerous surgeries. Phil is a wreck and one has to give Nolte credit for having zero vanity as an actor. Sure enough, a brief series of flashbacks show Phil taking several hits during a game, which result in the run-down human being we see shuffling stiffly through his home.
Later that day, a few of his teammates take him on a hunting trip. Phil uses this as an opportunity to lament his lack of playing time to his friend and team quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis) who tells him, “You gotta learn how to fool ‘em. Give them what they want. I know, I’ve been foolin’ them bastards for years.” Phil replies, “If you start pretending to be somebody else that’s when you’re gonna end up being somebody else.” Seth lays it out for him, “You had better learn how to play the game. And I don’t just mean the game of football. Hell, we’re all whores anyway, might as well be the best.” This conversation establishes North Dallas Forty’s central theme and the dilemma that Phil faces. Does he play by the rules or try to fight the system? It’s also a really good bit of acting as these guys cut through the dumb jock stereotype.
Of course, the next scene demonstrates why that stereotype exists as we witness a wild team party that involves one guy throwing a television into a swimming pool; a smooth-talking scam artist trying to take advantage of any player that will listen to his pitch; and one teammate that batters his hand bloody in the hopes that it will illicit sympathy from a woman he plans to have sex with. While Seth shows just how well he knows how to play the game by schmoozing with various guests and surrounding himself with beautiful women, Phil wanders around in a state of bemusement. He meets a dark-haired woman named Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon) who definitely looks out of place. She’s not like the kind of bimbos that populate these parties and this intrigues Phil.
Their conversation is cut short when she attempts to leave the party only to be intercepted by Joe Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson), one of the two biggest guys on the team and living proof of Social Darwinism. When he makes his crude intentions towards her body blatantly known, Phil steps in only to anger Joe Bob who proceeds to choke the life out of him. Fortunately, a smooth-talking Seth quickly steps in as the voice of reason. It is a fascinating look at the dynamics of a professional football years before Any Given Sunday (1999) gave it a go (and showed that not much had changed over the years). The party serves as a significant turning point for Phil who has gotten tired of the same old routine and with Charlotte’s influence begins to think about a life after football. He’s tired and his body just can’t take the game-to-game punishment like it used to.
North Dallas Forty is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of pro football with unflinching honesty, like the fascinating scene that shows how various players get ready in the locker room before a big game. Some psych each other up, some pray, some get angry and fired up, some look scared while others joke around like they don’t have a care in the world. It is an interesting look at the mindset of a pro athlete and how they prepare, each in their own way.
Nick Nolte is excellent as one of the few players on the team who is self-aware. He certainly looks and acts the part of a pro football player that is nearing the end of his career. Phil has grown weary of the whole lifestyle and Charlotte may provide a way out. Being an ex-jock himself, Nolte understands this world well and this knowledge informs everything he does in the film. This was the beginning of an illustrious run for the actor playing burnt-out protagonists, from the disheveled cop in 48 HRS. (1982) to the perpetually rumpled educator in Teachers (1984) to playing a dead-end bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Nolte has cornered the market on world-weary wastoids.
Mac Davis more than holds his own with Nolte. He’s very good as Phil’s savvy teammate who is equally self-aware about how pro football really works, but is better at playing by the rules, or more willing to than Phil. Davis has loads of good ol’ boy charm, but also takes us under this façade to show a man who’s never been in love and leads a pretty empty life. Davis has several good scenes with Nolte where they talk honestly about life and football.
The supporting cast features notable character actors like G.D. Spradlin as the coldly analytical Tom Landry-esque head coach, Charles Durning as the perpetually angry assistant coach, Dabney Coleman as a smug, smooth-talking team executive, and a frightening Bo Svenson as a Neanderthal player alongside an actual ballplayer John Matuszak who gets a great moment late in the film where he takes out his frustration on a coach by telling him, “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.”
Peter Gent played five seasons of professional football as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 to 1968 when the legendary Tom Landry was the head coach and Don Meredith was the quarterback. Gent wrote a fictionalized account of his experiences that was published in 1973. His novel circulated Hollywood for five years before being made. It went through seven or eight different screenplays and, at one point, Robert Altman was interested in directing. Nick Nolte had read the novel and used his newfound clout (from films like The Deep and Who’ll Stop the Rain) to help get it made.
Not surprisingly, the NFL did not cooperate in the making of North Dallas Forty, but 18 active players, including then-Oakland Raider John Matuszak, appeared in the film. In addition, Fred Biletnikoff, who also played for the Raiders (for 14 years), was hired to train Nolte who had played college football. He said that the actor was “pretty much a natural athlete,” and “catches the ball well, runs patterns well, and he has a fine natural run that makes him look like a receiver.” Principal photography began in December 1978 and lasted over ten weeks with scenes often shot after being written the night before. The Dallas Cowboys initially agreed to allow the production to film at their facilities, but then refused once they heard about all the sex in the script. One of the film’s producers Frank Yablans said that the team was “totally uncooperative.” They ended up using the Los Angeles Rams’ facilities for filming instead. To get the best out of the players they hired for the film, the producers paid them a certain amount a day based on how many hits they did. In addition, they were awarded bonuses for the play of the film, the catch of the film and the hit of the film.
Controversy arose when the NFL shunned three players, who had key acting and advisory roles in the film. Running back Tommy Reamon was cut in training camp by the San Francisco 49ers and claimed he was “blackballed” by the league for being in the film. Tom Fears was an All-Pro receiver with the L.A. Rams and after retiring from the game began a scouting service for several teams. He was an advisor on the film and after it came out, three NFL teams that had subscribed to his service, dropped him. Yablans called these incidents, “pretty strange coincidences,” and said, “with a borderline player, well, this movie might be the catalyst for a team to get rid of him.” He went on to say that Dallas Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin was offered a part that Matuszak ultimately played, but backed out. Yablans suspected the team pressured him not to do the film. Naturally, the NFL Commissioner called these suggestions of conspiracy, “absolutely ridiculous … when you talk about blacklisting, you’re talking about a league conspiracy and that’s ludicrous.” On the other hand, Matuszak, a starter for the Raiders, said he didn’t encounter any problems and signed a new three-year contract after making the film.
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The central friendship in the movie, beautifully delineated, is the one between Mr. Nolte and Mac Davis, who expertly plays the team's quarterback, a man whose calculating nature and complacency make him all the more likable, somehow.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “North Dallas Forty retains enough of the original novel's authenticity to deliver strong, if brutish, entertainment.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “The writers – Kotcheff, Gent and producer Frank Yablans – are nonetheless to be congratulated for allowing their story to live through its characters, abjuring Rocky-like fantasy configurations for the harder realities of the game. North-Dallas Forty isn't subtle or finely tuned, but like a crunching downfield tackle, it leaves its mark.”
However, the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen wrote, “North Dallas Forty’s descents into farce and into the lone man versus the corrupt system mentality deprive it of real resonance. It's still not the honest portrait of professional athletics that sport buffs have been waiting for.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “Charlotte, who seemed a creature of rhetorical fancy in the novel, still remains a trifle remote and unassimilated. Dayle Haddon may also be a little too prim and standoffish to achieve a satisfying romantic chemistry with Nolte: Somehow, the temperaments don't mesh.” Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford had problems with the film, but praised Nolte’s performance: “If North Dallas Forty is reasonably accurate, the pro game is a gruesome human abattoir, worse even than previously imagined. Much of the strength of this impression can be attributed to Nick Nolte ... Unfortunately, Nolte's character, Phil Elliott, is often fuzzily drawn, which makes the actor's accomplishment all the more impressive.”
North Dallas Forty shows the corporatization of pro football. Teams are no longer owned by just one man, but by a corporation that views it as just one of many commodities that it owns. Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest), the head of the corporation that owns the Bulls, gives Phil some advice that doubles as a warning: “People who confuse brains and luck can get in a whole lot of trouble. Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game.” Along these lines, head coach B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin) consults a computer about whether to play someone or not and gives advice by quoting from The Bible. He reads the data and not the man, comparing the team to that of a machine. For example, during a team meeting, he spells it out for the players: “The key to being a professional is consistency. And the computer measures that quality. No one of you is as good as that computer.” He goes on to chastise Phil and Seth for deviating from the game plan even though it resulted in a touchdown.
North Dallas Forty is a fascinating look at the inner workings of a pro football team and how the game changed from individual ability and skill to facts and statistics. The film drags a bit during the scenes depicting the romantic subplot between Phil and Charlotte. Their purpose is to show what his life could be like without football – using his money to buy a chunk of land out in the country where he plans to build a horse ranch. It’s a goal to strive for, but one wonders how many more seasons he has to play for it to happen. However, these scenes aren’t as interesting as the rest of the film.
If North Dallas Forty doesn’t seem to be a revelation in terms of taking us behind the curtain and showing the inner workings of pro football with scenes depicting players taking B12 shots to numb injury-ridden limbs and popping painkillers like Chiclets to fight through the pain and keep playing, it’s that a lot of the things it reveals are now widely known. At the time, it raised quite a stink because someone finally had the courage to bring to light the brutal realities of the game. It came out at just the right time – during the ‘70s – when sports dramas could dispense with any kind of romantic notions of the game and present a gritty authenticity. North Dallas Forty deserves to be ranked right up there with the very best sports of movies of not just that decade but of all time. It shows how quickly the thrill of victory can change to the agony of defeat. It shows how many athletes give everything they’ve got for the sport and get fame and money in return, but often at a horrible cost when they permanently damage their bodies. Players like Phil are chewed up and spit out by the machinery that is the game – both on and off the field.
Hendrickson, Paul. “The Passion & Pain of North Dallas Forty.” Washington Post. August 14, 1979.
Jares, Joe. “Peering Into the Pro Psyche.” Sports Illustrated. May 7, 1979
Kornheiser, Tony. “NFL Accused of Blacklisting Those Who Aided Film.” Washington Post. September 6, 1979.