North Dallas Forty is of course a thinly disguised depiction of the Dallas Cowboys while being coached by Tom Landry. The Bible quoting B.A. Strothers played by G.D. Spradlin looks and acts so much like Landry (right down to wearing of the hat along the sidelines) that it’s amazing that Landry never sued the makers of this movie. Strothers tells his star receiver, Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte), the team malcontent, to set aside his childish ways and become a member of the team. Since it appears to be accepted practice for players to throw television sets into pools and to pummel pop machines until there is nothing left, one has to wonder about what childish ways Strothers is referring to. What Strothers does want of Elliot is for him to sacrifice his body for the purposes of having a winning team, and he also wants Elliot to be a mentor to the less suggestible or younger players on the team and encourage them to do the same. That means to do everything one can to play that game on Sunday. That means injections, popping of pills, dangerous medical procedures, even large consumption of beer, etc. that will help the player to not experience pain when he’s running on a leg with a torn hamstring or when taking a helmet to the ribs.
The problem with Elliot and his quarterback friend, Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), is that they’re too intelligent to not be able to observe what is going on. Maxwell views the whole situation as a joke and is willing to take advantage of the situation to advance his own circumstances. Elliot, on the other hand, is at that point in his career where he is so beat-up and held together with nothing but tape that he can no longer laugh about what is going on. He watches healthy young athletes who are not particularly insightful being physically and mentally destroyed by the Dallas football system. And by having misgivings about what’s going on and being unable to hide his feelings from the management, Elliot makes himself a target for cheap shots during practice from other players who are under the management’s thumb. Eventually, Elliot is driven out of the game for bogus moral clause violations that the management uses against him because they know his subversive talk and conduct in the locker room will outweigh his utility to the team (he is still a talented receiver). Fortunately for Elliot, he is intelligent enough that he probably will be able to have a career beyond football (and put away his “childish ways”).
The script for North Dallas Forty is based upon the novel of Peter Gent, a former Dallas Cowboy player. The cast members (at least the football players and management) are extraordinary and completely credible. Though Nolte and Mac Davis are not professional athletes, they still have the demeanor and physical talents to at least make them believable. Actual players like John Mutaszak add to the atmosphere by playing supporting and sometimes-comic sidekicks. (Mutaszak’s early demise at the age of 38 because of drug and alcohol abuse will remain a significant footnote to the message that is being conveyed in this movie.) The film footage of the actual games where the camera focuses only on the players on the field rather than giving us shots of the spectators in the stands is particularly effective because it makes the movie much more personal. As well as identifying G.D. Spradlin as Tom Landry, we can identify Mac Davis as a fictional Don Meredith and the backup quarterback, Marshall Colt playing Art Hartman, as Roger Staubach (a player who prays to Jesus that he be allowed to throw perfect spirals).
North Dallas Forty is perhaps the saddest sports movie ever made precisely because we do come to care for the lead characters. It is neither sentimental nor sensational in its treatment of the sport, and recent revelations of the game of football may even make this movie seem somewhat understated. The movie makes clear that there are consequences from any kind of activity or entertainment that we take too seriously. With the kind of money that is involved, obviously much that is unsavory about professional football is also going to be covered up. This is also a movie about a decent man who just barely survives the system and grows up in the process. North Dallas Forty does not condemn football as a game, but it does condemn it as a business. It makes the point that many of the players are good people who have been taken advantage of and are asked to participate in insanity.
© Robert S. Miller 2006