I talked to an older "film fan" last week who, with supposed higher tastes in cin-e-mah, looked at me aghast when I stated how much I loved The Longest Yard. "The Longest Yard? Oh please. Now there's a movie that's OK to re-make, it's a terrible film."
"What?" I said stunned and then "Why...why would you think it so awful?"
"Oh Burt Reynolds, Smokey and the Bandit...you know."
"No, no...I don't. Firstly I love Smokey and the Bandit (shudder felt from old, male fuss budget) and Reynolds and secondly, Robert Aldrich directed The Longest Yard...you know, Aldrich of Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, The Dirty Dozen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane..."
"Well, wasn't it just kind of goofy?"
"Sir, did you even watch this movie?"
Now this is one isolated incident with a guy who probably thinks Orson Welles directed The Third Man and about a picture that's captured the hearts of legions (and not just football fans) but an interesting exchange that reveals how some of the older generation found the movie jock-ish, a star vehicle for the often unfairly maligned Reynolds and yes, goofy.
Which, in Reynold's charming, distinctive comedic hands, it is (think of that laugh. Goofy with grit. But let's return to The Longest Yard's opening sequence. Washed up pro football player Paul "Wrecking" Crewe (Reynolds) who was banished from the sport for point shaving, staggers out of bed with a woman who's clearly (and loudly) keeping him. As Crewe reaches for a drink, she storms out of the bedroom complaining about his loser status, how she paid for his new teeth, inciting him to do something that you'd rarely see in a tragicomic movie of today--he shoves her, hard, with the rage of a man who's ego's been bruised one too many times.
Jumping in her Maserati, speeding down the street drink in hand (Lynrd Skynrd blaring) with cops in pursuit, he eventually stops only to kick the car into a watery grave. But that's just the half of it. Waltzing into a bar for more drinks--he then casually insults the dispatched officers (to the delight of both the bartender and the cop escaping his barbs) and slugs the cops. Goofy? Not the right word. Darkly funny? Yes, much better. A wonderfully hilarious, transgressive scene with Reynolds at the top of his dangerous cinematic charms? Most definitely. And all this happens before the opening credits come to an end. You gotta love the '70s. 1974, in the case of this picture.
After this incident, Crewe is sent to Florida's Citrus State Penitentiary where he's sentenced to eighteen months hard labor. With his notorious reputation and athletic prowess, megalomaniac warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) desires Crewe for his coaching staff. But things get hinky when coach Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter) violently warns him to stay away from his duties and Crewe must choose "swamp time" instead of a reduced sentence. The treatment in the swamp is so unbearable that Crewe beats Knauer with a knight stick, resulting in the tormenting punishment of 24 hours in a hot box. Hazen comes to his aide however, and again, gives him a deal: Crewe can beat the now two-five years he's facing for hitting Knauer if he'll put together a team of inmates. It'll be a warm-up for the guards and a chance for onlookers to witness Hazen's supposed "progressive rehabilitation program." What then follows is Crewe assembling his rag-tag but clearly able team. Bonding together with Crewe as their leader, Crewe will face a life-changing dilemma when Hazen asks him to throw the game. Can he really do it?
Of course I'm not going to answer that but I will say the resulting football game is one of the greatest in all of cinema. Bolstered by several real football players in smaller parts, terrific character actors and a lead who actually knew the game (Reynolds played college football), you can feel and hear the crunch, grunts and violence of the bloodsport. And to see these guys band against the guards is just too delicious. When Hazen proclaims: "Before this game is over, I want every prisoner in this institution to know about power and who controls it" it's pretty obvious who's side just about any viewer will be on. The criminals.
Reynolds, perfectly cast, lifts the film's potentially depressing material into something more heroic--a guy who can laugh in the face of power while seething with bitterness. Certainly he's moved when a tragedy occurs involving the team quartermaster (Caretaker, played by James Hampton) but had a more dour actor been cast the picture wouldn't contain that special bite--that inspirational uplift sans sappiness.
And director Aldrich, a huge football fan (it's been written that he once flew from London to Los Angeles just to watch the Rams play the 49ers) understood both the excitement and powerful message the sport conveyed. The director said as much:
"I like to believe that my indelible trademark is my affection for the struggle to regain self-esteem. Now, the likelihood of doing that is remote. Still, it's the costs that make it into a gallant struggle. In 'The Longest Yard,' perhaps Burt Reynolds is not going to have a happy prison life; perhaps he's not going to go on living at all. And in Emperor,' perhaps Lee Marvin hasn't really prevailed over anything. But in each case a man has fallen from grace, done something he's ashamed of, and then struggled to recapture his opinion of himself. Now, I think the odds against succeeding in doing that are overwhelming. It's not in the cards that that's probably going to happen. But I think you admire the people beside you who say, 'The hell with it. I'm not going to quit. I don't give a shit what other people think about me. I'm going to try and hold myself in esteem.' That's what all these pictures are really about."
Paramount presents The Longest Yard: Lockdown Edition in an 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that's cleaner than the original version but still shows some wear from age. Pops in the print and a little ruddiness are present but overall it's crisp and bright.
Audio comes in a Dolby Digital mono track. It sounds fine, though I kind of wished for a little extra with this special edition.
I enjoyed the extras on this disc, especially the commentary track with writer/producer Albert S. Ruddy and Reynolds. Though Ruddy supplies some interesting aspects about getting the film together(at one point the film was almost halted--the message was, who wants to see a football movie directed by that fat guy Robert Aldrich) Reynolds provides a lively look into working with Aldrich (whom he revered and continued to call "Coach" through the rest of his life) and the various real-life football players and character actors gracing the screen. He knows what he's talking about and shows genuine, fond memories in making the film. It's a hoot and at times quite touching. Also on board are featurettes, "Doing Time on the 'The Longest Yard'--a look into the origins of the film with cast, crew and various sports writers offering comments. "Unleashing the Mean Machine" feels like an extension of the first featurette but furthers just how much this movie means to pro football players. We also get "Exclusive Look: The Longest Yard (2005), essentially a promo for the Adam Sandler re-make, which can't possibly be as good as the original (as much as I defend Sandler). Also included is the film's original theatrical trailer and a movie ticket for a $5.00 discount on the re-make. Hold on to that coupon.
Next to Slapshot The Longest Yard is one of the greatest sports films ever made. Period.
Read more Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun