Much as the name suggests "Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football" is a comprehensive ten episode anthology about the game of college football and everything that makes it great. The series, narrated by former College Football standout Burt Reynolds, seems to seek the comprehensive focus of Ken Burns' "Baseball," and "Jazz" and, for the most part, succeeds. This series truly captures the spirit, essence and joy of college football. Focusing on its heroes, its rivalries, its fans, its greatest moments and its greatest games, this series serves as both a celebration of what makes the game great and an examination of the ways in which the game has changed, developed and grown.
Although Burt Reynolds' narration is generally enjoyable and informative, without question, the true gems of the series are the selected pieces of game footage and the interviews with both sportswriters and some of the games' greatest players and coaches. Interviews with Jim Brown, Bo Schembechler, Archie Griffin, Doug Flutie, Bobby Bowden, John Elway, Keith Jackson, Joe Paterno, and countless other legends of the college game really bolster the series. As for the footage, whether it is footage of Jim Brown, Archie Griffin, or O.J. Simpson blazing up and down the field, Doug Flutie throwing up a wing and a prayer, or the California Bears last second big game never-say-die rugby lateral fest culminating in the clock cleaning of a Stanford trombone player, it is a pure joy to watch. This much great footage is truly a treat.
From the very beginning of the series, it is quite clear that the right type of individuals were placed in charge of planning this series - fans of the game. Focusing not just on what is great on the field, but what is great about the game, including the game's most vicious rivalries, the fans, the rituals, and the marching bands. Although a UCLA alumnus DVD reviewer may quickly point out there is an interminable amount of footage concerning the University of Southern California, "Rites of Autumn" truly delivers what makes the game so special. Whether it is getting the perspective of the tuba player who gets to dot the "i" on the Ohio State Marching Band, or taking an extended look at the Dynasty of Paul "Bear" Bryant, Rites of Autumn is truly a treat for any college football fan.
Although vivid memories of great college games can remain clear in the mind for years and years, this series and the footage included in the series allows those long initiated in the joys of college football to share these memories and experiences with those new to the game. This series allows not just for the retelling of the stories surrounding the games great moments but whenever possible, contains the actual footage in black and white or color from almost every decade in the 20th century allowing present and future generations to truly get an understanding of this era of college football.
Although with 10 episodes dedicated to the elements of college football, it is inevitable that there will be some overlapping of subjects, watching all of the episodes in quick succession, it is apparent that there is a bit of repetition, ostensibly in the name of comprehensiveness. This is, at most, a mild annoyance and is a small price to pay for the filmmakers' attempts to capture so many diverse aspects of the game.
To its credit, while race is not the focus of the series as it can be with Ken Burn's work, the filmmakers do not shy away from the issue, looking at all white teams, integrated teams, the voting on the Heisman Trophy in the year that Jim Brown placed far behind a white Notre Dame quarterback on a losing team.. The filmmakers also resist any temptation to cut out O.J. Simpson or his relevance to the game in light of previous events, although he is not included among the interviews, it is appreciated that the filmmakers do not seek to remove O.J. Simpson from the rich texture of college football.
Although football fans will undoubtedly take issue with the decisions of the filmmakers as to which players, plays, coaches, rivalries and games should be included. For every play that is included, another is left out. While the series focuses on a half dozen Heisman Trophy winners, left out are those who gave rise to talk of the "Heisman Curse" and many other great collegiate football players. It must be conceded that any attempt to include EVERYTHING might make the series a bit unwatchable, but on an entirely partisan level, it can be frustrating. That being said, the series is, on the whole, quite comprehensive. Covering the origins of the game, its greatest players, coaches, rivalries, dynasties and many many stories along the way, the series is quite enjoyable and will definitely expand the knowledge of college football fans of every level.
To provide a quick run down of the massive number of subjects covered, here is a list of some of the highlights from each disc:
1st Disc: Instead of beginning with the origins of college football, the filmmakers make the interesting choice to jump right into the plays and players that make it great. The first Disc shows Doug Flutie's last second heroics at Boston College, Red Grange running wild in Illinois, and other of the game's great heroes. Also on the first DVD is a focus on one factor which truly serves to differentiate college football from its professional contemporary. Entitled "Passion and Pageantry," the filmmakers focus on the fans, the loyal devotion of faithful alumni and the marching bands. Particularly enjoyable is a focus on the tuba player who "dots" the "i" in Ohio.
2nd Disc: Going hand in hand with the immense loyalty of college football's diehard fans is the school rivalry. Although rivalries undoubtedly pervade professional football, most pro teams play their in-conference rivals twice, while college football rivalries take on a much deeper meaning. Although there are simply too many college football teams and too many rivalries to give recognition to each of them, the filmmakers focus on some of the greatest, most storied rivalries. The footage, particularly of the famous "big game" between Cal and Stanford when Cal won the game with a most bizarre rugby style march downfield into the Stanford band in the final seconds of the game.
3rd Disc: Although, as stating above, the filmmakers neglect to focus on "the Heisman Curse" Disc 3 highlights the origin of the Heisman Trophy, and focusing on the individuals who, each year, rise to the top of the college football ranks, with the notable exception of Jim Brown, who despite legendary numbers, finished 3rd in Heisman voting. The second episode on the DVD focuses on the true dynasties of college football and the players and coaches who have brought these teams to the top and kept them there.
4th Disc: On this DVD, the filmmakers finally get into the true origins of the game, from the transition from soccer and rugby to football, from the first rivalries, the spreading of the game from a few elite east coast universities to a nationwide spectacle during the 1890's, and even the development of the scrimmage, the hiking of the football by hand, the selection of the All-American Team, and the birth of the bowl game. The filmmakers recognize the parallels between football and battle, particularly in college football's genesis soon after the nation had just emerged from the Civil War. The filmmakers look at this phenomenon and examine the fierceness of the game in its formative years which led to the implementation of pads, helmets and protective gear for the players. Although referring at times to the racial elements that have pervaded the game and affected some of its players, on the 4th Disc, the filmmakers really focus on racism and the integration of college football, from the first integration to the character of the game today. Although this is one of the few times in which the series looks at college football in less than loving, flattering terms, it is an important inclusion and makes its comprehensiveness more impressive.
5th Disc: Although the filmmakers, by necessity, leave many viable candidates unmentioned, Disc 5 attempts to highlight the games great coaches, including "Pop" Warner, "Bear" Bryant, Joe Paterno, Eddie Robinson and contemporary coaching great Bobby Bowden. The Disc contains detailed biographical information with respect to each of these great coaches. Each profile is quite impressive, particularly, the focus on Eddie Robinson, one of the game's truly great coaches, who doesn't necessarily always get the recognition of a Joe Paterno. Finally, the series focuses on a number of season ending bowl games that truly stand out as seminal (not Seminole, none of the Florida State bowl games are included) games in the history of college football. Again, this is an area where avid fans will recognize more omissions than inclusions. In each of the games, however, it is extremely easy to get wrapped up in the excitement. Nevertheless, the series ends appropriately with the ultimate goal that propels college football teams all season long: the pursuit of the national championship.
"Rites of Autumn" is presented in full screen pan and scan presentation. The picture quality varies with the footage being used, which itself ranges from extremely grainy (footage of the early legends like Red Grange) to fairly clear present day footage. The interview footage generally looks good, although not quite as sharp as one might hope. Although the notion of having some of the great college football moments of all time in crisp clean presentation would be fantastic, given the nature of the footage used, the viewer will have to be satisfied simply having these great moments in one DVD collection. All in all the image clarity deficiencies are usually a result of the footage itself and not the film's presentation on the DVD. Under the circumstances, the full-screen presentation quality is as good as one could hope to achieve.
Much as the picture presentation varies with the age of the footage contained in the series, so too does the series' sound presentation. The sound presentation is in Stereo, and there does not appear to be any attempt to conduct a fresh sound transfer for the DVD. This does not greatly impact the viewing of the film, although there are a few occasions when the announcers scream so loud that they can barely be understood. Overall, Burt Reynolds' narration, the music which pervades each of the episodes and the interviews sound good. The stereo presentation is sufficient for an enjoyable viewing of these features, and does not require much volume adjustment over the course of each of the ten episodes of the film.
Perhaps because the 10 episode series is so comprehensive, the producers of the series do not include any bonus materials. While this may be somewhat disappointing at first to DVD fans used to numerous special features, the Rites of Autumn series really does not leave the viewer needing more. The numerous interviews in each of the episodes provide a considerable amount of background, behind-the-scenes information and help set the context for the information presented.
As stated above, ardent fans will always disagree as to what footage truly typifies the greatest that college football has to offer. Nevertheless, Rites of Autumn is impressive in its inclusiveness, with a great amount of fantastic exciting college football footage and a rich recounting of what makes the game great.