Monday, October 1, 2018

The Longest Yard: "It's just a game."

I'm sure many critics would opt for Deliverance, but I'd rate Burt Reynolds' performance in The Longest Yard as his best. That opinion was just confirmed when I watched that 1974 football-in-prison film for probably the fifth time. It still holds up remarkably well despite running just over two hours and with a climatic game that takes up an amazing 42 minutes of the running time.

Burt plays Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a washed-up pro football quarterback wasting away his life and living off a wealthy lady who has no interest in his mind. When he suddenly decides to rebel, she tries to stop him--only to be slapped and thrown to the floor (a scene that still shocks in its unexpected violence). He steals an expensive sports car, eludes the cops in a high-speed chase, and dumps the car in a river. When confronted by two police officers, he makes jokes at their expense and ends up in a fight. It's no surprise that he winds up in the Citrus State Prison for 2-5 years (18 months with good behavior).

A mean Eddie Albert.
Warden Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert) wants Crewe to help coach his semi-pro football team, consisting of prison guards, to a national title. For his own safety. Crewe declines. However, he makes a deal with Hazen later by agreeing to assemble a team comprised of prisoners as a "warm up" for the prison guards. Along the way, the self-centered, cocky Crewe learns a lot about his fellow inmates and, of course, even more about himself.

As some of you may know, I'm a sucker for a "let's form a team" plot and The Longest Yard doesn't disappoint on that front as Crewe and newfound friend Caretaker (James Hampton) try to form a ragtag football team. Most of their recruits just want to inflict some reciprocal pain on the cruel prison guards. But for others, it's an opportunity to regain self-respect or even recapture some sports glory from the past. Initially, Crewe considers it "just a game," but it becomes much more--especially after an inmate is viciously murdered.

Burt Reynolds displays plenty of his megawatt bad boy charm in The Longest Yard, but there's an edge here, a toughness, that's missing from later performances. He seems fully committed to his role, which is best captured in the prison scene where his trademark 1970s mustache is shaved off by a sneering guard.

It's hard to imagine a better supporting cast for a film like this. Eddie Albert puts aside his good guy image to play the unpleasant warden. Bernadette Peters has two brief, but delightful scenes, as an amorous secretary with Bride of Frankenstein hair. James Hampton, known for playing bugler Dobbs on F Troop, gives a career-best performance as Caretaker, a crafty sort who can smuggle anything into the prison. And 7' 2" Richard Kiel (Jaws in two Bond films) is hilarious as a surprisingly sensitive thug and gets one of the film's best remembered lines (though we won't reprint the colorful language here).

Bernadette Peters and hair.
There are plenty of former real-life pro football stars, too, to include: Mike Henry, Joe Kapp, Ray Nitschke, Pervis Atkins, Ernie Wheelwright, and Sonny Sixkiller. Henry, who played Tarzan in three 1960s pictures, would co-star with Reynolds again in the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies (and in the third one without Burt).

Sometimes crude and violent, The Longest Yard may not appeal to all viewers, but it's a well-crafted gritty sports film peppered with humor. It reminded me how good Burt Reynolds could be when he made the effort. It also made me realize that Robert Aldrich must have been one of the underappreciated directors of the 1950s through 1970s. His filmography includes such classics as Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen, and The Flight of the Phoenix.


  1. I watched this with the hubby despite my trepidation (football?!) and found myself intrigued and moved. Sometimes you have to kick over the comfort zone fence.

  2. "Nice hair...ever find any spiders in it?"

    1. It's a great line. I didn't give Tracy Keenan Wynn credit for his funny, rude, sometimes poignant script.

  3. Reynolds (like another great actor in John Wayne) is often ridiculed for not being an actor the caliber of Laurence Olivier. Believe me when I say, Reynolds would have been a more believable Hamlet than Olivier would have been an ex-NFL QB. This is a great performance in an outstanding movie. Funny as hell, yet extremely touching.

    1. Your point is brilliant. I was always sad to see Burt settle for mediocre (albeit moneymaking) films in the 1980s...drivel like STROKER ACE.

  4. Longest Yard did indeed have an all-around brilliant cast (and how did you forget Ed Lauter as the boss guard?), but the one I'll never forget is a New York actor named Mort Marshall.
    And who was Mort Marshall, you ask?
    Let's make a game out of it.
    He's on screen throughout the picture.
    And at the finish, he's got one of the best closing lines.
    So who is Mort Marshall, and what does he do in The Longest Yard?
    Watch the movie again if you can, and see if you can spot him.
    Good Luck!

    1. Mort does indeed have a great line at the end!

    2. Rick … you didn't give the full answer.
      And if you had, you might have called attention to its significance (outside of being a plot point) within the context of the movie.

      Randy (see below):
      All I know about the production (outside of promo journalism) comes from Burt Reynolds's commentary on the DVD.
      I guess I'll have to listen to it again, but all I can recall at the moment is that Burt kept mispronouncing Richard Kiel's name (he kept saying kyle; it's supposed to be keel, like the city in Germany)(This is something that, in my capacity as an OLd Geezer, I tend to notice more and more lately.).

  5. Mike can probably shed light on this, but as I recall Lauter got the QB role, when Joe Kapp (less than 4 years removed from playing QB in the NFL hurt (I think broke) his arm. He's shown late in the game (playing a linebacker) with his arm in a sling. Lauter was great in this, and was really good in another of my fave sports movies...The Jericho Mile.

  6. I haven't seen this film since it was in release, so I don't remember much about it. I do remember enjoying it! It doesn't surprise me that "let's form a team" plots attract you, Rick, you have formed at least one team (CMBA) since I met you :)

  7. Prison? Football? Yet it does work.