LONGEST YARD, THE (aka: THE MEAN MACHINE)
(director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: from the story by Albert S. Ruddy/Tracy Keenan Wynn; cinematographer: Joseph F. Biroc; editor: Michael Luciano; music: Frank De Vol; cast: Burt Reynolds (Paul Crewe), Eddie Albert (Warden Hazen ), Ed Lauter (Captain Knauer), Charles Tyner (Unger), Michael Conrad (Nate Scarboro), Jim Hampton (Caretaker), Harry Caesar (Granville), John Steadman (Pop), Anitra Ford (Melissa), Bernadette Peters (Miss Toot, Warden’s Secretary), Michael Fox (football announcer), Dick Kiel (Samson), Ray Nitschke (Bogdanski), Robert Tessier (Shokner); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Albert S. Ruddy; Paramount Home Video; 1974)
“Pardon me if I wasn’t blown away by all its simplistic machinations and lighthearted appeal to one’s baser instincts.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”/”Hustle”/”Too Late The Hero”) helms this crowd-pleasing, heavy-handed, and anti-authoritarian allegory that uses football as a microcosm of American life. Aldrich delights in taking easy pot shots at America’s love affair over a jock culture by ripping into the macho-violent dynamics of football and slyly comparing it in an underhanded way to the sport of politics. For Aldrich, both football and politics when stripped of their phony corporate images reveal their true sadistic natures. It’s taken from the story by Albert S. Ruddy and written by Tracy Keenan Wynn.
The action film is supposedly elevated in certain quarters into a quasi-art film by its seriocomic manner that offers a silly but nevertheless entertaining running commentary about how the power structure works. The sinister Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert), hardly disarming with his frozen public smile, is meant to be a stand-in for President Nixon, who darkens everything he touches because he’s so corrupt. For Hazen, who organizes a football team for both prisoners and guards, the game becomes analogous to going after the American Dream. He says: “The game embodies what has made our country great.” The sport’s obvious metaphorical function becomes the film’s unimaginative and forced plot point. Here the game is so stacked that it’s easy to see an audience rooting for the prisoners against the cruel guards in the big game, even though the inmates have a violent history as murderers, rapists and other unmentionable crimes. The film’s big point is that the Game is about winning and that’s what gives one the power to control others. Burt Reynolds plays the anti-establishment ex-footballer who winds up in the slammer and matches wills with the warden.
It opens with former pro quarterback, Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds), who was kicked out of the NFL for a “shaving points” scandal, brutally breaking off his relationship as the kept man to Palm Beach heiress Melissa (Anitra Ford) by slamming her around and stealing her luxury car. She phones the police and he evades them in a high-speed chase across a bridge and drives her car into a river. While drunk and giddy at a bar, heresists two arresting police officers and is sentenced to an eighteen month stretch in Citrus State Prison (filmed at a Georgia State Prison).
At the prison Paul’s mocked by the inmates who don’t appreciate he sold out his teammates and are contemptuous of him for giving up an easy life they would have killed for if they had his chances. Warden Hazen prides himself for having a semiprofessional team of prison guards and wants Paul to offer his pro ball experience to coach them. The warden dreams of the acclaim he will receive if his team wins a national championship. Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter), head of the prison’s security and the team’s quarterback and coach, is against this idea and detests both Crewe and the warden for different reasons. When Paul screws up on the chain gang and attacks a guard, the warden informs him his sentence will now be two to five years unless he plays ball. Paul agrees to organize a prisoner team and play quarterback, as they take the name the Mean Machine to play the guards a practice game with refs and a paid crowd at the prison’s stadium. Paul gets the prison hustler named Caretaker (Jim Hampton) to be manager and an experienced football man too injured to play any more named Scarboro (Michael Conrad) to be coach. The prisoners apply their criminal traits by stealing game films, uniforms and anything else they can to learn the guard’s weaknesses. Then Paul has the task to get the blacks to play with the whites, which they eventually do despite resenting the white inmates but finding out that they hate the guards even worse and look upon this as their one chance for payback against their racist keepers. Meanwhile the warden has the treacherous inmate Unger (Charles Tyner) spying on the prisoner team, but when caught by Paul and removed from their practice he takes revenge by booby trapping the light bulb in Paul’s cell. But Caretaker has the misfortune of getting something for Paul in his cell and getting fried to death when the bulb pops.
The big game where the guards are supposed to pulverize the prison team and assert their authority, finds instead the guards are only winning by two points at half time and that the prisoners use brass knuckles and other dirty tactics to injure a few of the guard players. This upsets the warden so much, he meets secretly with Paul in the shower room and tells him that Unger confessed to the murder of Caretaker but implicated him as an accessory. He further tells Paul this will mean a twenty year sentence, unless he throws the game and allows the guards to win by 21 points. Paul only bargains that once the point spread is covered, the guards will go easy on the prisoners and not try to injure them. The Captain learns about the fix from his boss and disgustedly tells him you didn’t have to fix the game, that we can beat these guys. When Paul realizes that the warden’s word is no good as the guards go out of their way to pummel the inmates even after gaining the big lead, he changes his mind about working for the Man. In the games last few ticks, Paul runs into the end zone for the winning touchdown–in what becomes the longest yard. Feeling betrayed, the warden urges the Captain to shoot Paul for trying to escape after the game when he’s only going to retrieve the football. But the Captain has a renewed respect for Paul over his decision not to dump the game despite what it might mean to him and doesn’t shoot. It ends as Paul goes to the showers, in his glory for the moment but unsure if the warden will follow through on his threat to stop his parole and pile on that long sentence.
I felt I was being force-fed throughout to come to the conclusion that Aldrich contrived, as the film got bogged down with cheerleading for an unholy underdog when I felt like neither side warranted me cheering for them. Even though Burt is a charmer as the anti-hero hero character he portrayed, he didn’t give me any goose bumps. So pardon me if I wasn’t blown away by all its simplistic machinations and lighthearted appeal to one’s baser instincts.
Ray Nitschke, the former all-pro middle-linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, has a nice turn playing a cartoonish animal-like defensive lineman who loves crushing the inmates.
REVIEWED ON 10/11/2007 GRADE: C+