‘North Dallas Forty’ (Ted Kotcheff, 1979)

Pain. That’s what sport is to me. Both physical and mental.

This side of the sport has been well documented on film, from Rocky, to Rocky II, to the Mighty ducks 3. And what does sport mean to me second to that? I’m not telling. But third? Well, it’s the routine of it – the washing your kit, the travel to the game, putting the kit on, taping your shin pads up. When I get ready for a match in the changing room, I am always reminded of the opening titles of the the Burt Reynolds vehicle “Hooper” – it turns the act of pulling on your kit into an operatic ritual. ‘North Dallas Forty” is the equivalent of the taking off of kit after a game. The aches, the pains, the groans. It’s the most realistic sports film I’ve seen.

On the week I watched this, I had just played my first game of football in months (after proclaiming retirement). It took me 4 days to be able to walk properly. When you get into your thirties, sport just don’t seem worth it anymore. You hurt – at the time, and for days afterwards. You find yourself facing opponents half your age and twice your speed. “North Dallas Forty” feels like the story of that sentiment – men carrying on in a pursuit that has got away from them, but not knowing how to say ‘enough is enough’.

Yes, it also about money – Nolte’s character Phil Elliot naturally worries about what he will do when the time comes to retire. But above that, is the rising fear that a time will come when he can’t be part of the game. That a time will come when you don’t suffer the rituals, you no longer feel your racking heartbeat as you go out on the field, balancing on a knife edge between inadequacy and that perfect moment when you pull of the catch/kick/throw/goal that may win the game – a split second of chance that fuels the willpower to smell the soggy post-game kit, accept a week of pain, accept the risk of failure you can’t hide from.
That’s the reason I keep coming back. The hope I will regain the level of talent I had 10 years ago – but it’s a pipe dream. My body can no longer match up.
I expect the money keeps these players coming back long after they should have called it a day – I won’t have that problem – I’m no pro. ‘Slap Shot’ (my favourite sports film) is a great example of this – slipping down the leagues so you keep getting a pay check, the drudgery of sport as a career. But some can’t do that – they only understand being the best.

North Dallas Forty contains a lot of men behaving terribly – destroying their body with legal & illegal drugs, partying too hard, burning the candle at both ends – but it’s all about pride. Never letting the other guy get the better of him playing or partying. We can all understand that. And these men fight for their space on the field, in bars, boardrooms and the bedroom (I think Jackie Collins broke into my computer and wrote that last sentence).

Speaking of pride, a friend of mine was telling me his brother (let’s call him ‘Dave’ as that is his name) never says no to a bet. In a pub recently a chap bet him he could send him across the room with a trademark Bruce Lee “One-inch punch”. Never one to back down from a challenge, Dave accepted. Bruce Li duly charged his body up with ancient power and twatted Dave across the room, sliding along the floor. Now, the indignity of losing the bet doesn’t end there – a little person (the artists formerly known as midgets) leapt upon his chest straddling him – and proceeded to suck Dave’s contact lens right out of his eye.
It turns a little hazy after that (I’m quite sure the red mist descended by that point), but it seems the small eye licker made his getaway. On receipt of this tale, I was naturally sceptical, so I texted Dave myself asking what happened after the punch, and he replied “Little bastid sucked my contact lens out!”.
I don’t know about you, but I’m never going to write ‘bastard’ the same way again. That’s the gift that life can give you sometimes. Thanks God or equivalent.

I just worry that the real Bruce Lee may have had the same sidekick back in the 70’s. Who’s to say that off-camera, Chuck Norris wasn’t getting the beard sucked clean off his face? I actually believe that the Chuck Norris masterpiece “Code Of Silence” was about the network of poor individuals who are made to suffer in silence after such an encounter. But I’m almost definitely wrong.

Slap Shot perfectly captured the camaraderie of a team between games. The touring, the changing rooms – some of my best stories come from nights out after games, and the carnage on tour (I once watched a drunken teammate forget he was in a rickshaw and calmly try to walk off down the street at 30mph plus. His body tumbling into the night was the last we saw of him until breakfast). North Dallas Forty on the other hand excels at displaying the egos at work in a team, and the massaging and tip-toing that needs to be performed to keep the team on the rails. It’s based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent, one-time wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. The insight into a professional team is clearly genuine, and the film’s strongest suit. All the more impressive is that it’s yet another film covered on this blog directed by Ted Kotcheff. The ‘Weekend At Bernies” and “First Blood” director skips between genres with ease. It’s a great shame he fell off the radar in the 90’s.

Is it a good candidate for the 24 hour film session? Possibly not – it’s very well know so highly likely to have been seen previously by most attendees. But I’m never one to turn away a 1970’s American film, so it may just slip in during the day stretch.
Give it a look, even if you’re not a sports fan. The sport is the vehicle here, friendship and morals the centre.

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