When we lionize the cinema of the 1970s – and this writer is fully complicit in that perhaps outsized lionization – it’s important to understand exactly what that period did, for perhaps the last time. It’s not just a matter of great studio movies; there have always been those, and in spite of the current tilts towards I.P. worship and algorithmic thinking, there always will be. It’s more a question of the philosophies, stated or implicit, for doing business in the film industry, for the kind of leeway that was given to filmmakers and, consequently, the kind of risks that studios were willing to take. Because, as has been researched and reported at far greater length elsewhere, it was a rare era where (at least early on) studio executives genuinely had no idea which way was up, and were thus willing to throw a lot of things at the wall to see what stuck.
All of which is a mighty roundabout way of talking about “The Longest Yard,” Robert Aldrich’s 1974 football comedy – and how tricky it is to classify it as such, because there’s also quite a bit about it that is purposefully, pointedly not funny. That’s the case from the jump; it opens (opens!) with our boozed-up would-be football star protagonist Paul “Wrecking” Crewe getting into an ugly fight with his bitter wife that goes from viciously verbal (“You split when I tell you to split, you All-American sonofabitch,” she hisses) to uncomfortably physical before he steals her car, leads police on a drunken car chase, and drives the vehicle into a river. The cops find him at a bar, where their attempt to arrest him escalates into a fistfight. This guy is the hero of the movie!
Of course, it helps that said hero is portrayed by Burt Reynolds, who was so effortlessly charming and so widely beloved in the 1970s that he could get away with just about anything onscreen. His high-pitched giggle is intact (even if his signature ‘stache is shaved off early in the action), as is his easy-breezy good ol’ boy charisma. The role feels custom-built for the actor – indeed, he played halfback for Florida State and hoped to play pro football before an injury sent him onto the stage – so he makes for a credible athlete.
Well, credible former athlete. Crewe hasn’t picked up a football in eight years, so when his eighteen-month prison sentence begins with a request (and a firm one) to coach the prison’s team of guards, he’s resistant; “I just wanna do my time and get out of here.” He doesn’t have much of a taste for the game anymore – he was expelled from the NFL for point-shaving – but he’s eventually pushed and prodded into leading a team of inmates in an exhibition game against the guards, so he gets to work on recruiting, trying to make a team of killers out of a team of, well, killers.
The Longest Yard hit theaters four years after M*A*S*H, and the influence is, well, pronounced – being, as it is, a ramshackle anti-authoritarian comedy that closes with a rules-optional football game played by a gang of lovable losers. “No matter what happens – just keep stickin’ it to ‘em,” Crewe advises his team, and they do just that; it’s a bloody, rough-and-tumble affair (the biggest laughs begin when towering Richard Kiel, later known for his turns as “Jaws” in two Bond movies, clotheslines a guard and cheerfully announces, “Hey, I think I broke his fuckin’ neck!”).
Of course, there’s a world of difference between a team of martini-swilling wartime surgeons and hardened criminals, and it’s a little jarring when their offscreen crimes are mentioned (and often dismissed) so casually. But perhaps that’s what’s so refreshing about The Longest Yard from a contemporary perspective: the degree to which it’s willing to not only acknowledge but embrace its contradictions.
Part of the explanation lies in director Robert Aldrich’s lack of finesse; a skilled craftsman, he makes the film in a blunt, straight-ahead style (save for the stylistic gymnastics of the split-screen montage that opens the football game, which comes off as too self-conscious by half). So he doesn’t sand off the rough edges of Tracy Keenan Wynn’s script; the naked racism of the prison’s guards, for example, is played with an ugly accuracy that jolts, harshly, in what has been advertised (and subsequently regarded) as a cheerful sports comedy. There’s much more to it than that – the entire second act is a fairly straight-ahead, Cool Hand Luke-style portrayal of Southern prison life, albeit one that occasionally detours into slapstick, mud wrestling, and sex comedy.
Surprisingly, these contradictions in approach and tone don’t derail the picture; in fact, they’re what make it work, in its own unique way. It boasts a sense of tonal incongruence that simply doesn’t make it into major movies anymore – there are fewer of them, and they cost more, and thus they have to please more people (or, depending on what level of marketing you’re tuned in to, “quadrants”). It would be difficult to find a more active illustration of that principle, in fact, than the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard, which director Peter Segal reworked in to a Happy Madison/Adam Sandler comedy, replacing the stylistic shifts and uncomfortable subtext with an endless supply of prison rape jokes. The original Longest Yard has its problems, and long stretches of it don’t quite land. But it has a rawness, and a messiness, that’s in dangerously short supply these days.