Smashmouth Football: Burt Reynolds in THE LONGEST YARD (Paramount 1974)

Dedicated to the memory of Burt Reynolds (2/11/1936-9/6/2018)

If it was producer Albert Ruddy’s idea to team macho actor Burt Reynolds with macho director Robert Aldrich for THE LONGEST YARD, then the man’s a bloody genius (Ruddy was no stranger to machismo himself, having previously produced THE GODFATHER)! This testosterone-fueled tale of an ex-NFL star turned convict, forced to assemble a football team of hardened criminals to take on the sports-mad warden’s goon squad of guards, is one of Burt’s best vehicles, and a comeback of sorts for Aldrich, who hadn’t scored a hit since 1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN . Both men hit the end zone with this sports-themed film, and led the way for an onslaught of football films to come.

Former star quarterback Paul Crewe (Reynolds), who was thrown out of the NFL in a points shaving scandal, finds himself under arrest after fighting with his girlfriend, stealing her car, and leading the Miami police on a drunken car chase. He’s sent to Citrus State Prison, where Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert ) is a huge football fan obsessed with winning the prison league championship. Hazen wants Crewe to help coach his team, but the con balks at the idea, earning the wrath of Hazen and Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter).

After taking his lumps, Crewe agrees to put together a team of cons to play a tune-up game with the guards. Along with veteran con and ex-New York Giant Nate Scarboro (Michael Conrad), Crewe assembles a team of the biggest miscreants in stir, coaching them to be viscious, violent, and mostly importantly, cheat! Hazen sends around his trustee Unger (Charles Tyner) to spy on the team, now-dubbed ‘The Mean Machine’, and when he gets busted for being a rat he tries to kill Crewe with a booby trap, only to murder team manager and supreme scrounger Caretaker (James Hampton) instead. The day of the big game finds The Mean Machine up big at halftime, until Hazen warns Crewe his team must lose or he’ll face an additional twenty years as an accessory to Caretaker’s death….

THE LONGEST YARD, Ed Lauter, Eddie Albert, 1974
Macho Men: Robert Tessier, Burt, Sonny Sixkiller

Burt knew a thing or two about football, having played briefly for Florida State before injuries curtailed his college career. He certainly looks the part of an ex-jock, and carries himself well on the field. Eddie Albert is a real slimeball as Warden Hazen, obsessed with football and his own little power trip. All the actors are of the tough guy variety, above all Robert Tessier as Shokner, “the very baddest cat in the joint”, and one of my favorite badass character actors. Many of the others are former NFL and college players themselves, such as ex-Tarzan Mike Henry (later the dunderheaded Junior in Burt’s SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT films), Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings, and Washington Huskies QB Sonny Sixkiller. Among the non-footballers there’s Richard “Jaws” Kiel, Harry Caesar, Bernadette Peters (as Hazen’s horny secretary), John Steadman (because every sports movie’s gotta have a guy named “Pop”), and ex-pro wrestler Pepper Martin.

Aldrich captures the violent worlds both behind the walls and on the field, and utilizes some cool split-screen work to give things that big-game feel. Screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn comes from a long line of Hollywood royalty (father Keenan, grandfather Ed), and was also responsible for the TV Movies TRIBES, THE GLASS HOUSE, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, and big screen ventures THE DROWNING POOL and THE DEEP. THE LONGEST YARD was his feature debut, and he came up with a real championship of a story. It’s the perfect way to get ready for the season… and oh, just one more thing:


LET’S GO, PATRIOTS!

(Hey, you knew that was coming, right?)

The Origin of Billy Jack: BORN LOSERS (AIP 1967)

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The character Billy Jack, star of the wildly popular 1971 film (and its two sequels), made his debut in this 1967 exploitation flick about a sociopathic biker gang and the lone man who stands up to them. Tom Laughlin, a minor figure in Hollywood at the time who had appeared in GIDGET and THE DELINQUENTS, conceived the character way back in 1954. Unable to get his original screenplay produced, he and co-star Elizabeth James banged out this motorcycle drama and he was given the opportunity to direct by American International Pictures, always on the lookout to make a quick exploitation buck.

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The Born Losers are a degenerate gang of outlaw bikers terrorizing the small town of Big Rock. Ex-Green Beret Billy Jack, a half-breed Indian back from ‘Nam, saves a local kid from getting an ass kicking by breaking out his rifle, winds up the one locked up and given 120 days in jail or $1,000 (plus court costs, of course!). Billy and the gang’s leader Danny go way back, and there’s animosity between the two. Local Deputy Sheriff is also at odds with the bikers.

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College girl Vicki (James) rides her own bike, and the Losers chase her down and take her to their clubhouse. There she finds other local coeds being raped, but she escapes before being “turned out” herself. Vicki runs out of gas though, and is brutally raped by two members of the club. Vicki ends up in the hospital, and six of the Losers wind up arrested for the rapes.

The victims are threatened by Danny and his gang, coerced into not testifying. Vicki’s in protective custody, but the Losers try to kidnap her. They’re stopped by Billy Jack, who takes the girl to his forest hideaway. The Losers then sneak into his encampment and, though the pair aren’t there, they steal Billy Jack’s $600. He confronts them at a gas station, beating the crap out of their biggest dude, and gives them 24 hours to return the money. The gang grab Vicki and another victim, and the local authorities do nothing, so brave Billy Jack goes it alone against the Born Losers, seeking revenge for the girls and himself.

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The Billy Jack character isn’t quite fully formed here, but we’re given a good preview of things to come. He’s a hero to the underdog, a peace-loving man who’s unafraid to use violence to combat the evil in our midst. His martial-arts skills are touched on in this film, though not as much as in the 1971 movie. Laughlin does well in the role and, though never a great actor, has a charming screen presence. His direction (under the pseudonym T.C. Frank) is more than adequate, aided by some fine camerawork from Gregory Sandor.

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Classic film star Jane Russell  appears about halfway through the film as Mrs. Sloan, stripper mom of one of the victims. Russell’s given “Special Guest Star” status in the credits in what amounts to a cameo. She naturally gives the movie’s best performance as a tough-as-nails dame who wants justice for her daughter. This was one of the former RKO star’s last films, and she makes good use of her limited screen time.

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BORN LOSERS is filled with biker genre veterans, including Jeremy Slate as gang leader Danny, who was in THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, HELL’S BELLES, and HELL’S ANGELS ’69. Other biker flick vets are Jack Starrett (HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, ANGELS FROM HELL, HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS), Robert Tessier (THE GLORY STOMPERS,  RUN ANGEL RUN, THE HARD RIDE), and Paul Prokop (THE PEACE KILLERS). William Wellman Jr. , son of the legendary director, appears as second-in-command Child.

Tom Laughlin is rightly hailed today as a pioneer of indie filmmaking. Most of his movies were self-financed, in the days before things like GoFundMe existed. Billy Jack remains an iconic character, his anti-establishmentarianism as popular with young audiences today as it was almost half a century ago. Critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin called Laughlin’s fighting violence with violence stance Fascism, but I see him as an American hero, breaking down the false constructs of legalism in the cause of true justice. There are times when one is forced to make a stand. If you’re interested in the origin of Billy Jack, start here with Laughlin’s low-budget masterpiece BORN LOSERS.

Uneasy Riders: Dennis Hopper in THE GLORY STOMPERS (AIP, 1967)

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I love biker flicks!! I sat through just about everyone of them in their late 60s/early 70s heyday during double (sometimes triple) features at the local movie palaces….which may explain my warped worldview. THE GLORY STOMPERS was a favorite, and TCM ran it late last night. Naturally, I had to DVR it and give it another look. THE GLORY STOMPERS is a simple chase/revenge movie, with Glory Stomper Daryl (Jody McCrae) jumped by rival gang the Black Souls. Thinking they’ve “wasted” Daryl, head Soul Chino (Dennis Hopper) abducts Daryl’s girl Chris (Chris Noel), with a plan to sell her to white slavers in Mexico. But Daryl’s not dead, and he hunts down the gang, joined on the road by ex-Stomper Smiley (Jock Mahoney). The chase is on, with plenty of (PG) sex and violence along the way.

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Much like a B-Western, the story doesn’t stray too far from the formula. What makes THE GLORY STOMPERS stand out is Hopper’s pre-EASY RIDER turn as Chino. He’s maniacal as the Black Soul’s leader, a psychopath with no regard for anyone, except little brother Clean Cut (Jim Reader), who plays a major role in the conclusion. Hopper is a blast to watch, and a drinking game could probably be made out of how many times he says “man” in the film.

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Some of the cast and crew’s backstories are more interesting than the movie!! First, there’s Jody McCrea as Daryl. He’ll forever be immortalized as Deadhead (sometimes known as Bonehead) in AIP’s “Beach Party” movies. The son of 30s/40s stars Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, Jody made a handful of films after THE GLORY STOMPERS, then retired to a quiet life as a rancher. Chris Noel was the All-American 60s blonde who once starred with Elvis (GIRL HAPPY) and in a couple Beach Party knockoffs (BEACH BALL, WILD WILD WINTER) before devoting her time with the USO during the Vietnam War. Suffering from PTSD, Miss Noel left Hollywood and devoted her life to helping veterans.

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Jock Mahoney (Smiley) was Hollywood all the way. Beginning as a stuntman, he started acting in Three Stooges shorts, became a minor Western star in movies (SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE, SLIM CARTER) and television (THE RANGE RIDER, YANCY DERRINGER). Jock also played Tarzan twice (TARZAN GOES TO INDIA, TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES), but may be better known today as the stepfather of Sally Field. Robert Tessier (Magoo) was a legitimate tough guy, having won the Purple Heart and Silver Star during the Korean War. A veteran of biker flicks (BORN LOSERS, RUN ANGEL RUN, THE HARD RIDE), Tessier also appears in Walter Hill’s HARD TIMES, and was once TV commercial icon Mr. Clean!! Other cast members include Casey Kasem (yes, THAT Casey Kasem), Lindsay (son of Bing) Crosby, and Sandra Gayle (ANGELS FROM HELL).

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Behind the scenes, director Anthony M. Lanza got his start as an editor of Arch Hall epics like WILD GUITAR and THE SADIST. He also directed the cult classic THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT, with the incredible Bruce Dern! Those beautiful shots of Harleys rolling down scenic highways were by cinematographer Mario Tosi, who later did CARRIE and THE STUNT MAN. The music score, full of fuzz-tone psychedelic guitars, is credited to “Sidewalk Productions”, but was really Davie Allen (of Davie Allen and the Arrows) and music impresario Mike Curb, who did a ton of these low-budget biker movies, and later became Lt. Governor of California! THE GLORY STOMPERS is a time capsule look at the rebellious, sometimes dangerous, side of the 60s counterculture. No peace’n’love here, but plenty of action for lovers of the biker genre. Just watch it, man, you’ll dig it!

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