Lone Star Cinema: North Dallas Forty


North Dallas Forty

Better football through chemistry.

This four-word quote from North Dallas Forty says nearly all you need to know about the film. Uttered by aging, battered wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) as he receives a numbing injection in his knee -- thus allowing him to limp through another game -- it's one of many cynical quotes in an entirely cynical movie.

The cynicism about professional football is well deserved, at least if you believe novelist Peter Gent's take on his years as a Dallas Cowboy in the 1960s. Gent was none too charitable toward the Cowboys in his 1973 novel North Dallas Forty, on which the film is based. (Gent also co-wrote the script.) He tells a sordid tale of professional football's win-at-all-costs mentality, with greedy team owners and victory-obsessed coaches doping up players so they can play with crippling injuries. It's also a tale of brutish machismo; the players live in a testosterone-fueled, disgustingly misogynistic world where the biggest and meanest among them make the rules.

Unsurprisingly, most Cowboy fans -- ever a blindly faithful lot -- considered Gent's novel nothing short of blasphemous. The NFL was no less outraged, condemning the story as grossly exaggerated and dismissing it as little more than an act of revenge by a disgruntled former player. (If Peter Gent wanted to be a pariah, he succeeded.) Released in 1979, the film version of North Dallas Forty fanned the flames of outrage once again, despite being a somewhat sanitized and more comic version of the original story.

North Dallas Forty's plot isn't complicated. Phil Elliott and quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis) are outstanding players and longtime friends facing the reality that their careers won't last forever. (Elliott is all but done with football, relying on painkillers to function on the field and off.) The story follows them as their team, the fictional North Dallas Bulls, prepares for a pivotal game with the also fictional Chicago Marauders.

The Bulls coaches are so focused on winning that they have little sympathy for injured players. Head coach B. A. Strothers (G.D. Spradlin) demands great discipline and effort from the team, turning a blind eye as the players gobble up pain pills. Gruff assistant coach Johnson (Charles Durning) is at his angriest when the players tear ligaments or bruise a few ribs, berating them as if they've damaged team equipment. (That the players themselves are little more than equipment is North Dallas Forty's central theme.)

When not battering each other on the job, the players drink themselves silly and engage in the boorish behavior we would expect. In one classic scene, they ride down a rural road on the hood of Maxwell's car, drunkenly shooting at cows. In another, simpleminded behemoth Joe Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson) lifts a terrified woman over his head at a party, refusing to put her down and threatening anyone who tries to stop him.

Elliott also has the requisite love interest, a quiet, sophisticated woman named Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon). She initially rejects Elliott as just another macho jock, but soon falls for him because he's an unexpectedly sensitive guy who shares her cynicism about football.

Not surprisingly, the much-hyped and controversial North Dallas Forty was a box-office hit; it also garnered generally positive reviews. Critics appreciated the film's unblinking eye on the ugly reality (or was it just Gent's opinion?) of professional football, its locker-room humor (often intended to mock locker-room humor), and the way it skewered the Dallas Cowboys' unique brand of phony, Jesus-infused righteousness. Nolte also was lauded for his jaded, physically and emotionally bruised, wincing portrayal of Elliott. (In this fascinating interview, Austin's Carolyn Jackson interviews Nolte about the film.)

Despite its critical success, I'm not quite so enamored of North Dallas Forty. It's predictable, unpolished and delivers its message too simplistically, and I'm not convinced it deserves its status as a classic sports film. Then again, I did enjoy Nolte's performance and the genuine chemistry between Elliott and Maxwell. Having lived in Dallas in the Seventies -- and thus witnessed first-hand the nauseating hero worship of the Dallas Cowboys -- I also appreciate the film's many dead-on jabs at America's Team. (Or was it God's Team? Supposedly, the huge hole in the roof of Texas Stadium allowed God to watch His team play.) The film is worth a look for anyone who remembers Dallas in that era -- and anyone who hated the Cowboys as much as I did.

North Dallas Forty is available on Netflix Instant and DVD. If you prefer the DVD, rent it; the disk is pricey and includes nary an extra beyond English subtitles and scene selection.

Austin/Texas connections: As Texas-centric as North Dallas Forty is, it wasn't filmed in Texas. The movie was to be shot in Houston at the Astrodome and the Houston Oilers practice field, but a few days before the start of production, the Oilers and NFL revoked their permission to use the facilities. Undaunted, the filmmakers quickly moved production to Los Angeles. (Gent blamed this last-minute snafu on the NFL's desire to bury North Dallas Forty. Read his ESPN Classic article for a very funny account of the film's production.)

While North Dallas Forty wasn't shot in the Lone Star State, several of its stars are native Texans. Mac Davis is from Lubbock, Steve Forrest (Conrad Hunter) is from Huntsville, Kevin Cooney (Pete Peterson) is from Houston, and Tony Frank (Rindquist) is from Nacogdoches. Dabney Coleman (Emmett Hunter) and Guich Koock (Eddie Rand) are from Austin. In the film's first scene, the voice on Elliott's radio is beloved Dallas DJ Ron Chapman.

Gent was not all that

The fallacy in his book (and movie) is that Pete Gent was never an "outstanding" player for the Cowboys. He was (mostly) a back-up WR who sometimes played when the guys ahead of him were injured. The movie makes it sound like Gent was Meredith's "go-to" guy. His best year was 1966 when he had 27 catches. HB Dan Reeves had 41 catches in 1966, meaning Gent was hardly the go-to guy that he would have us believe.

I don't know about their off-field friendship, but Gent joined the Cowboys in 1964 and he was gone after the '68 season. Meredith was a rookie in 1960, so they were together on the Cowboys for five years. Does that qualify as a "longtime" friendship? Not to me, but that's just my opinion.

Still, it is another example of how highly Gent viewed himself, his importance to the team and his relationship with Meredith. I can't find the quote now, but I believe Meredith once quipped that, if Gent was as good a WR as the book (or movie) paints him to be, Meredith would have thrown to him more often (or words to that effect).