The Longest Yard (1974)

Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1974. Starring: Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters. Drama.
The Longest Yard (1974)

Along with Deliverance a few years earlier and Boogie Nights decades later, The Longest Yard is one the three best movies of Burt Reynolds' career (there are not a lot of good ones to choose from) and maybe his best performance. It’s the perfect role to show off his machismo sense of humor and the laid back, good-ol’ boy charm that made him a superstar in the '70s. He had his share of very successful films (Smokey and The Bandit, etc) and a few nice ones (Starting Over), but the trio of Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and especially The Longest Yard are about the only times he teamed with major directors and had perfect scripts to suit him. (By the time he did Nickelodeon with Peter Bogdanovich or Rough Cut with Don Siegel or Semi-Tough with Michael Ritchie those once great directors' shelf-lives had already expired.)

Director Robert Aldrich had a diverse and distinguished career - only a handful of home runs, but those hits were massive. Moving from television to film he would make one of the last great noir films, Kiss Me Deadly, and then the classily twisted What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. He would direct a number of solid action films including Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late The Hero, and peak with the wildly popular rowdy WWII film, The Dirty Dozen. The Longest Yard would repeat the cynical formula, making the bad guys the heroes. And with it Aldrich would prove he still had one more great film in him (unfortunately after The Longest Yard the rest of his career was pretty much junk, including reteaming with Reynolds for the listless detective film Hustle).

Reynolds plays Paul Crewe in The Longest Yard, an ex-NFL superstar quarterback who was tossed from the league for point shaving. A drunken run-in with the law lands him in a Papillon–like swampy Southern prison. The corrupt but football loving warden, Hazen (Eddie Albert), uses some dubious charges to force Crewe into assembling a team with the convicts (all the worst criminals imaginable) to play against the guards’ semi-pro team. Part of the fun is Reynolds' interaction with the other inmates - at first they are hostile to him because he once had something and lost it (most of them never had anything), but he wins them over with his charm and for their chance to hit back at the brutal guards.

The film is a who’s-who of '70s B movie talent: the prison team is made up of ultra-violent misfits including the menacing Robert Tessier (Robert Shaw’s bald bodyguard in The Deep), Michael Conrad (of Melville’s Un Flic and later TV’s Hill Street Blues), and finally the giant Richard Kiel (Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker). While the sleazy guards are lead by Ed Lauter (The White Buffalo and Cujo) and Mike Henry (Junior in Smokey and The Bandit and a slick back haired Tarzan in a couple late '60s jungle flicks). Also in a funny cameo Bernadette Peters (The Jerk) pops up as a prison secretary with such a head of hair that Reynolds asks her if there are spiders in it.

Topping even Robert Altman's MASH, The Longest Yard has the best football game in screen history, better than all those recent feel-good football flicks. It’s very rough and thuggish and shot in a bone crunching style with a great use of split screen images. Aldrich’s longtime editor Michael Luciano deservingly got an Oscar nomination for his clever work. Like with The Dirty Dozen Aldrich humanizes the convicts - even though they are still completely anti-social they are more likeable than the nasty guards. The Nazis in The Dirty Dozen may even come off more sympathetic than these prison guards, though by the end they appear to be human and are only pawns of their own Fuhrer, the prison’s warden.

Like another great comic misfit sports story, The Bad News Bears two years later, The Longest Yard works as a laugh out loud comedy and as a moving character-driven story. As in most sports films it is about people overcoming obstacles to succeed, but it turns most sports clichés on their heads. At one point in the big game, the cons stop trying and only work on inflicting pain on the guards. Reynolds' Crewe has to make some hard choices, going on being the selfish bastard he has always been and get out of prison early or help bring dignity to the convicts' horrid existence and be forced to suffer there with them. It’s actually powerful stuff underneath the guise of a crude comedy, but with Aldrich’s steady hand at the helm and a smart script by Tracy Keenan Wynn (son of Keenan, grandson of Ed) it has ended up being one of the best sports films ever made. It’s also a sad monument to the kind of career Burt Reynolds could have had - that is if he had been wiser picking his scripts.

_________________________

The Longest Yard was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film Editing.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 26, 2010 1:34pm
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