Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours“— consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week’s special, Super-Bowl-weekend edition: Dan Epstein on the football-movie classic North Dallas Forty.
Rudely awakened by his alarm clock, Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) fumbles blindly for the prescription drug bottles that line his nightstand. Staggering into the kitchen, he finally locates a couple of precious painkillers, washing them down with the warm dregs of one of last night’s Lone Stars. After lighting a joint, he gingerly sinks into his bathtub; momentarily brooding over the pass he dropped the night before, he suddenly recalls the catch he made to win the game, and he smiles.
Phil is a veteran wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls. He still loves the game, but the game doesn’t love him. He can’t sleep for more than three hours. Beer and codeine have become his breakfast of choice. He’s confident that he still has “the best hands in football,” but the constant pain is wearing him down — and so, too, is the team’s rigid head coach. “You scored five TDs?” the authority figure thunders. “Don’t you know that we worked for those? We plan for ‘em. We let you score those touchdowns!”
Released in August 1979, just in time for the NFL pre-season, North Dallas Forty was a late entry in the long list of Seventies films pitting an alienated antihero against the unyielding monolith of The Man. Directed by Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to direct such 1980s hits as First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s), it was based on the best-selling, semiautographical 1973 novel of the same name by former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent. Though ostensibly fictional, Gent’s book was to the NFL as Jim Bouton’s 1970 tell-all Ball Four was to major league baseball — a funny-yet-revealing look at the sordid (and often deeply depressing) side of a professional sport.
The movie drew praise at the time of its release for its realistic portrayal of life in the locker room and on the gridiron, though what we see on the screen is considerably grittier and more primitive than the NFL product we know today. Single-bar helmet face masks abound; poorly-maintained grass fields that turn into hellish mud pits at the first sign of rain; and defensive players have to wrap at least one hand around the quarterback’s throat before the referee will even consider throwing a “roughing the passer” flag. The players also live a far more modest existence off the field than their 2019 counterparts: Phil’s abode has the shabby look and feel of student housing, while fur coats and silver Lincoln Continentals are the closest things to “bling” that his teammates possess.
Instant replay review isn’t a thing yet. More importantly to this story, neither is free agency. The team’s front office holds all the cards when it comes to contract negotiations and can discipline, trade or release players without any consequence. The Bulls’ industrialist owner likes to speak of his team as a family, but Phil is beginning to understand that he’s really just a piece of meat on the field and a series of numbers on his head coach’s computer. If they want to trade him to the Canadian Football League, as they keep threatening to do, there’s really nothing he can do about it. Maybe it’s time to just walk away, build a ranch and raise some horses, but the thrill of competition keeps bringing him back. “Besides,” he tells one of his girlfriends, “it’s the only thing I know how to do good.”
The only guy on the Bulls that Phil can talk to about his misgivings is Seth Maxwell, the team’s charismatic starting quarterback. Played by Mac Davis in his bare-chested, curly-topped prime, Maxwell — a character clearly based on flamboyant Dallas Cowboys star “Dandy” Don Meredith — is firmly dedicated to enjoying whatever life throws him, whether it’s a last-minute victory drive or a three-way with a teammate and the wife of a prominent local businessman. Maxwell understands where his friend is coming from, but urges him to take a more pragmatic approach to his dealings with the coaches and the managers. “You better learn how to play the game,” he counsels Phil, “and I don’t just mean the game of football. Hell, we’re all whores, anyway. We might as well be the best.”
Phil finds it harder to relate to the rest of his teammates, especially dumbfuck offensive lineman Joe Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson), whose idea of a creative pickup line is “I’ve never seen titties like yours!” Joe Bob’s rapey ways are played for laughs in the film — during a party sequence, he hoists a woman above the heads of the revelers, peeling off her clothes while Chic’s “Good Times” booms in the background. To say they come off as extremely unsettling today, especially when Maxwell defends the lineman’s aggressive sexual harassment as key to maintaining his on-field confidence, would be an understatement. Likewise, North Dallas Forty‘s many dick and “faggot” jokes are no longer the sure-fire knee-slappers that they were in 1979; today, they simply sound like realistic dialogue from a hyper-masculine (and not particularly enlightened) realm.
The film’s practice and game sequences still hit hard, however, making you admire — and fear for — the men who have chosen football as their profession. Preparing to play in the conference championship game, Phil has the team’s trainer give him a big shot of xylocaine in his damaged knee. “Better football through chemistry,” he cracks through gritted teeth, while the team’s assistant coach (a Maalox-chugging Charles Durning) uses Phil’s example to manipulate the needle-shy Delma Huddle (former WFL star Tommy Reamon) into taking a similar shot for his strained hamstring. “Ah, come on, Delma,” the coach growls. “You saw Elliott. He was hurting, too, but he has the guts to do what it takes when we need him … You can’t make it in this league if you don’t know the difference between pain and injury!” Huddle acquiesces. It’s a decision which will come back to haunt him.
But the film’s most powerful moments are the ones that take place in the locker room before the championship game, as the Bulls mentally prepare to do battle on the field. A contemporary director would likely choose to present this as a montage of warriors donning their armor to the tune of a pounding, blood-pumping soundtrack. Kotcheff wisely chooses to linger on the interaction of Joe Bob and his fellow lineman O.W. Shaddock (played to perfection by Oakland Raiders defensive end John Matuszak) as they psych each other up with a slow-burning call-and-response routine. Dispensing with music altogether, the director lets the murmur of locker room conversation slowly build to an almost unbearable intensity, until the Bulls owner’s misguided attempt at a gung-ho speech breaks the spell.
As with 1976’s The Bad News Bears, which North Dallas Forty resembles in many respects, it takes a heartbreaking loss to finally bring clarity to the protagonist; though in this case, the scales don’t fully fall from Phil’s eyes until the day after the game. Called into a meeting with the Bulls’ front office, he’s unexpectedly confronted by a representative from the league’s internal investigations commission. An off-duty Dallas vice officer who’s been hired to investigate Phil has discovered a baggy of marijuana in the player’s home. Even though pot is significantly less harmful than any of the amphetamines and painkillers that he and his teammates regularly scarf to get through the season, it’s an excuse to get rid of their “problem” player. “Smoking grass? Are you kidding me?” Phil responds. “If you nailed all the ballplayers that smoked grass, you couldn’t field a punt return team!” (Indeed, the officer’s report conveniently overlooks the fact that the victim was seen sharing a joint with the team’s star quarterback.)
If Phil were a bum steer, the team would simply shoot him; but since they can’t do that, suspending him without pay (pending a league hearing) for violation of their “morals” clause is the next best thing. “We’re not the team,” Phil rages at his head coach, as the Bulls’ owner and executives grimly look on. “These guys right here, they’re the team. We’re the equipment. We’re the jock straps, the helmets. They just depreciate us and take us off the goddamn tax returns!”
Phil’s words echo the sentiments that motivated the ill-fated NFL strike of 1974, in which players unsuccessfully demanded the right to veto trades and the right to become free agents after their contracts expired. (In an earlier scene, Phil is seen wearing a t-shirt that reads “No Freedom/No Football,” which was the rallying cry of the NFL Players Association during their walkout.) Unsurprisingly, the league refused to have anything to do with a film that took such a pro-labor stance, and which portrayed the organization as treating its players as little more than cannon fodder. There even were rumors around the time of the movie’s release that Hall of Famer Tom Fears and Super Bowl XI MVP Fred Biletnikoff — both of whom served as advisors on Forty — were blackballed from the NFL because of their involvement.
Four decades later, it’s hard to imagine that the league would embrace the film any more warmly today. Sure, players now receive more equitable financial compensation (thanks in part to free agency, which was finally instituted in the league in 1993) and protective equipment have improved considerably since the 1970s. But in recent years, the NFL’s heated, repeated denials of responsibility for brain trauma injuries suffered by its players — not to mention its apparent blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality — hardly point to an evolved sense of respect for the men who play its game.
Which is why North Dallas Forty still resonates today. Indeed, it might actually resonate more deeply now, in light of all the recent CTE stories and studies. In 1979, when Phil Elliott finally decided to walk away from football, audiences could easily imagine him settling into a happy life on the ranch with his new girlfriend Charlotte (Dayle Haddon), with scars and stiff joints the only unpleasant reminder of his gridiron glory days. Today, we can’t help but wonder if Charlotte would now be caring for a man who can’t even remember her name, much less the highlights of his playing career. But we don’t wonder whether or not his former team and former league would give a damn about his current situation and well-being. We don’t have to wonder about that at all.
Previously: To Die For