The Longest Yard with Cloris Leachman

Note: Some of the passages in the following discussion were integrated into my thesis.  You take any of it without my consent and I will come to you in the dark of some terrible night and bring with me a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.  Thanks & Enjoy!

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I watched and analyzed the 1974 The Longest Yard (Robert Aldrich) for my thesis, and while I’ve owned the 2005 version of the film for three years now, I only got around to watching it a couple nights ago.  The motivation came from the knowledge that William Fichtner plays Captain Knauer.

The two films may have similar skeletons (second chances for a former professional player who gets incarcerated for auto-theft and reckless driving;  he is not released from prison, but he is given the opportunity to exercise his football player role within the confines of his new home), but they are not so similar in spirit.

The Burt Reynolds Longest Yard explored much more effectively and convincingly not only the redemption narrative but also the role of football in that narrative.  Specifically, the game functions as a way for its protagonist to find his place within the system and not to buck it.  Of course, he does buck it on an ideological level because he refuses to play according to anyone’s prerogative but his own. Reynolds is Paul Crewe, a one-time professional football player who ends up in prison for “stealing a car, drunken driving, [being] drunk in public, and resisting arrest.”  Once he arrives at the Citrus State Prison, Crewe’s moustache is shaved off and his hair is cut, an instance where visual change compels personal change.  The prestige of who he was is gone—not to suggest that his experience in the professional league will not benefit him during his stay in prison, but he has to learn a whole new set of rules to survive in the place.

On the first day of work detail out in the swamps, Crewe learns from fellow inmate Caretaker (James Hampton) why the other inmates are not warming up to him.   In what the film implies to be the last professional game Crewe played as quarterback (seven or eight years before his arrest), he deliberately played poorly so his team would lose and he would collect a large sum of money for it.  Caretaker remarks that “shaving points off the game is un-American,” which is his real crime, not the on-record reason why he is in prison.   Caretaker adds that the other prisoners come from poverty and resent Crewe for coming from wealth, having it all and throwing it away.  It is more probable that they would turn to a life of crime, while Crewe had the odds in his favor yet still ended up in prison. *

The confrontational sentiments that he experiences quickly dissipate as Crewe tries his best to fit in—at least to the degree that his will allows.   Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, the antagonists and the conflict are established.  Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) has a semi-professional team that is comprised of the guards.  Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter) has promised for the past five years that they would win a national title and it has not happened yet.  The warden initially asks Crewe to coach his own team, but after having a follow-up conversation with him, Hazen wants the creation of a prisoners’ team so the guards can gain some pre-season practice.

Whether or not to put a prisoner team together and then whether or not to play to win become complicated questions for Crewe since he just wants to do his time and leave; he does not want to get hurt playing against the guards if it would just be a game.  But it is clearly not just a game.  Once Crewe slowly begins to care about more than himself, he and Caretaker pursue the task at hand.  The inmates agree to play football because they would be allowed to inflict bodily injury upon the guards within the rules of the game.  If they themselves were injured, spending six weeks in a hospital would be a vacation from living in the prison environment.  Moreover, playing football provides them a few hours to exist as “free” men.   Major spoiler ahead.  Highlight at your own discretion: Crewe leads his Mean Machine team to win, despite the warden’s threat of extending the duration of his sentence.   Naturally, Hazen is not happy, but Captain Knauer finally realizes that the enemy is not Crewe but the warden.    It really is for the better.  Crewe and his inmate teammates earn respect from the guards by playing football.

There is only one game sequence in The Longest Yard, and it is incredibly long.  The first two quarters of the game include three to four plays, followed by halftime, followed by the third and fourth quarters.  Only the last play of the fourth quarter is in slow-motion.   Why might there be so much game-play? According to IMDB, The Longest Yard was released in American theatres nationwide on August 30, 1974, which would have been around the time football season officially started in that year.**   The increase in popularity of Monday Night Football, which had been on television four years at that point, can account for the marketability of Aldrich’s film.  In a display of intertextuality and authenticity, the film features former professional players (according to one of the special features segments on the DVD); there are even corporate sponsors for the game between the guards and the Mean Machine: Pabst beer, Gatorade, Adidas, Rawlings, Eastern Airlines, and Goodyear.

Adam Sandler’s Paul Crewe undergoes no such transformation.  In fact, by the time the game sequence arrives, I’m just glad I’m not annoyed to tears with Sandler’s portrayal of Crewe.  Burt Reynolds was always a much more sympathetic PC, and I was happy to see his character mature.

The first image in Aldrich’s The Longest Yard is a coffee table, on top of which rests an ashtray (filled with a dozen or so cigarette butts), a bottle of whiskey/bourbon/scotch, an empty glass, and a metal box.   The table is in a living room.  There is a piano on the left of the screen and there are pictures of a woman on it.  The audio track consists of a sportscaster giving the play-by-play of a football game.  An off-screen woman’s voice complains about “watching this crap” and “only a moron would watch two football games one after another.”

The opening scene of Peter Segal’s Longest Yard, on the other hand, is a swanky party that Crewe’s girlfriend (played by a Courteney Cox of asymetrical bosom specs–> her left breast is lower and longer than her right breast) is throwing.  Crewe is hanging out upstairs and refuses to wear the Elton John-inspired outfit that his girlfriend has picked for him.   He gets her into the closet, locks it, and then takes her Bentley for a joy ride.

Rounding out the main casting choices, Chris Rock takes the role of Caretaker and James Cromwell is Warden Hazen.   Burt Reynolds is also in it (as more than a cameo, he plays a convict-coach).  2005’s The Longest Yard features a dozen practice sequences (snaps, exercises, much falling down of characters) and one game.  As a football film, the Sandler Longest Yard troubles me.  Whereas the depiction of football in the Reynolds Longest Yard unmistakably examines the protagonist’s struggles in negotiating the convict/athlete identities and offers violent spectacle, the sport in Sandler’s hands is more contextual.  In fact, the majority of the jokes and physical comedy are integrated into football (related) scenes.  While I would categorize the 1974 picture as a football-prison film, I’d be more inclined to drop the 2005 one as a comedy with football in it.  Hmmm, I haven’t watched The Waterboy yet.  I wonder how it compares, especially given the Sandler factor.

Product Placement and Branding: Silver Bentley, Lord of the Rings franchise (specifically, “Mr. Frodo” as verbal allusion); McDonalds cheeseburgers, Gatorade, People Magazine (of Melrose Mania cover), Icy Hot, Vaseline, Reebok, Short Circuit, Sean John Collection (some dude was wearing a white shirt before the game scene), ESPN, Chris Berman.

For a full plot synopsis of the Sandler Yard, click here.

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And yes, Cloris Leachman is in the 2005 The Longest Yard.

Click here to watch William Fichtner in the film.

*Deborah V. Tudor makes the observation in her book Hollywood’s Vision of Team Sports: Heroes, Race, and Gender that “a flawed hero, one who suffers from temporary disgrace or loss of skill, is a common device within [sports] films,” because the “function of such narratives…becomes one of self-restoration” (46).

**North Dallas Forty came out August 3, 1974.  Rocky did not come out until 1976.

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