After several months of starts-and-stops, finally I finished watching David Anspaugh‘s 1986 basketball film Hoosiers. Starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Hopper, this sports-inspirational applies the triumphant underdog storyline to demonstrate how small-town Hickory Huskers goes all the way to the top in high school basketball under the guidance of Coach Norman Dale (Hackman) in 1951 Indiana.
During the first pep rally, before the first game depicted, Norman Dale tells the student body that the team will play twenty-three games over four months. The film includes basketball game-play via two practices [meeting the team and meeting Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis)] and nine+ games (including a montage that likely represents two or three games). Although Hoosiers foregrounds the significance of turning the team around, specifically, convincing Jimmy to play ball again, it doesn’t impress me as a generic sports film. Basketball could be replaced with hockey, football, futbol, and possibly baseball through much of the film and I would still perceive the plot as showcasing a man just trying to do his job.
That is until the last two games (the sectional finals and then the Indiana High School Basketball Championship game) when the sports film conventions become clearer as does the reasoning for why it has to be basketball. Each of the games leading up to the championship acquaints the viewer with an aspect of the team member’s personality/athletic traits. For instance, Rade (Steve Hollar) thinks he knows it all; Strap (Scott Summers) takes his time with ritualistic pre-game/play prayer; Ollie (Wade Schenck) is insecure about his height; and Everett (David Neidorf) is simultaneously ashamed of and desperate for the support of his oft-drunken father, Shooter (portrayed exquisitely by Hopper). The nature of basketball mandates that each player plays together not just effectively in their unique roles in unison.
The way writer Angelo Pizzo shapes Norman Dale and Hackman’s portrayal of the purposeful and quick-tempered, new coach and history/civics teacher as well as what he endures to gain the town and the team’s respect and trust culminates in a supremely satisfying visual spectacle as the Hickory Huskers begin to win games. Moreover, Barbara Hershey’s Myra Fleener doesn’t understand why basketball means so much to everyone. Her character is not a hindrance to attempts to play ball, but she just doesn’t get it. She’s holding an armful of folders (or wielding farm tools) throughout the majority of the film and isn’t enthusiastic about Jimmy returning to basketball, but she’s not functioning as a source of conflict per se (the “worst” she does is find a newspaper article elucidating the trouble that Coach Dale got in that led to his having a falling out with the NCAA). Thus, when it’s time for the final two games and the camera goes in for a few close-ups of her watching intently, you know she’s starting to comprehend.
The cinematography and editing of the game-play in the championship game consists of slow-motion, close-ups, and other compositional choices that make me wonder if they were inspired by televised basketball of the 1980s. The film is set in 1951 and was released in 1986. What do you think?
The last pre-game peptalk is phenomenal because it is so short, sweet, and to the point.
Coach: We’re way past big speech time. I want to thank you for the last few months. It’s been very special for me. Anybody have anything they want to say?
Merle: Yeah, let’s win this one for all the small schools who never had the chance to get here.
Everett: I want to win for my dad.
Buddy: Let’s win for coach. You got us here.
Coach: Thank you.
Here’s the full scene:
~ Find more clips here.
~ For additional information about the film, hop on over to Hoosiers Archive.
~ Check out this Bleacher Report piece on the real Jimmy Chitwood, whose basketball talents were instrumental in helping his teammates to victory.
~ Dennis Hopper talks about the film with AFI.
1. Once I noticed Barbara Hershey holding folders and papers in so many scenes, I became somewhat preoccupied with what she did exactly at the school. Was she a teacher? an administrator? She became interim principal halfway through the film, but what was she? Did I miss it in a dialogue scene? Ultimately, it’s so trivial as to not be worth my curiosity, but I need to know if the film reveals her job title.
2. I like watching movies with subtitles even when I understand some, most, or all of the spoken languages. The Hoosiers DVD that I have only comes with French subtitles, which is fine because I took four years of it in high school and I’ve always been better at reading and writing it than listening comprehension. Usually, when I read French, I automatically “translate” it into English in my head. In this case, though, when I read the French and compared it to the audio, I gained a better appreciation for the art of translation. For example, there’s a snippet of the National Anthem before the championship game. The English lines of “Oh say does that Star-Spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” becomes “Oh, c’est la banniere etoilee qui danse au dessus de la terre des hommes libres et du foyer des valeureux” in French. Literally, “Oh, it’s the starry banner that dances under the earth of free men and the fireplace (hearth) of the valorous/valiant.”
3. Hoosiers is based on a true story. The Grueling Truth provides some historical/social context from someone who grew up in Indiana in the 70s and 80s. CBS News details some of the differences between film and reality.