Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Longest Yard (1974)





















This is one of the originals people, a movie that influenced a whole host of other sports movies and has seen a fair few remakes to boot. This movie really had everything, a (now) stereotypical sophomoric sports yarn and a grim and brutal prison drama. Add to that the rapidly rising Hollywood star Burt Reynolds who actually shaves off his famous moustache.

We all know the story here I'm sure, but just in case. Paul 'Wrecking' Crewe (Reynolds) is an ex-football star living with a wealthy woman who uses the him for sex (he's a gigolo). One day they have a bit of a tiff and Paul storms off. He nicks her fast car and goes on a drink influenced joyride. Once the police catch up with him he insults them and gets into a scuffle which results in him being arrested. This whole ordeal winds Paul up in the clink for 18 months. Once in jail Paul soon realises that all the cons dislike him because he had it all and blew it (referring to his wealth and the fact he was dismissed from the National Football League for pints shaving). At the same time Paul is forced into agreeing to coach the prison warden's semi-pro football team. But first Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) suggests that Paul create a team of convicts to give his prison guard team a warm up game. Without knowing it, this becomes Paul's lifeline and the warden's eventual downfall.

There is most definitely a dated quality to this movie (key word being dated), but at the same time its an uneven movie. There are so many elements here you never really know what to think or how to feel. Take the start of the movie where we see Crewe in bed with his wealthy bird. She wants sex, hot steamy sex and she wants it yesterday. Alas Crewe isn't in the mood for hot steamy sex (the bloody fool) and he gets frustrated with her advances. This leads to the pair having a fight which is actually quite rough; at one point Crewe grabs the woman's face and throws her to the ground. I was like, Jesus dude!



After that Crewe takes off in her car, a rather shitty looking Citroën SM (apparently high performance). The police take chase and now we have a typical Burt Reynolds car chase sequence choreographed by none other than Hal Needham. So essentially what you have is a fast, slick sequence with plenty of neat stunts that wouldn't look outta place in all of the other Reynolds/Needham collaborations. Its by no means the best car chase in the world (especially with that Citroën) but it does the job. We then have a short scene where Reynolds does his Bandit thing in insulting some cops, followed by a dust up. So from a very awkward and nasty fight with a female to a light-hearted car chase and comedy routine; from one extreme to the other.

The extremes continue once our protagonist reaches his final destination within a Florida prison. Being a 70's movie and shot within the grounds of a real prison, things come across as pretty bleak for the most part. On the visual side of things it looks like a blaxploitation movie inside the joint. All the cons are self-segregated into gangs, the white guys not looking very intimidating with regular physiques (apart from the odd one or two). Whilst the black guys range from very intimidating with large physiques to super-fly looking with large sideburns and fro's. There's a lot of tension between the inmate gangs and guards at all times, you're never sure when a scene will break out into a full blown riot. This atmosphere is handled very well by director Robert Aldrich. He manages to balance the sadistic killing of one inmate, along with outright torture and racism; with silly moments of raucous comedy (bordering on slapstick).

The guards are of course a mean racist bunch that don't hesitate to use the 'n' word against the African American cons. Whilst on the other hand they are perfectly happy screwing over the white cons. Naturally the obvious difference between the white and black cons are overcome when the guards go too far verbally abusing one lone black inmate. Its all a bit predictable and cliched but it needed to be there. This is just the first of a number of scenes where the cons come together as one.

But amongst all this hard-hitting racial tension, grisly murder and conflict against the brutal guards, comedy shines through. As Crewe recruits inmates for his team we meet all the various stereotypical characters in the jail. You've got the hulking Richard Kiel as the aptly named Samson (who acts like a child). James Hampton as Caretaker, the brains behind everything Crewe wants to do. Pop (John Steadman) is the really old inmate who's been in jail almost all his life. Robert Tessier plays the one solitary inmate everyone is terrified of. A prisoner called 'The Indian', no guesses for what his hook is. Harry Caesar as Granville, the strong sensible black inmate leader who is the first to join with Crewe. Michael Conrad as Nate Scarboro, one of the older sensible inmates. And Charles Tyner as the highly effective and deeply creepy Unger, the sniveling and dangerous snitch. Plus various other stereotypical inmate and guard characters.

Naturally the inmates are all terrible at first but after a good training montage and various humorous scenes they get better. Before you know it, its game day and the big finale. Being British I can't really comment on how accurate this part of the movie is as I have no knowledge of American football. But its clearly very well done, very effective and pretty realistic looking if you ask me. Again I don't know for sure but the use of split screen by Aldrich might be a first (?). It looks a bit hokey now but it sure does keep the action flowing. And of course you can't not have slow motion in a sports flick for those last minute deus ex machina moments of glory.

Much like the rest of the movie everything you see in the game is now rather cliched and predictable (I use these words too much). Its not bad but you know what's gonna happen here, lots of inmates stomping the feck outta the guards for cheap gags. The guards getting off to a winning start, the cons losing faith...then coming back. The warden blackmailing Crewe to lose, Crewe then fighting his inner demons as he fakes an injury. The cons looking like they're about to lose, but then Crewe comes back in and saves the day. Hurray!!

What's just so surprising is the fact that despite all the silly hijinks, all the moments of juvenile lunacy, Aldrich still manages to cram in amazing levels of gritty drama. The final sequence where hardened guard Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter) is put under immense pressure to shoot Crewe because Hazen thinks he's trying to escape (and he's pissed at the fact Crewe ignored him and won the game), is a fantastic last moment of high tension. The reason being you could quite easily see it going either way as the movie isn't all smiles and rainbows.

Overall this still can't hide the fact this movie is a very mixed bag with parts that are well done but ultimately kinda mismatched. It really does feel like there are two movies here, a stupid sports comedy that borders on a spoof, and a gritty emotional prison drama. Don't get me wrong I think Aldrich does well and makes the two ideas work, but it never feels quite right. Bottom line its essentially a (good) Reynolds vehicle that pretty much summed up his career. Both the steely eyed, serious tough guy; and the goofball mugging for the camera.

7/10