North Dallas Forty


‘…zeroes in with laser focus on the parties, the training, and the personal lives of the protagonists…’

The deadly news cycle rages on, and rather than cancel next year’s Oscars, they could easily just dedicate the whole show to In Memorium. The death of famed country star Mac Davis was barely reported in some US papers, but probably triggered some feelings for those who saw his performance in Ted Kotcheff’s searing sports movie from 1979. North Dallas Forty is, even if you care not one jot for American football or the NFL, a breathtakingly honest look at the world of professional sports. I’ve only ever attended games by the New York Jets, and found the spectacle as invigorating as watching highway maintenance, but this perceptive film is so attuned to the subject that it’s a bona fide genre classic.

Nick Nolte is absolutely huge as Phil Elliot, a cocky player for the fictional North Dallas Bulls, the Dallas Cowboys under a thin veneer. Although in his 30’s Elliot is a walking bandage, his knees, shoulders and psyche ripped apart by his exposure to bone-crunching violence on the park. His recreational life is a question of pain management. A consumer of marijuana, pills and hard liquor, Elliot lives a life of excess that’s contrary to modern trends; these players, smoke, booze, cheerfully light up cigars in the locker room, and there’s plenty of salty, non-PC talk. Davis plays his fellow player Seth Maxwell, and their relationship is the key element of a film that doubles-down on camaraderie and betrayal as the men struggle to keep their careers afloat while the company owners assess their financial value to the game.

It’s something of a shock to discover that ex-player Peter Gent’s novel, a semi-autobiographical account of his days at the Cowboys, finishes on a violent note that’s more akin to a horror film than a sports movie; wisely, the film scraps this salacious melodrama in terms of a narrower focus on playing issues; the guiding hand of Paramount’s Frank Yablans (The Godfather, Chinatown) seems to have worked wonders here. For once, there’s no big game to cheer, or much actual sports footage; the film zeroes in with laser focus on the parties, the training, and the personal lives of the protagonists; model Dayle Haddon makes a big impression as Elliot’s sensible girlfriend Charlotte. Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman and Bo Svenson make up a team of acting MVP’s.

There’s so much going right in North Dallas Forty; the great cinematographer Paul Lohmann (Nashville, Time After Time) pulls off some great against-the-flood-lights shots, notably the way he shoots the games with no spectators visible; the vulnerable players feel as isolated and alone as fish in a barrel. And Kotcheff displays all the intuitive feel for strident, flawed masculinity that he’d bring to First Blood in 1982. That was the year I first saw this film on ITV, and watching it again after Davis’ death reminded me of the strengths of late 70’s cinema; fearless, honest, and brilliantly observed, North Dallas Forty is a glorious 50 yard touchdown.


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  1. Interesting thoughts. Coincidentally, I revisited this film in late September, just a few days before Mac Davis passed. It plays an important role in the history of sports cinema. A die-hard sports fan can quibble with the over-the-topness of some of the game/postgame action, and the romantic subplot is half-baked. But you identify the conflict at the core of the film – love of the game versus love of money, and the transitional/transactional nature of both. There’s a great locker room scene toward the end (which I won’t spoil) that captures this friction and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

    • Thanks for this comment; and yes, I’m not an expert on the game itself, so happy to stand corrected about the authenticity of some of the scenes, and the romantic scenes are weak in comparison with the main thrust of the film. But as you say, the friction that the players create and encounter is so well observed here, makes it a sports movie classic in my book!

  2. Any Given Sunday is one of my all-time favourite films and I go back to it about once a year, but North Dallas Forty was terrific in a different way. Nolte bravely played against type, still the gravelly tones and the cocksure manner, but pretty much a beaten down individual with pain a lifelong companion. I saw this when it came out and have a VHS somewhere. Nolte had a habit of not going for the easy option – after movie stardom beckoned with The Deep, his follow-up was the dark Who’ll Stop the Rain, then this, then Heart Beat and Cannery Row before edging back into the mainstream with 48 Hrs. A maverick performer but every now and then his instincts for material, as here, proved spot-on.There was a wee stash of football movies in the 1970s – Longest Yard and Semi Tough – which never touched on this quality – but in the swearing stakes ice-hockey drama Slap Shot came close.

    • Slap Shot is a favourite of mine too, and Nolte a favourite performer. Amazing to think Nolte was playing a burn-out so early in his career, but he really fits the part, it’s probably the best of his early work. And yes, Any Given Sunday really works for me too…

  3. I think you’ve seen me mention on my blog several times how much I hate sports lol😂 That said, doesn’t mean I would dismiss a film solely for that, and as you say that this movie doesn’t have much sports footage in it in the first place, it sounds like one I could still enjoy. That, and I really do like Nick Nolte. Have a good weekend, and as usual, this was a great post!

  4. You watched a football game and were bored? You must have been watching it wrong 😉

    I’ve found that most sports are boring if you’re not into them.

          • Not really. I’ll watch the Superbowl if my team, the Patriots, are playing but I’m more of what you call a social sports fan. If those around me are into it, I know just enough so I’m not sounding like an idiot and I know what they’re talking about. But I’m not enough of a fan to talk about specific players or their “stats” (dear Lord, save us from the dreaded fans who get going on “stats”. They can talk for HOURS) or how trading this player for those 2 players will affect the team in 2 years, etc, etc.

    • I’ve got a soft spot for Any Given Sunday, butit’s a much more melodramatic film than this, which has an almost documentry feel; you’ll dig it, I’m sure!

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