In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the gritty football drama North Dallas Forty.
If you were to look at the poster of North Dallas Forty, you might think it is going to be a boisterous comedy. Raucous laughs, beery fun, locker room jokes. That kind of thing.
But I don’t think there’s a more brutal film about professional sports. Nick Nolte stars as Phil Elliott, a professional footballer whose body is a calamitous mass of bruises and barely healed bones. Seeing him ease into a bath as he sucks down painkillers, booze and pot to numb the results of the previous night’s game is to watch a body literally on its last legs. Directed by Ted Kotchef, the film shows the sport to be a decadent activity stripped of almost all romance in the pursuit of success and money.
The team is held up as the ultimate value. But ultimately there’s no reciprocity. The team doesn’t matter. As Elliott tells his coach: ‘We’re not the team; we’re the equipment.’
Nolte was a footballer for a time and he imbues his role with a world weary knowledge. He’s a self-destructive man who might be saved by simple weariness as much as a late romantic entanglement with Charlotte, a girl he meets at a party. The partying is a microcosm of the world, with a very rapey vibe as well as violence and humiliation lingering under the hedonism. Elliott and his quarterback pal pop pills and drink beers as they prepare for the game, but Elliott has been benched. There might be a possibility of one last chance, but it means getting the doctor to drug him so he doesn’t feel the pain of his destroyed knee.
There have been plenty of disaffected sports films – Slapshot comes to mind and Fat City – but North Dallas Forty hangs in there as one of the most critical of its subject. The only plea for the sport as a sport rather than a business comes from one of the dumbest characters as they other players look on slack-jawed with surprise.