I suppose it is against all the rules to review a movie's advertising campaign, but in the case of North Dallas Forty the advertisements are so blatantly misleading and do such a disservice to the film that it's important to set the record straight. You may have seen these ads in the newspapers. They show two foolish football players stuffed into a pair of outsized, cleated cowboy boots; while one of them douses himself with booze, a couple of wild-and-wicked women grab at the players. "Wait till you see the weird part" is the come-on slogan.
Let us pray that Paramount Pictures doesn't plan to bring out the life story of General Idi Amin, lest its advertising intelligentsia bill the film as a "laff-riot." Having made a very serious sports movie, it's apparent that Paramount lost the courage of its convictions. Will Americans go see a "serious" movie about sports? Probably not, unless a handsome athlete is dying slowly of a mysterious disease. So, push North Dallas Forty as giddy, maybe even kinky—an adult version of Meatballs for the Celebrity-Superstars fan mentality. Indeed, though the movie occasionally does pander to raunchiness, the main thrust of North Dallas Forty is to indict the National Football League as an evil institution on the nether side of civilization.
In this portrayal, the team owners cheat the players, the coaches abuse them, and the players themselves are cretins and junkies who venture onto the gridiron thanks only to pills and needles ("better football through chemistry"). Is this fair? Well, on the one hand, consider the source. Any film that would advertise in such a dishonest manner presumably would not quail at rewriting a little thing like the truth. Keep in mind that The Deer Hunter Russian-roulette scenes were total fabrication, and that dishonesty's reward was the film industry's highest honor, the Academy Award for best picture of the year. So, who do you believe: Hollywood or the NFL's surgeon general?
Ah, but on the other hand, North Dallas Forty is based on the novel by Peter Gent, who played five seasons for the Cowboys and receives partial credit for the screenplay, and there are 19 NFL players in the cast, who appear to be believers in the film. Jeff Severson, formerly of the Cardinals, says that North Dallas Forty has "the authenticity of a news-reel"; John Matuszak of the Raiders (above, at far right), who plays a major supporting role with considerable ability, endorses the movie as "the most honest film about players, particularly about the pain they must endure." Furthermore, two experts on the film's technical staff were Tom Fears, the superscout who has been an NFL head coach, and Frank O'Neill, one of the country's foremost physical therapists. Have all these Judases sold out pro football for a payday? Hard to believe.
If North Dallas Forty is reasonably accurate, the pro game is a gruesome human abattoir, worse even than previously imagined. Much of the strength of this impression can be attributed to Nick Nolte (above, left), who plays the hero—an aging, chain-smoking, misshapen, limping wide receiver—with the force and understanding that Sylvester Stallone invested in his Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately, Nolte's character, Phil Elliott, is often fuzzily drawn, which makes the actor's accomplishment all the more impressive.
The film is flawed in other ways, too—right to its title. There is never any explanation of what the "forty" refers to. (Isn't there some obligation to have a title mean something?) And much else is too obvious—and often belabored. The team owners are rich-Texan cartoon characters. The coach, who wears a Tom Landry hat, is all computer-man. The quarterback, played by singer Mac Davis (center in right photo, with actor Bo Svenson) in his acting debut, provides a good counterpoint as Elliott's bosom buddy, but he scrambles for too many wisecracks. For that matter, the film's bawdy beginning—which is ruthlessly, endlessly dedicated to proving that 1) football players sure are huge, fun-lovin' fellas; and 2) we are in that Hollywood theme park, Texasworld—keeps the train in the station for a long time.
Things get rolling, however, whenever director Ted Kotcheff finds the confidence to put the clichès on waivers and play Nolte. What emerges is a brutal portrait of what Gent perceives to be a mean American business.