[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Robert Aldrich pumps enough gutty style into The Longest Yard that one needn’t feel too ashamed of himself for delighting in its formulaic progress. For one thing, despite a very unpromising opening five minutes during which former football pro, current kept man Burt Reynolds does some macho strutting before his enraged ladyfriend, Aldrich has become the first director (in my experience, at least) to tap some of the likably flamboyant personality the actor habitually displays in his personal appearances. After “stealing” the woman’s sports car, leading the police a merry chase (more satisfying than most these days), and dumping the prize in the bay, Reynolds finds himself on the way to a Georgia prison where both the warden and the captain of the guard have strong feelings about football. Trouble is, the captain (Ed Lauter) happens to coach the semi-pro prison team and strongly feels Reynolds should stay out of his way; the warden (Eddie Albert ) would very much like to win the league title Lauter hasn’t been able to get for him and strongly feels Reynolds should get involved. Then there are the cons who, as one fellow deadpans, take their football seriously and have never forgotten Reynolds’s exit-in-disgrace from the sport eight years earlier for shaving points.
A tense scene, of a sort Aldrich has realized splendidly in the past, picking out wry angles from which to observe, via Joe Biroc’s hard-focus, unprettifying camera, the way establishments break down into factions that scratch one another’s back while looking for a place to plant the knife, as nasty lone wolves do what they can to make a good thing for themselves. Reynolds works out a compromise of sorts, staying out of Lauter’s thinning hair but mollifying the warden by agreeing to enlist the cons themselves in a second team, one that will be available for the guards’ team to trample in a pre-season exhibition match. And pretty soon it’s, if not a Dirty Dozen, at least a dusty eleven. There will be solemn takings of Mr. Aldrich to task for his shamefully fascist concept of revolutionary activity, for his sardonic glee in pushing his encyclopedically ugly cons into closeup and eliciting comradely yoks over their childlike joy in mayhem, for treating the two women in the film as comic grotesques, for trying to do the same jokes too many times (although he brings off a one-two-three chain reaction on the line “I think he broke his fuckin’ neck!” that ought to rattle the rafters in any middlin’-full auditorium). There’ll be some justice in all those takings-to-task—the script, from a story by producer Al Ruddy, is poorly developed, Lauter’s interesting character getting lost during the middle portion—but on the whole The Longest Yard builds up such a head of expertly stoked steam that it would be a pure shame for one to let his critical faculties get in the way of the catharsis at its triumphant release.
THE LONGEST YARD
Direction: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Tracy Keenan Wynn. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Editing: Michael Luciano. Music: Frank DeVol. Production: Albert S. Ruddy.
The Players: Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter, Charles Tyner, Harry Caesar.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson