By Maureen Lee Lenker, Classic Film Correspondent
This Sunday, February 5th, marks the 51st Super Bowl, in which the New England Patriots will face off against the Atlanta Falcons. We here at Night Owl TV love a good football film almost as much as we love the game itself.
The 1990s and 2000s were practically a Golden Age for football movies with everything from Rudy (1993) to Remember the Titans (2000) to The Blind Side (2009) telling heart-warming and tear-jerking stories on the gridiron. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a bevy of great football films to come before these new favorites. So before you crack open a beer, pull out the chips and dip, and settle in to watch some football, check out our top 7 (that’s the same number of points in a touchdown for those cinephiles who don’t know their quarterbacks from their wide receivers) classic football films.
Honorable Mention: Brian’s Song (1971)
Okay so, we said seven — but we’d be hard pressed to leave this one off the list. Since it started as a television movie on ABC (and was later given a theatrical release) we’ve decided to give it an honorable mention. The classic male weepie that follows the story of Brian Piccolo (James Caan), a professional football player felled by cancer, is often-cited by men of a certain age as the first time they saw their fathers cry. The film told the true story of Piccolo and his best friend on and off the field, Gale Sayers. The two form a bond despite competing for the same position on the team and cement their friendship as Piccolo coaches Sayers back from an injury. James Caan as Brian Piccolo who was reportedly a much better athlete than Billy Dee Williams (as star running back Gale Sayers) — had to slow down significantly in scenes with Williams to make himself appear the lesser player. Though the film features great actual footage of the real Piccolo and Sayers, ultimately it is more about friendship and overcoming racial barriers to defy expectations.
7) Jim Thorpe–All American (1951)
Jim Thorpe was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for his home country. He was also an athlete extraordinaire winning medals in the pentathlon and decathlon and playing professional baseball, basketball, and football. He was also the first President of the American Professional Football Association, founded in 1920 which would become the NFL in 1922. This film which stars Burt Lancaster as Thorpe recounts his life story; most particularly his Olympic success and later tragedy when his medals are stripped on a technicality. The film features sequences where he plays collegiate and professional football, as well as ending on an upbeat note with him deciding to coach a group of young kids in the sport. It’s not a football film in the most traditional sense of the word, but it tells the story of an important figure in the sport’s history.
6) Trouble Along the Way (1953)
John Wayne who played football for the USC Trojans in his college days stars as a football coach, Steve Williams, of a small Catholic college trying to keep the school from going under by building up its football team. In his efforts to field a team able to compete against the likes of Notre Dame and Villanova, Williams becomes involved in a recruiting scandal that costs him his job. It’s a treat to see Wayne playing a football coach while he was such a fan of the sport himself. Donna Reed stars as Wayne’s love interest in a parallel plot involving divorce, a social worker, and his child. The film is largely forgotten today but it’s a nice tale of redemption and the role of sports and football in American universities.
5) Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
Today, this film has been overshadowed by Ronald Reagan’s second act as a politician and Airplane! (1980)’s spoof of the film’s immortal line “Tell ‘em to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper!” The famous quote has since been named one of AFI’s Top 100 Movie Quotes. Reagan even later used the line as a political slogan. The film tells the real-life story of Knute Rockne (Pat O’Brien) who rises to become the head coach of Notre Dame football in the 1920s. During his time as head coach, Rockne develops innovative tactics in the sport (though the film plays fast and loose with facts) and encounters players like George Gipp (Ronald Reagan) who dies of a strep infection. The film credits Rockne with developing the forward pass and backfield shift while helping to elevate his legend as a football coach to mythical proportions. The real Rockne, a hero to Notre Dame fans died in a plane crash in 1931 and the film recounts this tragedy. It was praised upon release for its honest depiction of football and being one of the first films to show the deeper meaning of the sport to players, coaches, and fans.
4) Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Heaven Can Wait is written, directed, and starred by Warren Beatty. The film tells the story of Joe Pendleton, a Los Angeles Rams quarterback primed to lead his team to the Super Bowl when he is prematurely snatched to the afterlife by an overzealous angel. He returns to earth in the body of a murdered millionaire deciding to buy the Rams and still help lead them to a Super Bowl victory. The film was based on Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), in which the main character was a boxer, but Beatty altered it to feature football when he took the role-playing to his own strengths as a collegiate athlete. The film is a particular delight to watch now, with the first football season the Rams have played in Los Angeles since 1994. It features real professional football players in cameo roles, and the film’s fictitious Super Bowl was filmed during halftime of a Rams/Chargers pre-season game in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1977. It’s a heartwarming tale of redemption and second chances all told through the lens of professional football in the City of Angels.
3) The Longest Yard (1974)
In an unusual twist on the football film genre, The Longest Yard doesn’t showcase a professional or college game, but a different type of gridiron battle altogether. Burt Reynolds stars as Paul Crewe, a former professional quarterback serving time who leads a team of inmates in a game against their prison guards. The film uses football as a platform to explore themes of loyalty, prison brutality, and redemption. It won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy in 1975. The film is considered a favorite by many sports fans, so much so that it has been remade three times, including once with the same name and featuring Burt Reynolds in a supporting role. Many members of the cast played either college or professional football. The movie was celebrated for capturing the brutality of football in a realistic way and using it to discuss wider issues. It was also notable for shooting on location at Georgia State Prison with some inmates appearing as extras and Reynolds making a point to eat lunch with and befriend many of them.
2) The Freshman (1925)
With this hilarious silent comedy, Harold Lloyd produced and starred in what many consider the first ever sports film. He created a timeless classic that defies the genre’s tropes of sweeping scores and inspirational fourth quarter speeches. Lloyd stars as Harold Lamb, a freshman determined to become the most popular guy on campus which he realizes is only achievable by joining the football team. Lamb who nicknames himself Speedy, is not football player material and joins the team as a tackling dummy and water boy. Injuries to starting players cause him to be put into action from the bench in the season-ending big game. Lamb leads his team to unlikely victory and achieves his dreams of romance and popularity. With the football sequences, Lloyd was able to showcase his signature brand of physical comedy throughout (despite playing a college freshman at the age of 35). The film made use of real USC football players and shot its final sequences in the Rose Bowl with the crowd shots coming from the 1924 “Big Game” between Cal and Stanford. It remains one of Lloyd’s most popular films and proves that a sports movie doesn’t have to be a tear-jerker to get to the heart of the game.
1) Horse Feathers (1932)
The Marx Brothers put their signature spin on America’s favorite sport with this tale of Huxley University President Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) and his attempts to win the big football game against rival Darwin University. He enlists the help of Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Baravelli (Chico Marx) mistaking them for professional football players in a speakeasy. When Wagstaff realizes his mistake he instructs Pinky and Baravelli to kidnap the real pros leading to a big game finale that is epic in its ridiculousness. The film is one of the few to feature all four Marx Brothers with Zeppo portraying Wagstaff’s son Frank. The final game showcases the clueless Harpo and Chico leading the team. The game features classic hilarious moments including Chico instructing the other team to move because his players will be running where they’re standing, the calling of plays via mangled nursery rhymes, and the final touchdown being scored in a horse-drawn garbage truck. The side-splitting climatic football game was named first on ESPN’s list of the “top 11 scenes in football movie history” and the film’s satirical take on college football and paid athletes is still strikingly relevant today. It may be more ridiculous and less directly about the game of football than other films on this list, but Horse Feathers captures many sides of the game in its comedic take on the sport.
So, get yourself one of these classics and be sure not to miss kick-off.