The Longest Yard

Before teaming up for the 1974 football/ prison comedy The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds and Robert Aldrich primarily made tough movies about tough men, though offscreen, Reynolds had already become famous for his high-pitched giggle and couldn't-give-a-shit attitude. The movie doesn't waste a lot of time on setup: Aldrich and screenwriters Albert S. Ruddy and Tracy Keenan Wynn introduce Reynolds with a scene of him pushing a shrewish girlfriend around, followed by a car chase with the police, then a bar fight. Ten minutes into the story, Reynolds is in prison, and officious, American-flag-lapel-pin-sporting warden Eddie Albert is explaining the film's premise. Albert runs a guard-staffed semi-pro football team, and wants Reynolds to coach and quarterback. Instead, Reynolds puts together a team of prisoners to give the guards a warm-up game, and through that team's gradual assembly, the movie reveals Reynolds' character, as well as his past as a former NFL MVP disgraced in a point-shaving scandal.

Football aside, The Longest Yard draws mainly from Aldrich's own The Dirty Dozen, plus existential prison pictures like Cool Hand Luke and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, where aloof anti-heroes gets punished beyond what their crimes demand. Reynolds takes on a game he can't win (because the guards will make his stint miserable if he does), and can't lose (because his fellow inmates will treat him even worse than the guards). The movie winds up being about small victories. Who can exploit whom, and who can inflict the most damage along the way?

The Longest Yard's Kafka-esque undertones didn't keep it from becoming a box-office smash and ABC Movie Of The Week perennial. More people remember Reynolds driving one badass Maserati than remember what a bully he can be. On the DVD commentary track, Reynolds sounds remarkably loose, quoting Charles Nelson Reilly and complaining about Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday. ("I'm not a fan of camera moves," he grumbles. "Set the camera down and let the actors act.") During the hour of football that closes the movie, Reynolds praises the late Aldrich for his non-splashy use of split-screens to squeeze as much action as possible into a limited space. And because Aldrich let his cast improvise a lot of the plays, Reynolds narrates his final "longest yard" run with a mixture of pride and awe, sounding for all the world like one of the characters in the movie, escaping a prison not entirely of his own making with a few hours of freedom on the football field.

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