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Notre Dame’s coach with the most gets the biopic treatment

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the Super Bowl happening on Sunday, we’ve lined up a week of movies about football and its fans.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940)

Few sports outfits, college or professional, are mythologized to quite the same degree as Notre Dame football, which has inspired at least two films that treat the institution itself with the same hushed admiration afforded the players and coaches. At this point, the 1993 underdog story Rudy is probably the better known of the two, but decades earlier, Knute Rockne, All American crammed a lot of college football history into a trim 98-minute film.


As reverential as Rudy is of the school, Knute Rockne goes way beyond mere respect: So patriotic is the film’s approach to the real Notre Dame player and coach that it starts with his family in Norway extolling the virtues of America. Mere scenes later, young Knute will immigrate and discover “the most wonderful game,” as he breathlessly reports to his parents, in one of many lines that sound like biopic boilerplate. For Knute Rockne, dialogue is as much a shorthand as spinning newspaper headlines, covering plot points like Rockne’s use of the forward pass as a driving offensive method (“If that works, it’ll make history!”) as well as his personal journey (“I’m at what you might call a crossroads”).

This may make Knute Rockne sound square—and as filmmaking, it’s not exactly galvanizing. But the film is instructive, and even unusual, in how it follows the entire life of a football coach. Modern sports movies often stress the coach’s underdog appeal, and how they inspire a particular group of athletes at just the right moment. By contrast, Rockne (played by Pat O’Brien) doesn’t use a climactic locker-room speech as an opportunity to tell them about their shot at immortality. Quite the opposite: “Five years from now, the public will have forgotten the best of you,” he says, and O’Brien makes this sound more sensible than insulting.


The movie, despite its reverence, is pretty sensible, too. Its structure is actually quite strange for a narrative feature, in that there isn’t much of a driving conflict in Rockne’s life. Instead, the story proceeds episodically, and it might drag if not for the brisk, efficient pace and O’Brien’s matching performance. He seems to talk about twice as fast as anyone else in the movie, and when he speaks to his players, his rapid-fire delivery changes rhythm to take on oratorical qualities. The movie’s second most famous real-life character, football star George Gipp (played by its most now-famous actor, a young Ronald Reagan), doesn’t actually get much screen time. He’s another figure from Rockne’s life, there primarily to inspire the movie’s most famous speech (memorably parodied 40 years later in Airplane!). Knute Rockne, All American doesn’t defy genre, nor will it necessarily appeal to anyone who dislikes football or Notre Dame. But as a study of what a coach can do beyond just win that one big game, it often mythologizes the right stuff.

Availability: Knute Rockne, All American is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.