The outline of Robert Aldrich’s 1974 gridiron opus “The Longest Yard” is rooted to the traditional Cinderella sports narrative, where a motley crew bands together to usurp the established favorites. And yet, Aldrich’s film fuzzes that basic concept by setting it not in a high school or at a university or in any kind of professional league but in prison. The game is a talented semi-pro squad comprised of prison guards squaring off against a ragtag team of prisoners. That alone, however, would simply be a little twist to the formula. Aldrich is not content. He blurs the lines between those who have been sent up and those keeping them in line, transforming the showdown on the football field into a legalized prison uprising.
The uprising is inspired by Paul “Wrecking” Crewe (Burt Reynolds), a one-time NFL quarterback whose glory days have vanished into a haze of booze on account of a point shaving scandal, now locked up for drunk driving and resisting arrest. The Warden (Eddie Albert), who oversees the semi-pro team, recruits Crewe to field a squad to give the prison guards a real game, a tune-up in advance of their actual league’s showdown. When Crewe balks, the Warden promises to keep Crewe’s sentence light, so Crewe relents, enlisting The Caretaker (James Hampton), sort of the Red Redding of the prison, go about sculpting their Mean Machine.
As Crewe, Reynolds, who really did play football at Florida State, and who in the mid-70s was at the height of his movie stardom, carries himself with cool aplomb, a leader, some platitudinal sports profile might say, by example rather than words. His example is born from his growing indignation with the Warden and the Warden’s requisitely sadistic Captain (Ed Lauter), who also captains the semi-pro team. That indignation brought home most acutely in the terrible fate of The Caretaker, a brutally violent moment that you couldn’t get away with in a mainstream film these days. It’s a gutting reminder of the harshness of prison life, and more reminders than you might think work to shatter this fantasy.
Crewe’s getting back into the game re-triggers his love for it, as it must, and yet the film is conspicuously short of any sort of genuine redemption for his character, by which I also mean the movie is conspicuously short of any sort of reformation, for Crewe or anyone else, a subtle indictment of a prison’s purpose even amidst so much prison yard noise. The Mean Machine is the obligatory underdog, but that doesn’t mean they are misunderstood. No, they are bad dudes, every one, illustrated by Crewe reading aloud their offenses, most of which are outright terrifying, and sort of communicating an incredulousness and an acceptance all at once. Incredulous, because the crap he reads is terrifying; acceptance, because he needs these guys to win the game.
That the Mean Machine wins is foregone, duh, but the game itself, which takes up something like forty minutes of screen time, an eternity especially by today’s run & gun standards, is really something to see. Aldrich’s camera gets in there close, right up on the field, but, in the pre-shaky cam era, all the action is easy to make out, including the brute physicality. Scores are settled, limbs are broken, blood is spilled. There was a referee, I guess, but he (they?) seemed distant, pointless, just there to keep time. The game itself hinges on Crewe attempting to throw it to stay in the good graces of the Warden, only to eventually have a change of heart and lead the comeback.
The Warden, up there in his private set of bleachers, with only a flunky in tow, is a little like Jerry Jones, or Tex Schramm since this is 1974, the owner of not just his precious semi-pro team but of the prison too, wielding authority. “I want every prisoner in this institution to know what I mean by power,” he says, “and who controls it.” Of course, in eventually going back on his promises to the Warden and helping the Mean Machine win, Crewe is going after that power. No doubt it is not what Aldrich intended, yet watching it the idea of the little power that professional football players hold in relation to their owners cannot help but drift to the surface anyway.
There is a great moment when Crewe approaches the black prisoners to ask if they want to play and they pointedly dismiss this notion, saying they no longer play for honkys, which I couldn’t help but imagine as a future battle cry in the National Football League, where its players realize the power they hold over their ultra-rich owners and command an uprising of their own.