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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 31, 2018: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s)

[Each of the last six years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I’ve decided to focus on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your responses and nominees in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’s sure to take home the championship!]
On what the changes between an original film and its remake can tell us about American narratives.
I’m not going to try to make the case for the original The Longest Yard (1974) as some sort of American classic, but it does offer a pretty gritty and realistic depiction of prison life and community amidst its more comic moments and its lovable underdogs sports story. The film’s sadistic Warden Rudolph Hazen, played to sleazy perfection by Eddie Albert, could be transplanted without much revision to a more overtly realistic contemporary film such as Cool Hand Luke (1967). And as the disgraced football star turned convict, Burt Reynolds feels precisely as flawed and frustrating yet ultimately heroic as Paul Newman in that film or Jack Nicholson in the following year’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). So you know what, maybe I am making the case for Longest Yard as a minor American classic, perhaps not quite on par with those contemporary films or another like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), but in the conversation at least.
It will likely come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Adam Sandler’s film oeuvre that the 2005 Longest Yard remake, starring Sandler in the Reynolds role and James Cromwell as the Warden (among many other celebrity roles), is not a classic, minor or otherwise. While I try not to sum up entire works with one moment or detail, I’d say this one qualifies: in the original film, the climactic game between the prisoners and guards was a brutally realistic grudge-fest, with lives and futures on the line; in the remake, that’s ostensibly still the case, but at one point Sandler’s quarterback gives one of the guards a wet willy. I can’t say it any more clearly than does the Wikipedia entry on the remake and its critical reception: “the greatest complaint from critics was that it replaced the original’s dark comedy and grit with juvenile humor and visual gags.” Since “juvenile humor and visual gags” is what you’ll find if you look up “Adam Sandler” in the dictionary, it’s fair to say that his presence had a lot to do with that change; but I would also argue that the two films reflect a significant difference in our national narratives about prison.
In this post on Dog Day Afternoon, I wrote about the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion, and the way those prominent and controversial events foregrounded issues of prisoner treatment and life in this easily overlooked American community. Popular and influential films like Luke and Yard likewise reflect the presence of those issues in the era’s collective conversations. In the 21st century, on the other hand, we tend not to think about our prisons and their communities at all; when we do, as John Oliver highlights in this brilliant piece, it’s mostly as fodder for jokes about prison rape (perhaps the least appropriate subject for jokes imaginable) or as the subject of melodramatic entertainments like Oz and Orange is the New Black. So if the remake is set in the same community that was the subject of those gritty, socially realistic earlier films but is instead full of dumb jokes and silly entertainments untethered from reality (which are the variant definitions of “Adam Sandler”), that would seem to be a pretty accurate depiction of the way we now engage with prison, when we engage with it at all.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

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