For Nick Nolte’s 80th birthday, rediscover “North Dallas Forty”, a sports drama released in 1979, a denunciation of the state of American football in the 1970s, caught between the fires of doping and player marketing.
If the world of American football doesn’t interest you more than that, great, because North Dallas Forty is not a sports movie. Rather, he endeavors to present to the general public for the first time the excesses of American football which, behind the scenes, is made up of doping and exchanges of players by people who consider professional American football more as a commercial enterprise than a sport.
The film is unfortunately only available on Amazon Prime Video US or on DVD and Blu-ray.
Inspired by a True Story
It all starts with a novel written in 1973 by Peter Gent, former receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, which tells in a semi-autobiography behind the scenes of the life of an American footballer. A hot topic since in 1974, some players went on strike to demand their right to veto transfers and their right to independence once their contract expired. Produced by Paramount, the film was shot 5 years later and adapted from the book by Gent, who was also hired to write the screenplay.
Gent co-signs the script with the director of the film, Ted Kotcheff, then future director of Rambo, who hires Nick Nolte. The latter is gaining weight for the role of this aging footballer, encouraged by the NFL (the American football league) to consume painkillers to be able to continue playing. In 2014, Ted Kotcheff told us, about the film:
When I was offered to make a film on American football, I said “Bah! I don’t want to do that …”, then the producer of Paramount, whom I knew, told me that it was not it wasn’t a movie about sports, but about athletes being manipulated by rich people, who use them by lying to them. (…) I really enjoyed doing it.
North Dallas Forty is indeed a film against the NFL, in particular the mutation which was taking place since the beginning of the 70s, transforming the sport into an industry influenced by the impersonal management of the players to increase the profit (the character of Nolte is constantly threatened with a transfer against which he would have no recourse) and gangrened by the use of drugs. The film also denounces the little protective equipment of the players, leading to the multiplication of injuries and indirectly, the need to take painkillers.
Still too little known, North Dallas Forty is part of the New Hollywood movement, by centering his remarks on an anti-hero crushed by a system presented as absurd and destructive. The film sounds at the time like a cry of resistance summed up by a line said by one of the members of the team (played by John Matuszak alias Sinok in The Goonies and former football player):
“For you, this is just a business, but for us, it must still be sport.”