Writing about the Giants’s victory over Dallas yesterday, the New York Times‘s Joe Lapointe makes knowing reference to North Dallas Forty, the former Cowboys quarterback Peter Gent’s autobiographical 1973 novel. Sound of the City has never read that book, but we much admire the 1979 film adaptation by journeyman director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s). In it, Nick Nolte plays Phil Elliott, a wide receiver for the fictional North Dallas Bulldogs (a legal necessity, since the NFL was none too happy about the book or the movie). After six seasons as a starter, Elliott has been benched, not because he’s lost his touch—he is in fact said to have the best hands in the game—but because he has a bad attitude, refusing to play along with organizational politics, despite the repeated advice of his go-along-to-get-along quarterback and best friend, Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis).
It’s been widely noted that North Dallas Forty is a thematic precursor to Any Given Sunday (1999), Oliver Stone’s look at the corporate bean counters who now run professional football. Berating his players during a strategy session, Bulldogs Head Coach B.A. Strathers points to his Tandy and reminds them that “no one of you is as good as that computer.” And yet for all its prescience about the boring, clean-cut direction in which American professional sports were headed, North Dallas Forty is firmly rooted in the aesthetics of its post-Vietnam/Watergate era. Awkwardly edited, unevenly acted, and yet frequently very funny and revelatory, North Dallas Forty is a testament to the shaggy dog ethos that made the 1970s Hollywood’s final golden age. Fittingly—given what was to inevitably come—it’s a story about the impossibility of beating a rigged system.—Benjamin Strong