It was the mustache. With it, Burt Reynolds as Paul Crewe (before entering prison) exuded a cool detachment toward life that defined his character perfectly. He was a former football player, utterly defeated by a nasty play he made toward his teammates, in shaving points off a game, presumably for a good, rich sum of money. But it was also director Robert Aldrich. Aldrich, the director of “The Dirty Dozen”, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, “Emperor of the North”, and other treatises on the brutality of humankind toward each other, created Paul Crewe just as much as Reynolds did. Crewe lives, but hardly seems to breathe anymore. He’s shacked up with a crude figure of a woman; one that Aldrich takes pleasure in seeing in a close-up shot that opens up all her failures, her face notwithstanding. She’s the standard ruthless rich bitch who “keeps” Crewe much like one would keep a dog, though a dog is usually treated better. He walks out on her, taking her Maserati with him, and speeds through the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots with the cops on his rear in a most satisfying car chase.
Soon, the real focus swims into play, that of prison and what it does to men. There’s no argument that men shouldn’t be in prison. Aldrich doesn’t care about that. His real interest is in exploring the dynamic between guard and prisoner, and in turn, continues the career that made his movies great. He was tough, unyielding in his portrayals of those battling each other for whatever drove them. In the case of “The Longest Yard”, the warden (Eddie Albert) initially wants Crewe to coach his band of guards so that they play their toughest in a league where he hopes to put the national trophy on his mantle. Albert, far away from his “Green Acres” persona, plays this in such a way that he really will be deservedly remembered for his work. Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter) pegs him as just growing older behind that desk, but there’s such an understated nastiness to his character. He wants what he wants and he’ll try to get it, no matter who gets badly injured and who’s involved in getting it.
Instead, the warden decides on a better idea: prisoners against the guards. And Crewe has four weeks to find a bunch who are willing to play football and learn enough about the game to play it well. Of course, that’s not the warden’s call, but Crewe figures these people need to learn at least something so it doesn’t turn into a Keystone Kops sketch, though there is a hilarious bit between Crewe and another prisoner in the swamp, sticking mud in each other’s boots, in scenes where Crewe learns about life with bars. Soon, he gathers a good crowd, many tough types, including Richard Kiel before his days as Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker”. He also keeps good friendship in the way of Caretaker (James Hampton), the top hustler in the prison who can get absolutely anything they need, even when it involves a brief 15 minutes between Crewe and the warden’s secretary (Bernadette Peters), whose hair looks like an ancestor of Marge Simpson, though producer Albert S. Ruddy in the commentary says that that’s the way a lot of women wore their hair back then: “15 cans of spray…”
With the climactic football game, as well as many other scenes in the movie, Aldrich doesn’t only reserve the close-up shot for that woman at the beginning. In using it, he makes these characters even more alive. They’ve got a desire to win, each side of the game does. They’ve got racism in their blood, and for a guard like Captain Knauer, brutality in his body. He’s stupid, yet merciless. In this way, Aldrich heightens the reality of “The Longest Yard”, making us feel even more for the prisoners, even when our thoughts of morality are questioned. Who’s worse in this situation? Some of these prisoners murdered other people. Should we be siding with them? Yet, the guards are downright scary at times. Only their fists and clubs seem to connect with their brains. Then there are guys like Caretaker, whose reason for being in prison is not known, yet it doesn’t seem to matter. So take it as you like in any form, but sometimes, there’s just a need for a really great game of football. And Aldrich delivers it, with split-screens, with determined plays, and an awesome group of other football players and actors who turn 40 minutes of playing time into genuine, scream-out-loud excitement.
Now, perhaps because of the new one, “The Longest Yard” has gotten new respectable treatment on DVD. Albert S. Ruddy and Burt Reynolds sit down for an audio commentary and muse about all aspects of the filming. Reynolds points out the football players, as well as the plays, while Ruddy claims this as a film that he felt was more rewarding than “The Godfather”. They even compare certain aspects of the movie from all those years ago to today. Back then, people had applauded the moment where Crewe slaps the woman. No doubt that Courtney Cox-Arquette remained unharmed in the new one. More crucially than any of that is how Ruddy and Reynolds speak about Aldrich in such a way that it’s as if he’s sitting there right along with them. We get such a full picture as to what Aldrich was like on the set and how dedicated he was toward the movie, how disappointed he was that the end of the movie didn’t turn out as he had hoped, his idea rejected by Ruddy. Obviously dead directors can’t speak for themselves, but Ruddy and Reynolds do proper justice toward Aldrich, one of my favorite directors. Unfortunately, Ruddy, either strategically or honestly, forgets to finish a story about how he got the movie back on track when it was cancelled by the head of Paramount three weeks before production. Great value lost.
Two featurettes, “Doing Time on the Longest Yard” and “Unleashing the Mean Machine” give further insight not only from Reynolds and Ruddy but also from James Hampton as well as a few sportswriters. One, Bill Simmons of ESPN Magazine and ESPN.com, speaks about film in such an offensive manner, rejecting most of Reynolds’ work in favor of “The Longest Yard”. The man is certainly allowed his opinion, but when a statement comes up like, “Deliverance was good, but kind of humorless,” he’s lost his right to speak. Of course “Deliverance” was supposed to be humorless! Being raped in the a*s by a depraved redneck isn’t funny. He also questions whether the reaction shots by Eddie Albert during the game were looped. Buddy, they were different reaction shots, and Aldrich would never be that lazy. In “Unleashing the Mean Machine”, Simmons even admits that he couldn’t accept Reynolds playing Nate Scarboro in the new version and he felt his reality was turned upside down. Uh, yeah. It’s only just a movie and now that the original’s fresh on DVD again, he can certainly relive Reynolds as Crewe day in and day out. Simmons looks too young to understand, however. Excepting those uncomfortable moments, everything’s covered properly to a tee. Capping off a happily wonderful disc, extra promise lies in the “Previews” where there’s a trailer for the “Tommy Boy: Holy Schnike 2-Disc Edition” coming soon. The more Chris Farley, the better. So not only does “The Longest Yard” deliver a fine mix of comedy and Aldrich-fueled violence, but it’s fortunate enough that the DVD reveals exciting news for the future.