By: Erik Swift
The 2002 DVD version of Robert Aldrich’s “The Longest Yard” was a typical Paramount Pictures release: zero extras. Paramount’s new bonus-packed Lockdown Edition smartly capitalizes on the remake starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock that arrived in theaters on May 27. Unfortunately, that was a day after Eddie Albert passed away from Alzheimer’s-related pneumonia at 99. To anyone that knows Albert more for his portrayal of Warden Hazen in “The Longest Yard” than his tenure on “Green Acres” or Disney’s “Witch Mountain” series, it’s no surprise that the man behind the mean old invincible bastard Hazen lived that long. The character was an atypical performance on Albert’s resume of hundreds of film and TV parts that stretched to 1938 (and even earlier when including his appearance in the first television broadcast for RCA/NBC in 1936). To best describe Hazen’s insatiable desire to win, one only need look at the actor himself. A staunch environmentalist, Albert organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 – his birthday – where it’s been held every year since. Albert’s dedicated passion for the planet mirrors Hazen’s for the sport. Hazen eats, breathes and sleeps football, but his prison team’s five straight second-place finishes have him pissed.
Enter Paul “Wrecking” Crewe (Burt Reynolds). A washed-up pro quarterback, Crewe’s life is a mess, and he cares little about anything since being kicked out of the game for shaving points years earlier. His maverick attitude ends a relationship with a bitchy sugar mama and results in a high-speed chase with Florida law enforcement. After hysterically ditching them and her car to Lnynrd Sknynrd’s “Saturday Night Special,” he finds himself under Hazen’s watch for a reason. The warden is a 35mm George Steinbrenner, a man who will import whatever it takes to win. Desperate for a championship in the Sunshine State’s semi-pro football league, he feels Crewe can help…by coaching his team. The former MVP initially refuses but his stance changes when the reality of doing time sets in. Minus the spotlights and cushy lifestyle, Crewe is just another prisoner. Adjusting to this new standard of living isn’t easy, and his fellow inmates relish abusing and ridiculing Crewe even more than the guards led by Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter). Caving but not crawling, Crewe manages to convince Hazen that his team doesn’t need a coach but a practice game – against the inmates. The warden signs on, anticipating another opportunity to show the prison population who runs the show. The prisoners are cautious when Crewe starts recruiting, but a charming demeanor and a killer selling point (“You get to beat the shit out of the guards”) is irresistible. No one actually expects the rag-tag Mean Machine, as they come to be known, to win. That is what makes “The Longest Yard” fun: watching the little guy do anything it takes to top the bigs.
The 1974 film has attitude. Each cleat to the face on the gridiron and drop of sweat beading across every brow in the Southern swamp seeps into the film. Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”) shot on location at Georgia State Penitentiary, and his use of actual guards and inmates as extras adds to its bleakness. The director often helmed movies with huge male casts, frequently making his actors outshine sub par material; “The Longest Yard” is no different. A generic script by producer Albert S. Ruddy and Tracy Keenan Wynn has enough hooks to avoid tuning out, largely provided by Reynolds. His football background (he played at Florida State before the Baltimore Colts drafted him) elevates the wisecracking Crewe into one of his most natural roles. Reynolds convincingly looks like a QB, and surrounding him with pros gives “The Longest Yard” an aura of authenticity. The cast includes Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke (Bodaanski), LA Rams/ Pittsburgh Steelers alum Mike Henry (Rasmussen), Minnesota Viking QB Joe Kapp (Walking Boss) and Pervis Atkins (Mawabe) – who had stints with the Rams, the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders. With these guys hammering Crewe, the prospect of beating the guards after the game’s first half becomes a daunting one.
The prisoners dislike Crewe, because he’s a guy who had it all and then pissed it away. Of the toughs, many are on the cusp of fame. Only Richard Kiel (Samson), soon to be Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” had memorably appeared in anything much of note, playing the Kanamit leader in “To Serve Man,” a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Michael Conrad (Nate Scarborough) would hit the jackpot in his final role on the inaugural seasons of “Hill Street Blues” while John Steadman (Pop) snared bigger old codger roles in “Gator” and “Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie.” Even Otis B. aka Sonny Shroyer (Enos from “The Dukes Of Hazzard”) is here as Tannen. Some actors continued being on Reynolds’ team, as Harry Caesar (Granville), Hells Angel Robert ‘Bob’ Tessier (Shokner, the prison’s badass), Dino Washington (Mason), Steadman and Henry would appear in other Reynolds flicks.
“The Longest Yard” can wear viewers down. It slows at points and the third act’s 47 minutes is entirely taken up by the football game, which is where Michael Luciano’s innovative editing glows (Justly awarded an Oscar nomination for his labor, he lost out to the father-and-son Kress team’s work on “The Towering Inferno,” a movie that should have had another hour hacked from it). It eventually gathers speed and evolves into an amusing comedy that both genders can appreciate. Guys, if she’s not cheering for Crewe on the final play, is she worth it?
The Lockdown Edition includes enough of a look at the remake to pique interest in the typically jaded. Even better: twenty minutes of funny, brief and tolerable docs (“Doing Time On The Longest Yard” and “Unleashing The Mean Machine”) are here, but these could have been combined. While the transfer looks OK, it was never regarded as a high-quality production when it was released. Over time its power grew, and the sportswriters that pepper the bonus features convey this well. The commentary from Ruddy and Reynolds is almost as much of a party as the film, which ultimately created a market for sports flicks. “Rocky,” “Slap Shot” and “North Dallas Forty” were on the horizon but Ruddy sums up the unexpected success of “The Longest Yard” best during the extras.
The Oscar-winning producer (“The Godfather,” “Million Dollar Baby”) says the script isn’t funny but “if you would have done that movie with a professional actor, God knows what would have happened to it.” While that’s true, it’s a hysterical statement considering Reynolds was coming off “Deliverance.” Al can’t rip on Reynolds so early in his career, either – not when you produce the “Cannonball Run” films. The actor is the linchpin of “The Longest Yard.” Subtracting his charismatic grin and witty delivery of lines others would botch make it doubtful it would have been remade in 2001 as “Mean Machine” and again this year. With that in mind, buying it on DVD can’t start elsewhere.