Written by Peter Gent, who played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 until 1969, North Dallas Forty is widely considered an expose on the well-covered-up party-hard lifestyle of the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s as well as the NFL’s use of drugs to keep players playing through injuries.
As the film progresses, we see the coaches abuse the players, the players rebel in their way, and the destructive culture of these teams which made these men both predators and victims at the same time. It was an eye opening film because of this, and nothing that has come since has been anywhere near as damning.
Indeed, consider Any Given Sunday. Any Given Sunday is Oliver Stone’s expose on the NFL. But nothing he presents in that film is even close to being as damning as what you see in North Dallas Forty. The reason is that everything Stone purports to tell you is already widely known. Moreover, rather than focus on something specific, Stone tosses every cliché he can find at you and then builds his entire film around the not-shocking idea that everyone uses everyone else... an idea he does to such excess that it’s just not believable. Indeed, in Any Given Sunday, the characters are openly evil. No one is innocent. They hate each other. They spew anger. They talk about taking each other’s jobs, they plot against each other, and they interfere with each other’s careers. The conflicts are cartoonish. The abuses excessive. And yet, there seem to be no genuine stakes; when its all over, everyone is better off than they were when they started.
Elliot: “He’s here to remind us that the meanest and the biggest get to make all the rules.”By comparison, Any Given Sunday is packed with prima-donna athlete stereotypes: narcissists who work out 24/7, who are incapable of uttering a non-football thought, and for whom the violence of the game has bled into their lives. And they do nothing but exist against this backdrop.
Charlotte: “I don’t agree with that.”
Elliot: “Agreement doesn’t enter into it.”
Where North Dallas Forty does fail in my opinion is that its punch isn’t strong enough. Unfortunately, this is part of the era from which it was made. The 1970s just weren’t a time when films could get as cynical and dark as they can today, so their punch was limited. So what happens here is about as strong as the film could be made. But it would have been better to see a greater impact on Nolte. Nolte should have been shown losing something more dear to him. As it is, he is essentially fired from a game he can no longer play and which he isn’t even sure he wants to play anymore. It would have been better perhaps to make Nolte desperate to win a championship, only to have that stripped from him for getting a conscience. It would have been a darker ending, but a stronger one.