1974's THE LONGEST YARD is a little of both, while also playing as a gritty prison picture. It manages to be cerebral and physical. An audience pleaser and a more thoughtful exercise. A star vehicle and an ensemble piece. A riotously good time.
Burt Reynolds, whose star was approaching megawatt status by this time, plays Paul Crewe, former pro with a dubious legacy of throwing/fixing big games. After Crewe ends up in a penitentiary for stealing his girlfriend's Maserati and resisting arrest, one of his fellow inmates explains why he is so loathed by the other prisoners: "... you could have robbed banks, sold dope or stole your grandmother's ... but shaving points off of a football game, man that's un-
This includes the warden named Hazen (Eddie Albert), who is proud to have and is greatly impressed with his newest inmate. Hazen boasts multiple wins with his team of guards against those of other institutions. He eventually convinces Crewe to coach his selected fellow cons in a contest with the guards in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Director Robert Aldrich, known for many macho entertainments, really strikes the right tone with THE LONGEST YARD. His modulation of darker and lighter moments is very skillful, so as to never feel engineered. The movie is essentially a comedy, often very funny, but always has a more serious undercurrent. A tragic death occurs later in the film, but it is not as jarring as it might've been in a less consistent movie. The grim reality of prison life is the ideal backdrop for the film's larger observations on racism, self worth as defined by a game, and a general anti-establishment sentiment. Consider also when the film was produced.
Burt, a former semi-pro, has rarely been more appealing. His patented cocksure persona is perfect for the part of Crewe, but he does get to display some quieter moments here and there. He and his teammates (including Aldrich) really deliver the goods during the film's final 45 minutes, the big game. Even viewers who couldn't care less about football can enjoy it (similar to the climax in M*A*S*H). And unlike other sports films which are drenched in nostalgia and/or piety, THE LONGEST YARD presents the event for what it is: a dirty, unsentimental, barbaric contest of machismo played by a bunch of thugs. Like college and pro games. Ouch. Not something born out of or representing someone's religious faith, for example. This sort of honesty is refreshing (and sorely missed at the movies).