North Dallas Forty (1979) is the best football movie no one at The Great American Rivalry Series has seen, except for CEO and Series Founder, Rick Ford. I consider myself a movie expert, but I’d never even heard of this film that the preeminent expert on football around here said was his favorite football movie of all time. So, for this very reason, I was intrigued.
North Dallas Forty is a product of its time. But it’s a fascinating product of its time. The main character is Phil Elliot, played by a great Nick Nolte. Phil is beaten down. He’s aging, his body quicker than his years would suggest. He needs pain pills and injections to get through the rigors of not just football but daily life.
North Dallas Forty is based on a novel by real-life former NFL player Peter Gent, and the novel is actually much darker than the film. Where the film strongly suggests that Phil Elliot’s life will be full of mental and physical anguish thanks to the game he loves, the novel hits you in the face with it.
Maybe that’s what I appreciated most about the film. These men love this game and know what it is doing to them, but they chose to do it anyway. They choose to get injections and play through immense pain because they love the sport. And this concept is utterly fascinating. These men love this sport like someone in a codependent relationship. They NEED football, no matter the consequences.
It’s interesting to watch the film now in the context of where the NFL is today. In the film, players are essentially owned by the team with little to no rights. I can’t help but think of the recent strides in players’ rights when I watch it. It’s also difficult not to think of recent concussion protocol measures that have been put in place.
The NFL certainly still has work to do in modernizing what some see as a naturally barbaric game, but North Dallas Forty reminds us where the sport came from and where it is now.