Release Date(s)1974 (May 16, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
More than any other director in the history of cinema, Robert Aldrich had an uncanny knack for making films that fit comfortably within specific genres while simultaneously subverting the very nature of those genres. He often worked on multiple levels, offering popular entertainments that could simply be appreciated as such, but that also contained layers of bitter satire underneath their deceptively simple surfaces for those who wished to dig a little deeper. That’s why The Dirty Dozen was such a landmark in 1967, since it was a wildly enjoyable war movie, but one that also served as a blistering indictment of wartime morality. Seven years after the release of that film, Aldrich would deconstruct the sports movie genre in a similar fashion with the equally entertaining but no less savage The Longest Yard.
The Longest Yard was actually the brainchild of producer Albert S. Ruddy, who came up with the story idea and developed the script with writer Tracy Keenan Wynn. Yet he intuitively grasped how much that the material was a perfect match for Aldrich, who was always his first choice for director. It may have been an Albert S. Ruddy production, but it was a Robert Aldrich film from its very conception. The story revolves around Paul “Wrecking” Crewe (Burt Reynolds), a former NFL quarterback who was banned from the sport for shaving points. He’s lost his way since then, doing little more than mooching off of his wealthy girlfriend (Anitra Ford), and after going on a wild bender one night, he ends up sentenced to 18 months in a Georgia prison. There, he attracts the attention of Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert), who runs a semi-pro team with his prison guards led by their captain Knauer (Ed Lauter). Hazen wants Crewe to put together a team of prisoners to serve as fodder to hone the skills of his guards, and hopefully pave the way to a championship.
Crewe wants nothing more than to do his time, but after some unfriendly persuasion from Knauer, he assembles a team with himself as quarterback and fellow former NFL player Nate Scarborough (Michael Conrad) as coach. Initially, Crewe doesn’t take the assignment too seriously, but after one of the prisoners suffers at the hands of the system, beating the guards ends up becoming a matter of life and death. The Longest Yard co-stars an impressive roster of character actors as the prisoners, including James Hampton, John Steadman, Harry Caesar, Richard Kiel, Robert Tessier, and Charles Tyner. It also stars an equally impressive group of former NFL players, including Joe Kapp, Ray Nitschke, Mike Henry, Ernie Wheelwright, and Pervis Atkins. All that, plus Bernadette Peters in a beehive hairdo as the Warden’s secretary. (That’s just the icing on the cake.)
As that description should make clear, The Longest Yard bears more than a passing resemblance to The Dirty Dozen, with the military-industrial complex of the latter having been traded in for the prison-industrial complex instead. In both cases, the systems are inherently corrupt, and it takes those who exist at the fringes of society to stand up against them. Yet Aldrich being Aldrich, there’s an inherent perversity to the way that he establishes that conflict. The prisoners who became the heroes in The Dirty Dozen were all rapists and murderers who ended up “redeemed” in the eyes of the military brass by committing war crimes that were far more heinous than the crimes for which they were originally sentenced. There’s no such redemption in The Longest Yard, ironic or otherwise, but once again it’s a group of hardened criminals who become the protagonists. They end up gaining the sympathies of the audience despite who they are, not because of it. In Aldrich’s worldview, social hierarchies like the American justice system were so corrupt that even a group of degenerates would look like heroes in comparison.
That’s no less true of Paul Crewe than it is of any of the other prisoners. Other directors might have been tempted to guild the lily of audience sympathies by making the main character not necessarily deserve his fate, but Aldrich had no such qualms. Crewe starts out as someone who has intentionally debased the sport that had made him a star, and he’s fallen so low that he’s become nothing more than a leech on society, and a domestic abuser as well. Reynolds wasn’t entirely comfortable with the latter angle, but Aldrich correctly understood that Crewe needed to be established as someone who deserved to go to prison for his actions. Reynolds ended up trusting Aldrich, so he threw himself into all aspects of the role no matter how unsympathetic that they may have been. Of course, he was also trusting in the power of his own innate charisma, knowing full well that he could get away with things that other actors couldn’t. It’s difficult to imagine The Longest Yard working as well as it does without Reynolds as Crewe—a point that Adam Sandler proved decisively in 2005.
Of course, it’s equally difficult to imagine films like The Longest Yard working in any other era than the Seventies. The newfound artistic freedoms that were gained after the collapse of the Production Code Administration a decade earlier resulted in films that had an edge to them unlike anything that’s been seen since that time. That’s arguably both for good and for ill, since there’s not necessarily anything wrong with the fact that it’s now less acceptable to have domestic abusers as heroes. Still, The Longest Yard did lay the groundwork for many of the classic sports movies that followed during the Seventies, such as The Bad News Bears and Slapshot. The sharp edges of these films would end up being sanded off during the Eighties, when studios grew more timid and entertainment became more family-friendly. Yet no one could ever sand the edges off of Robert Aldrich, and so The Longest Yard stands as a testament to his extraordinary ability to work within the studio system while undercutting it at every opportunity. His career had its ups and its downs, but in cases like this, he was the right man at the right time.
Cinematographer Joseph Biroc shot The Longest Yard on 35 mm film using Mitchell BNCR cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a 4K scan of the original camera negative that was provided by Paramount Pictures, graded for High Dynamic Range in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Optically printed elements like the opening title sequence were obviously derived from secondary elements and look a bit softer and less detailed, but not drastically so in this case. The rest of the film is every bit as sharp and detailed as the stocks and lenses that Biroc used would allow, and it’s quite clean, too. There’s minimal remaining damage on display, and while there appears to have been some gentle noise reduction applied to some scenes to reduce it, that was done with a delicate touch. The grain looks natural for most of the film, and while it may have been softened at times by digital tools, it’s not really an issue at all—unlike some other recent Paramount titles, where grain has been problematic. The HDR grade provides heightened contrast, which gives everything a bit more pop than in SDR, and the colors are well-saturated without appearing revisionary. There’s little to complain about with this 4K presentation.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a solid mono track, with no noise and perhaps just a bit of distortion on some of the peaks. The overall fidelity and dynamics are limited by the source recordings, but Frank De Vol’s frequently raucous score still shines through.
Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Longest Yard is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as a slipcover that duplicates the artwork on the insert. The following extras are included:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini
- Audio Commentary by Burt Reynolds and Albert S. Ruddy
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini
- Audio Commentary by Burt Reynolds and Albert S. Ruddy
- Doing Time on The Longest Yard (SD – 11:38)
- Unleashing The Mean Machine (SD – 11:02)
- Trailer (HD – 4:04)
- Semi-Tough Trailer (SD – 2:11)
- Fuzz Trailer (SD – 2:59)
- Shamus Trailer (HD – 3:04)
- White Lightning Trailer (HD – 2:26)
- Hustle Trailer (HD – 3:14)
- Gator Trailer (SD – 1:09)
The first commentary track features Alain Silver and James Ursini, authors of What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films, and it was newly recorded for this release. Appropriately enough, they keep their focus on Aldrich, placing the film in context with his career, and noting how the success of The Dirty Dozen led to this assignment. They do acknowledge the fact that the film was still producer Albert S. Ruddy’s baby, and also spend some time on where it fit into the career of Burt Reynolds, but this is definitely an Aldrich-centric track—and there’s nothing wrong with that! They cover the political nature of his filmmaking, and the way that he expressed his dissatisfaction with systems and social structures. They note that most of his films were about either battles or games of one sort or another, and explore that theme in The Longest Yard. They also talk about some biographical details about Aldrich, like his own experiences playing football, and his blood relationship to the Rockefeller family (it’s easy to forget that Nelson A. Rockefeller was actually Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller). It’s a great track for Aldrich fans, and an excellent primer for anyone who isn’t yet (but should be).
The second commentary is an archival one that was originally recorded for the 2005 Paramount DVD release of The Longest Yard. It’s a much more relaxed and congenial track, with the two of them reminiscing about their experiences making the film. They talk about the other members of the cast and crew for the film, including working with Hal Needham to shoot the car chase that opens the film. Reynolds fell in love with the 1972 Citroën SM that he drove for the scene, which had incredible handling characteristics, and says that he bought one that he gave to Dinah Shore. As a lifelong Vikings fan, it’s also fun to hear Reynolds praising Joe Kapp; Reynolds says that Kapp threw a football like a dead duck, but all he did was win, and the two of them became lifelong friends while making the film. Fans of The Longest Yard and of Reynolds will have a lot of fun listening to this track.
Doing Time on The Longest Yard and Unleashing The Mean Machine were also originally included on the 2005 Paramount DVD. Doing Time on The Longest Yard is a brief look at the making of the picture, featuring interviews with Albert Ruddy, Burt Reynolds, and James Hampton, as well as sports writers Michael Silver (Sports Illustrated), Howard Balzer (USA Today), and Bill Simmons (ESPN). Ruddy explains how he came up with the story, and how he pitched it to Reynolds. Reynolds talks about working with Aldrich, and how he was uncomfortable with the violence against women—it was Aldrich who said that he’d be able to get away with it. Unleashing The Mean Machine includes interviews with the same group of filmmakers and writers, as well as with a few football players like Kassim Osgood, Tim Dwight, and Doug Flutie. It focuses more narrowly on the football playing in the film, especially on the real-life players in the cast like Joe Kapp and Ray Nitschke.
While the major studios these days are still a bit gun shy about releasing 4K versions of their catalogue titles, boutique labels like Kino Lorber have taken up the slack, and thankfully Paramount seems happy to license out titles that they don’t want to release themselves. As a result, we now have The Longest Yard on 4K Ultra HD, and that’s a cause for celebration. It’s the first Robert Aldrich title to reach the format, and hopefully it won’t be the last.
- Stephen Bjork