The Agony of Defeat: Four Falls of Buffalo (2015)



On January 3rd, 1993, the Buffalo Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 28 – 3 at halftime. I was 11 years old, and had gone to the Wild Card playoff game at Rich Stadium outside of Buffalo, NY with my father, uncle and grandfather. They were ready to pack it in and go home, to beat the traffic and avoid the humiliation of watching the end of a blowout defeat. There was no hope, what with franchise quarterback Jim Kelly on the bench with strained knee ligaments while his replacement Frank Reich scuffled. The opposing QB Warren Moon was calmly throwing lasers appropriate for his space age name, with his second TD pass going to one Webster Slaughter, and it certainly was. Better luck next year, we must have told ourselves, when Kelly would be healed and the team that went to back-to-back Super Bowls in ’91 and ’92 returned to full speed (their offense was based around the no-huddle, up-tempo offense). But I wanted to stay to the bitter end. I savored sitting on those aluminum benches, with my Bills Starter Jacket pulled over orange overalls, pinioned in between my beer-bellied family. It was 34 degrees but I was warm, there was still time to cheer and yell and let oneself go.

So we stayed, and a miracle happened. The Oilers went up 35-3 early in the 3rd Quarter, and then the Bills preposterously kept scoring, over and over again, until they pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history, winning 41-38. It was a dream but I was there in my seat, it was impossible but there it was, right in front of me. The Bills would lose the ensuing championship, of course, as they would the following year as well, an unprecedented four-year feat of Super Bowl failure.These years are captured in all their depressing grandeur in the latest documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, Four Falls of Buffalo. 


October 4, 2014
David Kalat
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Ode to Strats; or How I Learned to Stop Being a Jerk and Love Sports Movies

I used to have a chip on my shoulder about sports movies. Actually, more properly stated, I used to have a chip on my shoulder about sports in general, and sports movies were just a subset of that entire category of human activity that I disdained. As a kid, I wasn’t athletic—I have joked I was an avid indoorsman. It wasn’t that much of a joke.

And as sports movies go, Hoosiers was my go-to case study, the exemplar of exemplars, Patient Zero. The 1986 film is a perfect conglomeration of sports movie clichés: the down and out kids who find self-confidence as a team, the star player who needs to learn the meaning of “team,” the washed-up has-been coach struggling for redemption, the game that comes to mean Everything in the World to the main characters, who have no shot at winning it until they do… I remember reading a review (in Newsweek, I think?) when it first came out that dismayed at how predictable and routine the story beats were.

For a time, back in the early 1990s, I taught a screenwriting class in Bloomington, Indiana. I was a terrible teacher. I think I crushed the spirit of everyone foolish enough to sign up for the class—the only thing I focused on was teaching Syd Field’s three-act structure and how to properly format your scripts. As if people who signed up for an extended learning program through a community arts organization in Bloomington, Indiana wanted to learn how to sell their scripts to Hollywood agents, rather than just have a rewarding creative writing class. Well, anyway, I used Hoosiers as a case study in story structure, because its status as a generic formula picture in the most formulaic of genres meant it wore its structure very obviously on the surface and was therefore easy to dissect.


KEYWORDS: Hoosiers

Pigskin Addicts: College Coach (1933) and Easy Living (1949)



Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.


Pigskin Psychology: Semi-Tough (1977)


The NFL regular season begins this Thursday night when the defending champion Baltimore Ravens face the Denver Broncos. It has been a tumultuous offseason for the National Football League, as they battled a lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-players seeking liability payments for the long-term health effects of head trauma. Last week the league settled the suit, paying $765 million, a small price to pay for an organization that brings in $10 billion in yearly revenue. While that will temporarily quiet the calls for wider reform, the investigative PBS program Frontline will air “League of Denial” in October, which promises to show how the NFL “covered up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players.” ESPN was originally a co-presenter, but backed out after receiving pressure from the NFL.

Hollywood has yet to catch up with these unsavory developments, still grinding out a cycle of post-Blind Side inspirational football dramas. It’s way past due for another dig in the dirt like North Dallas Forty (1979) or at least the amiable satire of Michael Ritchie’s Semi-Tough(1977), which is streaming on VUDU. North Dallas Forty was recently named the greatest football movie ever by, although it was denied the league’s cooperation on its initial release. Now it’s pill-popping wide receiver is feted on the league’s website. Semi-Tough has not been so rehabilitated. Michael Ritchie’s follow-up to The Bad News Bears, it focuses less on the violence of the sport than its megalomaniacal personalities.


Something Tough: Body And Soul and Force Of Evil

(L-R) Abraham Polonsky, George Barnes, Jack Warren (?) and John Garfield on the set of Force of Evil

“According to materials contained in the PCA [Production Code Administration] files in the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to ‘the completely anti-social basic theme of this story, which presents wrong as right and right as wrong, in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Production Code.’” -Force of Evil entry, American Film Institute Catalog

In 1946, John Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers expired. Instead of re-signing, or moving to another studio, Garfield signed on with the independent Enterprise Productions. Bringing together a group of artists who were communists, or communist sympathizers, Enterprise made an inflammatory group of nine films before folding, after which many of its members were blacklisted, including directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. Two of their features, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), respectively, ended up in the Republic Pictures library, and are being released today on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, in strong transfers. Garfield was eager to make a statement with Enterprise, telling PM Magazine in this period that:

I want to make pictures with a point – I know I gotta continue to appear in pictures like Postman [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946]. I know I gotta retain my position of value at the box office, but I also want to be available in between for the kind of picture that’s harder to do but may turn out to be more interesting. Maybe in the next few years I’ll make so many mistakes I’ll kill my career. I can afford the chance. There’s fear in Hollywood about tackling dangerous subjects, difficult subjects. I feel I owe it to myself to be available when some enterprising people want to try something tough.


Winning Isn’t Everything: A Sports Movie Symposium

Robert Redford & Camilla Sparv in DOWNHILL RACER (1969)

This week millions of viewers will tune in to watch the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London so I thought it would be a good time to discuss sports movies here at the Movie Morlocks. To be frank, I’m not a big sports fan. I don’t watch or follow any sport but I can still appreciate a good sports film.


How about a “big screen” tennis biography?

It was over 5 years ago that I wrote on these pages about my other passion and its relation to this one, and referred to an ‘essay’ that I’d written on the topic for my site. (The article is really just a compilation of movies that contain at least one scene – or even a glimpse – of my favorite sport “in action”). Since then, I’ve added dozens of additional “tennis-related” films – some foreign but mostly domestic – the most recent being the seventieth title added to the list: last year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist (2011), which has a brief scene featuring Bérénice Bejo on a tennis court, coming to the net to shake hands after a mixed doubles match.

Fall Classics

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a preposterously entertaining postseason, with major upsets and wild finishes happening almost every night. As I typed that, Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam, the first in playoff history, to give the Rangers a victory over the Tigers in the ALCS. Even better for MLB’s image (if not the ratings) is the success of small market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers, the latter of which has surged into the National League Championship Series, quieting the yearly calls for an NFL-style salary cap. With that and the cheap-team strategizing of Moneyball still in theaters, I thought I’d highlight two scrappy low-budget baseball movies which deserve more attention (read: a home video release): It Happened in Flatbush (1942) and Big Leaguer (1953).


Polo, Anyone?

Quick! What could bring the talented, the powerful and the famous together in studio era Hollywood? Not a movie. Not a premiere. And not a high stakes poker game, though plenty of those went on regularly. What brought the likes of Jimmy Gleason, Walter Wanger, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Walt DisneyPaul Kelly, Frank Borzage, Johnny Mack Brown, Hal Roach, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, George O’Brien, Darryl F. Zanuck and even Joan Crawford together in the same places week after week when their work was done?


Sports Movies and the Oscar “shutout”

As noted earlier this month in the Personal Journal section of the WSJ, there haven’t been very many sports-related movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  While the sport of boxing has received the most attention from the Academy, only two other sports have had more than a single nominee among the year’s best over its 82 year history:  America’s former and current pastimes – baseball and football, respectively.  Last year’s dramatization of football’s Michael Oher story – The Blind Side (2009) – just received a nomination, but was likely aided by Sandra Bullock’s performance (and nomination for Best Actress) and the fact that AMPAS increased the number of nominees from 5 to 10 for the first time since 1943, when Casablanca (1942) won.

During the Academy’s tenure, only 14 of 479 (less than 3%) nominees for Best Picture – arguably its most vaunted, certainly its most remembered and discussed if not always most acclaimed category – have been sports-related movies despite the inherent drama in stories like that of Jim Braddock (Cinderella Man (2005)), which failed to earn a BP nomination.  One can only speculate whether The Champ (1931) – one of eight nominees for the top award that year, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and even The Pride of the Yankees (1942) would have been nominated if the Academy had limited the category to 5 nominees, as it did from 1944 through 2008.


But a more interesting question might be:  which sports movies “woulda, coulda, shoulda” been contenders if there had been 10 Best Picture nominees in their respective years?


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