At the time of its release in 1974, Robert Aldrich’s version of The Longest Yard — a pretty standard football yarn set in a prison with guards pitted against inmates — had about it still something faintly “transgressive,” as the literary theorists say. True, the once subtextual sympathy for the prisoners in old-fashioned prison flicks had already become explicit in Cool Hand Luke seven years earlier, but the audience at least retained a folk memory of a time when it was imagined that prisoners were criminals and guards the representatives of society’s moral, legal, and honorable standards, instead of the other way round.
That can hardly be true any longer. Or so I judge from Peter Segal’s new remake of Aldrich’s movie, in which the setting is now so much a movie-prison that it makes The Shawshank Redemption look like San Quentin. Nearly 40 years on, the Southern penitentiary run by James Cromwell’s Warden Hazen remains virtually unchanged from the archetype of the racist Southern sheriff’s dime-store concentration camp bequeathed to us from Cool Hand Luke and dozens of movies since, including the original Longest Yard — from the “hot box” punishment cells to the corps of guards all blond, white as new-fallen snow and vicious sadists to a man.
Although there may be no more such prisons in real life, we expect no less from movie prisons. Today we would be as shocked by a warden who was not corrupt and guards who were not sadistic and racist as people once were, presumably, by the idea that they were, or might be. And how could today’s movie audience begin to understand a world in which convicts were not, though often rough customers, more sinned against than sinning? How could they be anything other than what we have grown used to their being: a colorful collection of authentic ethnics and sad social misfits who expect nothing better than neglect and mistreatment by the white power-structure?
But then, as I have had occasion to observe before, we all live in Movieland now. Mr. Segal has obviously relied upon the fact for such bizarre, even surreal touches to his movie as Warden Hazen’s planning to run for the governorship — presumably of Texas, where the prison is, though the hero’s arrest and conviction on a not-obviously federal charge of drunk driving took place in San Diego. In real American states, prison wardens don’t get elected as anything, not even as wardens, but the governorship of Movieland is always an open seat.
In Movieland, too, the not obviously large or athletic Adam Sandler can pass himself off as a former NFL quarterback, a Most Valuable Player forsooth, who had to retire after getting involved in a points-shaving scandal. Points shaving? In the NFL? Oh, right, one forgets. This is Movieland. And, being Movieland, it makes the most of it. Burt Reynolds, who had the Sandler role in the 1974 version — and who at least looked a bit more like a pro quarterback than Mr. Sandler — returns in the role of Nate Scarborough, an NFL Hall of Famer who has been 30 years in the joint for reasons unspecified and now coaches the convict team against that of the lily-white, sadist guards.
Oh, right. Movieland.
It’s good to see Burt — who, like me, is proud to call Jupiter, Florida, his home town — back in the saddle again, but he too is here as a representative of Movieland. There is really no more reason for his presence than that of Sandler pal Rob Schneider, who appears in the stands in a cameo as a cheering convict. At least I think he was cheering. I couldn’t hear what he said because as soon as the camera picked him out, the enthusiastic audience in whose company I saw the film burst into such a cacophony of cheers and hoots of laughter that it drowned him out. Obviously, they knew they were there to watch Movieland and not a simulacrum of reality.
Chris Rock in the sidekick role of “Caretaker” also does his bit to locate us firmly in Celebrity City, Movieland, with jokes about O.J. and Forrest Gump, as does Chris Berman as himself and giving tongue to his favorite catch-phrases — “He – could – go – all – the – way,” etc. Insofar as the movie makes any approach at all to seriousness, it is when Caretaker says to the others: “We’re convicts, right? Maybe it’s time we started acting like it.”
Yes! Oh yes! I whispered. Please, please yes! But alas, all he meant was that, since the guards were such dirty players, the convicts — who, being Movieland convicts, are naturally all for fair play — might as well play dirty too, as it is popularly supposed convicts would elsewhere. There, by the way, you have Movieland ethics in a nutshell. The guards are cruel because they can be, and because those who exercise power over others are assumed to be corrupt and self-interested. The prisoners only learn brutality from the example of the guards.
In the original film, the warden (there played by Eddie Albert, who died at the age of 99 on the day before the new version opened) tells his captain of guards (Ed Lauter) to beat up on the prisoners all the more once they have a comfortable lead in the game. “I want every prisoner in this institution to know what I mean by power, and who controls it,” he says. In the remake, Messrs. Segal and Sheldon Turner, the screenwriter, have Cromwell say: “I want these cons to know who owns them.” This is consistent with his role as a mere caricature, a would-be plantation owner complete with an ice-cream suited, string-tied henchman (Walter Williamson). But the political point of the 1974 film — that the only difference between guards and prisoners is who holds the whip hand — is, though obscured, still there underneath the big but unfunny joke which is this film’s only reason to be. What’s funny is to look back, now, to a time when such a political statement seemed daring and sophisticated instead of a mere posthumous reflex of Hollywood’s lazy Leninism of the 1970s.