Sony // 1971 // 74 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 9th, 2000
An inspiring true story of friendship and courage.
"Ernest Hemingway said that every true story ends in death. This is a true story." This quote is from the opening narration from Jack Warden, who plays legendary Chicago Bear coach George Halas in Brian's Song, perhaps the greatest made-for-TV movie ever made. This bittersweet story of two friends and rivals on a professional football team won 5 Emmy Awards, and a whole slew of other acclamations as well. It was one of the most widely watched films on television, with nearly half of all households tuned in at its first broadcast. Of course it was much more than the story of two friends; it had a powerful statement about race and courage as well. This is a film to make the most stoic of movie watchers weep, but for most they will find this mix of humor, warmth, and powerful emotion worth the tears. Columbia has now released the film on DVD, with mixed but overall positive results.
I'm sure many younger readers do not remember this film, and sadly may not even remember the real life characters portrayed. The film begins in 1965, when two rookie running backs arrive for training camp. We are quickly introduced to the two main characters; the quiet and shy Gale Sayers and the ebullient joker Brian Piccolo. Sayers of course went on to become one of the greatest outside runners in football history. Piccolo on the other hand was neither as fast or naturally gifted as Sayers, but had the heart of a lion and tremendous drive and determination. The two made headlines in 1965 as the first black and white roommates on a professional football team. They also became great friends, which made things more difficult considering the fact that they were also rivals for the same position on the team.
All that changed suddenly in 1968 when Sayers suffered a severe knee injury. Now Piccolo was the starting halfback. But Brian wasn't satisfied to win the position like this; "for all the wrong reasons." Partly out of their deep friendship, but also to prove that he wasn't just "given" the starting position, Piccolo works hard with Sayers to rehabilitate his knee, and he comes back 100% the following year. But by 1970 there was more trouble. At first it seemed like only a little cough and a loss of a step in his running game, but Brian was sick. With malignant lung cancer. The remainder of the film is the love and friendship of the two men, along with their wives, as they fight this new battle. Since I'm telling the real life story, I can say that Brian Piccolo died at the age of 26, leaving behind a wife, three children, and many friends.
This tale is nothing if not heartwarming. There is a great deal of humor that keeps the tale from becoming too saccharine or maudlin, but the heavy pull at the heart and the emotions cannot be denied. This was a brilliantly written script from Bill Blinn, adapted from the Gale Sayers novel "I Am Third." The dialogue is excellently written and performed, and the actors all genuine. Filmed only six months after the death of Brian Piccolo, all the emotions are still fresh in the minds of those who knew him, many of whom participate in the film.
While I'm speaking of the actors, these were no lightweights (at least in acting ability) called on for the role. James Caan finally agreed to do the role despite the stigma of "made for TV" fare, during the same year he did an Oscar nominating turn in The Godfather no less. Billy Dee Williams, who would make his mark in The Empire Strikes Back and many other films stars as Gale Sayers. Both pull every ounce of emotion and wit out of the script that could be asked of any actor. Two very stirring performances, particularly James Caan, who I've never seen display such emotion. Jack Warden fully disappears into the role of gruff but caring head coach George Halas as well.
The supporting cast is nothing if not impressive as well; the Chicago Bears themselves. Many famous players, including one of the greatest linebackers of all time Dick Butkus, are in the film as themselves. Many scenes on the field were filmed with the real players, and much stock footage of Sayers and Piccolo in action are also spliced in. Dick Butkus, of course, has went on to film acting after his football career, but here he was as a player in his prime. They bring a great sense of realism to the picture as it centers around the team, both on the field and off. James Caan in particular spent a great deal of time with the players and even entertained some fantasy about really playing for the Bears, as he had been a second rate player in college himself. The players took him in as one of their own, but the constant beating they gave him on the field I think made him wisely choose to stick to acting.
There is much to praise about the DVD release as well. Columbia has done a fine job with the picture of this 29 year old film, especially one shot for television. While there are some flaws it looks far better than I've ever seen it before, except perhaps in 1971 when it first aired. Colors are well saturated and detail is reasonably sharp. Some grain and nicks creep up from time to time, notably in the opening credits, but it never gets as bad as that once the credits have rolled. I should mention that the stock footage used has a very different look at times from the film itself, as the actual football footage shows more grain and wear, and much more faded colors than the footage shot especially for the film. Still, I felt the actual game footage gave the film a better sense of realism and was not overly jarring.
The soundtrack is 2 channel Dolby Digital mono, and isn't quite as pleasing as the picture. While the excellent Michael Legrand score (one of the most moving, emotional scores around) comes off fine, dialogue sometimes is just a bit muffled. Not often, but once in awhile I was glad of the subtitles to help me figure out just what was said. The sound does not suffer from a lack of clarity or fidelity as in many mono tracks, except as I mentioned in the dialogue.
I'm especially happy with the commentary track offered in the bonus section. James Caan and Billy Dee Williams have a bit of a boisterous reunion as they watch the film, and have plenty of stories and anecdotes about the making of the film, and general stories about the people. While it is far from scene-specific, I found it greatly entertaining. While most of the time they are joking with each other and having fun, even they can't fail to be moved by the emotional scenes. It was apparent that even James Caan shed a tear at watching some of his own scenes. One of the funnier stories from the commentary was that Caan was actually a much better athlete than Williams, but in the film Sayers is the faster runner, so Caan had to be told to slow down and let Williams win their foot races. They got quite a laugh out of those stories. I found the commentary very funny and that it really helped when trying to watch such an emotional film a second time. I should mention that the director, Buzz Kulik, who won a Director's Guild award for the picture, died last year and sadly was not here for the DVD release.
Besides the commentary track, there is a ten minute featurette called "First and Goal," which is about the life and career of Gale Sayers. Interview footage of Sayers talking both about his career and his friendship with Brian Piccolo is intercut with game footage and scenes from the film. Sayers reveals the slight changes taken with the film in an otherwise very faithful account of the true events. Thorough Talent files, and a trailer for the film, as well as bonus trailers for Jerry Maguire and A League of Their Own complete the extra content. A list of the many awards won by the film are also printed on the leaflet inside the case.
There isn't much I can say against this film. While it only lasts 74 minutes (sans commercials) the pacing was excellent and I don't feel like we were deprived by the short running time. The only thing I can say against it has a personal slant. My own father is battling lung cancer right now, and the timing to watch this film and the wrenching emotions of watching someone dying of the same disease put something of a toll on this reviewer. If you are in a similar situation, or have been, you might want to think about that.
Although the film is rated G, the ratings weren't always under the same standards as today. There are several uses of the "N" word, though the context in which it is used within the film do not serve to degrade anyone.
As for the disc, certainly I could have asked for some minor improvements in the picture quality and the clarity of the dialogue track, but I do think the problems were minor and nothing that should dissuade you from seeing this film.
If you absolutely can't stand a film that can move you to tears, then you might not want to see this one. But for most people, if you haven't seen the film at least once you owe it to yourself to do so. Many people will want to add this to their collection, others may just want it as a rental. I wouldn't call it a film you want to watch every week, but it is one of the more powerful films in my memory, and the most powerful of those made for television.
All involved with the film are absolutely acquitted, and the prosecution is fined $5000 for bringing this one up for trial at all. Columbia is acquitted and commended for finally getting this gem of television history available on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Commentary Track
* Talent Files