The gears in Judge Ryan Keefer's mind didn't mesh for a long time, I'll tell ya that.
Legends never die.
Without a doubt, the legacy that the late NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle has left on the game that has become America's most popular sport is that he knew that television would be a large part of the American culture in the late '50s. In 1962, he received a phone call from a Philadelphia cameraman named Ed Sabol, with an offer to shoot the NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. Thus was the genesis of a longstanding relationship between the two, along with a groundbreaking philosophy of the sport to allow unprecedented access into its locker rooms, training camp sessions and sidelines. What it did was give the viewer a whole new appreciation for a game they were rapidly growing accustomed to. And NFL Films has the virtual mother load of film and tape, some of which is being dusted off for their Legends of Autumn set. For most of the pro football videophiles in the house, parts of some of this old school footage has been seen in compilations and clip shows before, but now, you get to see everything within context. And this set is pretty impressive, with three discs of material, each being over two hours in length.
Disc One covers the genesis of the film studio, starting with the Packers-Giants game that started it all as the first film on the set. Sabol's son Steve (who was brought on by his father, since the job combined his loves of football and movies) provides introductions on each of the features, starting with this one. This film, which was narrated by Chris Schenkel, includes summations for each city and interview footage with each coach and a couple of their star players. It's quite detailed, with the players testing the field out, going through introductions, and other highlights. Of course, when the games are played, the highlights are sure to follow, which they do. At about a half hour, it's a polished production even back then. Moving on, the next feature is "They Call it Pro Football," which is the "Citizen Kane of football movies" both on the case and on Sabol's introduction. It's the first to feature the recognizable narration of John Facenda and the music of Sam Spence, both of which are familiar to any football fan. It's introduced by Pat Summerall and features its fair share of inspiring football moments. Also, Sabol provides a commentary to the feature that is loaded with detail, opinion and recollection. It lives up to that Kane moniker quite well, and if there's a film to see, this is the one, as it's still held up through the years, even if it's only 25 minutes. From there, "The Man Behind the Men" shows a lot of the older coaches as they go through practice, press conferences, and the game days.
Disc Two moves on and focuses on "The Men Who Played the Game," as the case says. Sabol explains the intent of the disc, and discusses the style changes that occurred as the game did. "Legends of the Fall" is the debate at the time of the greatest players and teams that occupied the lore of the sport before Marino, Sanders and Rice were even on the horizon. And like most of these reels, they suggest names to discuss without endorsing one, but it's still great to hear the narration and the score. "The New Breed" includes another commentary by Sabol who remembers some of the more colorful characters in the '60s and '70s, and the feature itself shows the lifestyles of the players as much as the game itself, in this case, specifically focusing on San Diego Chargers player Dickie Post and Philadelphia Eagles player Tim Rossovitch. But as Sabol recollects on the commentary, games showed very little sideline footage of players and their appearance, so this is nice to have a little light shed on it, and has a lot of memories of each player.
Disc Three is more '70s oriented and titled "Legends in the Making," which covers the 1971 Washington Redskins. The George Allen helmed bunch allowed NFL Films access that was seldom unseen. For any Redskins fan who thinks that the current ownership regime is well, blah, this is a must-see from start to finish. Owner Edward Bennett Williams (a more visible face until Jack Kent Cooke showed up) introduces the film and discusses Allen's credentials before coming aboard. You get training camp at Carlisle and coaching all of the details, even something as simple as a more active break from the huddle by the defense or jogging to individual practice sessions. The players are shown practicing, playing or having fun before a game or practice session, and getting interviewed over that footage. It would be nice to see something similar occur now. It's been tried from time to time and never worked that well, but this is something to watch. "The Championship Chase" is the season recap of the 1974 year, which Sabol introduces by saying admittedly that the season wasn't too athletically distinguished, but the film itself is a showcase to Facenda's narration and Spence's music. Watch the autumn wind essay (chapter three, about 15 minutes in) for a dramatic read the likes of which you won't find in any other sports film.
Each disc also has some extra material, all of which are called "Lost Treasures." Each of these also has introductions by Sabol, with "The Beginning" providing some running narration, along with recollection footage by his father and other original NFL Films members, covering about 40 minutes. "The Lost Sounds" covers the years 1966-1969 and shows some of the "tricks" that were used to help bring the viewer into the game with the recording gimmicks they employed. As it should, it sounds really clear for 40 year old training camp footage featuring coaching legend (and current NutriSystem spokesman) Don Shula, and it's all well worth checking out. Disc Two has "The Players," which has some of the funnier interviews with players like Bob Hayes and Ray Nitschke. Sabol recounts how to get the interviews done and how amateurish their interviewing abilities were at the time. Some of the technical discussions about new cameras like telephoto lenses are recalled, but even more strangely, Sabol bringing up some French art and film inspirations and incorporating them into shooting a football game is crazy, but you can understand where he's coming from, and a player from the San Francisco 49ers named Bernie Casey (I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Boxcar Bertha) recalls his interview time with Sabol back in the '60s. "Sundays With Soul" recalls the more colorful characters who sported mutton chops, fu manchus and other '70s era hairstyles and fashion choices, and the evolution of the camera equipment and league is given some more time. On Disc Three, "The NFL Style" is a look at Spence's participation in the early days before evolving into the media mammoth it has, and there's an AFI tribute to the studio, featuring a Q & A session with Sabol and author David Maraniss. Camera angles, microphoned coaches and other things that have made the films great are discussed by the pair.
Football fans need to see this. Sports historians can probably get a thing or two by seeing this. NFL Films has put together another winner here, and old-school pigskin fan should add this into your library quicker than a Shaun Alexander run up the gut.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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