Here’s the deal. You all love NFL films. You know you do. You love the militaristic drum marches. You love the slow motion photography of brutality mixed in with grace. You love the deep, authoritative voice pronouncing near-absurd metaphors about fat men in pads. You love it. I love it as well.
Which is why I was excited when my brother told me that he had unearthed the first two NFL films ever made in a bargain bin at Menard’s.
The NFL was starting to grow in 1962, with recent expansions in Minnesota, in particular, following the attention-grabbing 1959 Championship game between the Colts and the Giants. Yet aside from occasional TV footage, the league wasn’t doing much to ensure historical preservation and archiving (I don’t know if anyone in the world was as obsessed with archiving and history as they are now, but anyway). Ed Sabol, though, who ran a small film production company, Blair Pictures, had an idea, so he went to Commissioner Pete Rozelle and paid $3000 for the rights to film that year’s final contest.
His timing for this little idea couldn’t have been better; the two teams in the title decider that year were the fledglingly dynastic Green Bay Packers (perhaps the most popular NFL team ever), and the big-market, big-city, big-spender New York Giants. The game was to take place on the ground at Yankee Stadium, a big-time house of sport. The names involved: Starr. Greer. Hornung. Gifford. Jim Taylor. Nitchke. Lombardi. McGee.
All of that is just the facts, though; I would like to talk about style. NFL Films, as mentioned above, has come to be synonymous with a certain mood, and that mood is warlike. In some ways, the undertones of violence in conflict in the way the games are presented in the bulk of NFL films (and on television) has come to enforce a certain view of the sport itself. The NFL is talked about like a war. Words like “battle”, “attrition”, “warrior”, “soldier”, “trenches”, etc. are the lexicon, and when you watch football on a Sunday now, you are always aware of its function as ritualized combat, and the spectacle takes on a visceral aspect that comes to be second nature.* What makes the 1962 film The NFL’s Longest Day so interesting is that this atmosphere of militancy is not to be found. The entire production feels almost exactly like the college game does to this day; the film is light, playful, and only slightly serious. It is both documentary and newsreel.
The film begins in startling fashion with a stark shot of an airport light spinning on top of a steel tower and the sound of morse code. A shot of an airplane taking off in the fog and a train plowing through a town in the morning follow. With no narration and no captions, the shots take on a sort of exctingly mysterious aspect; what are we seeing? Isn’t this supposed to be about the NFL? Where are the tailgating fans? This feels like an educational 16mm film about industry that we might have seen in the third grade.
It is then that the narration (by Chris Schenkel) kicks in over a shot of a sign that reads “Welcome to Green Bay”. In clear, confident tones (nobody narrates documentaries like this anymore, and I wish they would): “This…is Green Bay, Wisconsin.” Shots of industrial waterfront follow under the introductory voiceover, until we see a lone, stark figure walking in the icy parking lot of a stadium. Ah, surely, this is our tailgating fan in his Packers jacket and skullcap? But no, it’s…why, it’s Bart Starr. And he speaks! “Hello, I’m Bart Starr.” This is something almost never seen in today’s NFL films: staged speaking, facing the camera, from the men involved. It’s as if Sabol needed to let everyone know who the people involved in the game are. There is no ESPN; Bart Starr’s face is not plastered everywhere. What does he look like? What does he sound like?** Following Mr. Starr, there’s a (pretty outrageous) swooping pan-cut to Vince Lombardi, who declares Green Bay a great town for football. There is then an aerial shot of Manhattan, and Frank Gifford (way more dapper than Bart Starr, in camelhair coat and fancy hat) talks a little bit about football being a game of percentages.
The whole introduction has no music, only slight background noise, and is about putting a face on the men and the places involved. The pro game was still catching on, and introductions were needed. But the whole thing is so calm, so even-keeled. There is no hint of conflict, everyone is articulate and gentlemanly, friendly. It’s just a game. The titles that follow reinforce this: two bobbleheads (!), one a Packer, one a Giant, flank amazing animated footballs flying out of a toy stadium on which are written the titles. There is finally music, but it is not the minor-key, tense, snare-drum driven, cinematic conflict-building anthem that we have come to expect from NFL films. No, it is upbeat, near-jolly marching band music, another staple of the college game.
The bulk of the film begins with shots of the players testing the grass – which is awful – intercut with fans waiting for the game to start, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee***. The grass is so frozen that the players can’t even wear cleats. “The solution: ripple soles,” Schenkel tells us. The formidable defensive line of the Giants is portraited by the film in medium close-up, breathing steam. Del Shofner, he of “catlike grace”, and who is the focus of the eyes of “Tittle, Y.A.”, is shown. And then the game begins.
Now, Sabol had to make this film with just he and a crew of five other guys doing all of the shooting and sound work, so there are only three angles at work throughout the game: the overhead sideline, the endzone view, and a closer shot from the sideline. None of the staples of NFL Films’ later works are apparent****. However, some of the other aspects of current NFL Films are there in nascent form. The most obvious example is the use of parabolic microphones: we hear the voice of Bart Starr, clear as day, delivering instructions in the huddle. We hear the same thing from the mouth of Y.A. Tittle. The music, however, continues as in the titles. It’s jolly Sousa marches, and nothing else. The game is still a game, here; it’s not a contest of life and death yet.
The narration is also much more playful, and, interestingly, quite self-aware. Schenkel’s clear, deep voice takes on the expressiveness of a newsreel narrator’s when he says things like “Let’s rerun that play; look for Nitchke’s rugged rush,” or “The Giant fans dig this”, or “There’s something hot on the sidelines for the Packers – a handwarmer”*****. The novelty of filming an NFL game with new technology is on display (“With the aid of some movie magic, we’ll analyze that last play” – and then they just rewind the film, backwards sound and all, and let it run again!). The same overblown narration is present, but it is much watered-down from how it would become later on: “This is rough, hard football, and the deep freeze in Yankee Stadium doesn’t make it any softer”. “The bomb is on, and Tittle pulls the fuse” (brilliant stuff, that).
The game itself is fairly low-key, without too many exciting plays besides the Giants blocking a Max McGee punt and scoring, but there are some interesting things that happen. My favorite part is when Packer’s cornerback Willy Wood (who is also their long placekicker******), protests a call made against him, gets up from the ground screaming, and then TACKLES THE SIDE JUDGE. ****** He is “given the ol’ heave-ho,” Schenkel informs us. Poor Willy.
The game ends with the Packers triumphant, but there is none of the crazed celebratory production of today’s Super Bowls. Sabol gives us a few poorly lit shots from the Packers’ locker room after the game. Most of the players are happy, except for Paul Hornung, who is pissed that he hurt his leg and doesn’t seem to give a darn that he just won a championship.
All in all, it’s twenty-six minutes of football as a game, not football-as-analogue-for-eschatological-struggle. This is refreshing. Sabol had a long way to go to refine his visual technique, but once the NFL made him a permanent, paid (as opposed to paying) fixture, the style would clarify and increase in quality. It’s not clear when he decided to give everything an increasingly militaristic stance********. I love NFL films, but I can’t say that that was a move for the better. I think I prefer the lighthearted, playful narration, and the sense that Starr, Greer, McGee, et al. look more like kids than soldiers. Who knows. Maybe too much money and too much media has everyone taking things way too seriously, but at least we have films like this to remind us that sport is as much capering and laughing as it is the hunt, death, and combat made safer for our eyes.
*This is in slight contrast to the college game, which, well, feels more like a game, more like play, in the way its broadcast, and yet, the men are engaged in the exact same endeavor.
**(Clear, slightly Southern, relaxed – he’s actually quite a speaker).
***What is this, Mad Men? You can’t smoke in Yankee Stadium!
****The slow, arcing shots of the football in flight from the corners, the medium shots of the trenches, the extreme closeups of players in the huddles, etc.
*****A “handwarmer” in the 60s was apparently an iron bucket containing a large amount of flaming refuse. Amazing.
******Using a superb tackler as a kicker? This is amazing. So, current NFL guys, you’re telling me that, say, Antoine Winfield couldn’t kick the ball as far as Ryan Longwell? Why is this not done nowadays? Wood makes a game-saving tackle on a good kick return; if he had been Ryan Longwell, it would’ve been a touchdown for sure.
*******If this happened today, the level of media hysteria would cause mass panic in the streets. Instead, the narration almost makes light of it. Wood, for his part, leaves the field and buries his head in his hands; he knows he erred slightly there.
********Vietnam may have had something to do with it; who knows.