"Hoosiers" ought to be subtitled "It's a Wonderful Basketball Life!" I've watched this David and Goliath tale a number of times, and it doesn't matter one bit that I know the outcome. I still get the same kind of emotional high at the end as I do when all of Bedford Falls pours into the Bailey home with gifts of redemptive cash, while everyone sings "Hark the Herald Angels" and Clarence finally gets his wings.
Maybe that's why Sports Illustrated and ESPN named "Hoosiers" one of the best sports movies of all-time. It has heart. "Hoosiers" is the perfect metaphor for the athletic life: the little school of under 70 students whose team takes on a school of more than 2700 students in the State Finals, and wins; the made-a-mistake coach who gets a second chance, and makes good; and the embodiment of the sports cliché that if you work hard for the good of the team, good things will happen. Add a love interest side plot and another involving the alcoholic parent of one of the players who's brought back into the fold of winners by the new coach, and this one scores big.
Based on the real-life dream season of little Milan High School, which beat powerhouse Muncie Central in the 1954 championship game in one of the greatest moments in Indiana sports, "Hoosiers" does a fine job of capturing the overachieving work ethic of the quintessential underdog. And writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh do an equally wonderful job of capturing the Norman Rockwell ambience of Indiana in the 1950s, helped considerably by their decision to use real Hoosiers and real high school basketball players.
We learn in the full-length commentary that Jack Nicholson wanted desperately to play the part of coach Norman Dale, but had to back out because of his schedule. It worked out fine, because Gene Hackman, who grew up within an hour's drive of the film's locale, turns in one of his best performances as the dishonored coach who was barred by the NCAA for physically striking a player, and finds new life as coach of a high school team in the small town of Hickory—a composite of four Indiana locations (New Richmond, Nineva, Knightstown, and Waveland). Barbara Hershey also turns in one of her best performances as a teacher who's rubbed the wrong way by the new coach but ends up becoming his biggest supporter. And Dennis Hopper? As the alcoholic father of a player who ends up on the bench as Dale's assistant coach, he's more believable than he's ever been.
Coach Dale wants to do it his way, which means defense and passing and doing what the man says. His slow-down offense riles the locals, who were used to a run-and-gun style of play. The best shooter in town won't play, other players quit, and the coach would rather play short-handed than allow his players to act up. As a result, the town's ready to introduce him to a railroad car, until the woman who played Boxcar Bertha in a previous film stands up and says he needs a chance. And the best player says he'll play if the coach stays. The result? History. But it's a fun ride, no matter how many times you watch it. Partly it's the performances, partly it's the against-all-odds story, and partly it's the way this 1986 film captures the heart and soul of Indiana.
If you already own "Hoosiers" on DVD, you'll want to upgrade to the Collector's Edition. It features a new High Definition 16x9 transfer (widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1) that's sharper than the original release. This was always a dark film, and it's still dark with the new transfer—but with more delineation on the edges of objects and people. When the championship game erupts in a burst of color, you begin to see that the palette may indeed have been forced on the filmmakers by Mother Nature, who rained 36 of 39 shooting days, we learn in the commentary. There's also zero graininess in this transfer, when there was a slight graininess in the previous release.
The soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and and French and Spanish Mono, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. There's not much in the way of rear speaker action, but the tracking on the front and center speakers is fairly precise. When, for example, the camera zeroes in on Coach Dale during a game and the pep band is playing, as the camera does a 360 around the coach the band sound moves from left to right main speaker, and settles on the center speaker when the camera focuses on them. Compared to most DVDs, though, this one's recorded on low volume, and will have to be played at a higher volume than usual.
Let's start with the packaging—a handsome slipcase featuring a pebble-textured basketball with a inflatable rubber on the back. The same attention to detail can be found inside, where the main feature, "Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend," tells the story of the film against a backdrop of Indiana's passion for basketball. Purdue coach Gene Keady makes an appearance, as do Pacers' star Reggie Miller and his coach, as well as current Milan High School coach Randy Combs, and players from the 1953-54 Milan team that won it all: Bob Engle, Bob Plump, Ray Craft, Glenn Butte, and Roger Schroder. And from the Muncie team that was plunked on the noggin by David, there's the still-incredulous Jimmie Barnes.
The full-length commentary by director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo is jam-packed with information, though there are a few dead spots where you begin to wonder if the pair took a bathroom break. Still, it's an above-average commentary that delivers such details as the coach was originally young, as the real-life model, but that after seeing "The Verdict" and "Tender Mercies" the writer/producer and director decided to go with an older has-been coach who's looking for one last shot. They talk about the locals, and how the core of 40-60 New Richmond Hoosiers became a club of sorts, attending every shoot and holding reunions years after the movie was filmed. Perhaps the most striking revelation is that the high school players who were not actors began to gel as a team and actually ad-libbed lines during the movie. The filmmakers added (joking or serious, we're not sure) that they always suspected it was because the lads wanted more lines. When crowds rush onto the court, the filmmakers remark, "this is usually a one-take," because it takes the continuity people an hour to get everybody back into their seats afterwards.
There are also thirteen deleted scenes (some 30 minutes) which are introduced by the pair, who lament how the first rough cut came in at two hours and 48 minutes, the first screening came in at two hours and 18 minutes, but Orion Pictures insisted that the film be released at no longer than two hours. As these deleted scenes play out—particularly ones which show the developing relationship between Coach Dale and Myra (Hershey)—you begin to wish that the bottom line in Hollywood was artistic achievement and not money.
One interesting bonus is archival footage of the game that inspired this picture, the 1954 Indiana State High School Championship Game between Milan and Muncie—and we're talking the COMPLETE game in black and white. It's fuzzy, it's blurry, but, hey, it's Indiana basketball history. Only real roundball addicts will watch it all the way through, but it's a nice nod to Indiana basketball that it's even included here. The reason for that is undoubtedly that both Anspaugh and Pizzo are from Indiana, and they have memories of state tournaments that fuel their filmmakers' visions.
"Hoosiers" is a classic sports film—a showcase for unlikely winners and the unlikely tandem of Hackman, Hershey and Hopper, who click together like team players. And MGM really did it justice with this release, which preserves the film, like trophies in a case, for the ages.