The corny and sentimental, but it set the bar for all future sports pictures.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Well, boys, I haven't a thing to say. Played a great game, all of you. Great game. I guess we just can't expect to win 'em all. I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. And the last thing he said to me, 'Rock,' he said, 'some time when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell 'em to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock,' he said, 'but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.'"
--Pat O'Brien, "Knute Rockne All American"

Knute Rockne (1888-1931) was probably the most famous football coach of all time, having served in that capacity for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish from 1918-1930 and compiling a record of 105 wins, 12 losses, and 5 ties. During his tenure as head coach, he went through five unbeaten, untied seasons and won six national championships. What's more, he is credited with popularizing (if not inventing) the forward pass and the backfield shift. He is a legend at the university as well as around the world, thanks not only to his actual accomplishments but to the popular 1940 film about him, "Knute Rockne All American," starring Pat O'Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as George "The Gipper" Gipp.

The movie, directed by veteran filmmaker Lloyd Bacon ("42nd Street," "Footlight Parade," "A Slight Case of Murder," "The Fighting Sullivans"), is corny and sentimental, but it set the bar for all future sports pictures. Warner Bros. have now made it available separately or in a box set, "Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection," which also includes "Kings Row," "The Hasty Heart," "Storm Warning," and "The Winning Team." All the titles are exclusive to the set except "Knute Rockne" and "Kings Row."

The story is a fairly straightforward if somewhat idealized account of Rockne's life, starting with his childhood in Voss, Norway, and continuing onward as the Rockne family move to Chicago, Illinois, in the late 1890s. There, young Knute shows an aptitude for the new American game of football. The film goes on to show us Rock's college-playing days at Notre Dame, his marriage, his choosing between a career in science or football, and his subsequent coaching years.

In a foreword, the filmmakers tell us "The life of Knute Rockne is its own dedication to the youth of America, and to the finest ideals of courage, character and sportsmanship for all the world." That's the kind of fanciful romanticizing that only a true gridiron fan might enjoy. For those who view football simply as a brutal game, look elsewhere for your movie entertainment. For the football enthusiastic, however, the film holds many charms, not the least of which are the vintage shots of early games; and for biography nuts, the film is more engrossingly dramatic than the kind of stuff you find on the Biography Channel.

You will not find any spectacular displays of thespian art in the film, however, so don't be disappointed when some of the actors appear to be merely mouthing their lines. The acting is, in fact, pretty routine. O'Brien, though, brings a good degree of sincerity to his role and seems to have the real Rockne's clipped, staccato dialect down pretty well. It's true that the forty-one-year-old O'Brien as the twenty-two-year-old Rockne doesn't work, but as the character ages, O'Brien begins to fit the part well, and he bears a remarkable resemblance to the real man. The makeup, especially the nose, helps.

If the film seems to drag a bit in the beginning, stick with it. Things pick up when Rock takes over the head coaching job and needs a new halfback for the team. He finds the right person in George Gipp, played by Ronald Reagan. Although Reagan has only a few minutes playing time in the picture before his character dies of a fever, his famous deathbed scene, where he tells Rock "to win just one for the Gipper," is classic; and years later Rockne would use the line to inspire his football team.

According to the movie, Rockne never took defeat easily; but fans never gave up on him, win or lose. Of course, when you're mostly winning, that's a lot easier to do. Shortly before his death in a plane crash, Rockne was stricken with an inflammation of the veins in his legs, and O'Brien delivers Rockne's most-stirring speech from a wheelchair. It's typical of that extra touch of pathos the film delivers.

Trivia notes: Late in the film, look for sports legends Howard Jones, Bill Spaulding, Alonzo Stagg, and Pop Warner playing themselves during a congressional investigation of college football. And look, too, for actor George Reeves, later television's Superman, in an uncredited bit role as a dejected football player. Nobody looked more like the comic-book Superman than Reeves did in his younger days.

As usual, Warner Bros. obtained a good copy of the film for transfer to disc, and they undoubtedly cleaned it up as well. The 1.33:1 standard-screen ratio maintains good black-and-white contrasts, strong black levels, and fairly precise definition. There is hardly a trace of age and practically no grain or transfer noise in sight. Even the old stock footage of actual games looks reasonably good.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound holds up its end of the bargain as well. It is very clear and clean, rendering dialogue easy to follow, with little or no background noise to speak of. What little noise you'll hear is more the result of having to turn up the volume than in actual hiss or hum. You see, the audio engineers mastered the sound at a relatively low level, so you need to turn it up. When you switch to the disc's special features, be sure to turn the volume back down, though, or you'll definitely get a start.

The bonus features include an eighteen-minute, Oscar-winning Technicolor short subject, "Teddy, the Rough Rider"; a black-and-white Looney Tunes cartoon, "Porky's Baseball Broadcast"; and as an audio-only bonus, a Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "Knute Rockne All American" with O'Brien, Reagan, Crisp, and Fay Wray.

The extras wrap up with twenty-five scene selections (but no chapter insert); a theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
You don't have to love football to enjoy "Knute Rockne All American," but it helps. Robert Buckner based his screenplay on "the private papers of Mrs. Rockne and reports of Rockne's intimate associates and friends." Most of the movie is true, I'm sure, although the filmmakers go out of their way to glamorize the most emotional aspects of the man's life and the sport he lived and breathed. With the "Notre Dame Victory March" playing behind every other scene, one cannot help be moved. I was never so inspired to watch "Airplane!" again in all my life.


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