Saturday, January 12, 2013

John Ford and Notre Dame Football

I was hoping to post this after a triumphant Notre Dame victory in the BCS National Championship football game. Well, we all know how that turned out....but there's no use in wasting a good blog idea.

In the hype leading up to the game, a number of mentions were made of films such as RUDY and KNUTE ROCKNE, ALL AMERICAN. These of course are two famous representations of the Notre Dame football program. But there happens to be another representation that very few people talk about, and most Notre Dame fans are not even aware of, even though it involves one of the most legendary moments in ND history. And not only that, it appears in a film helmed by one of the most legendary directors in Hollywood history.

The film is 1955's THE LONG GRAY LINE, directed by John Ford.

THE LONG GRAY LINE is a biopic about one Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), an Irish immigrant who starts working at the West Point Military Academy as a waiter and winds up staying there for 50 years. Maher (who really existed) is a strange choice for a biography, in that he's not famous, very successful, or involved in any "heroic" deeds. Because of his long association with West Point, he's a man who stands on the fringes of history. Every working day Marty is surrounded by fame and glory, but he's never able to partake in any of it. This gives the film an odd, bittersweet feeling.

Marty eventually becomes a West Point athletic trainer, and one of his many functions is to assist the Army football team. At about 54 minutes in the film, Marty recounts a game in 1913 in which Army played a then-little-known Catholic school from Indiana--the University of Notre Dame.

Army was a huge football powerhouse in those days, and in the beginning of the sequence, Marty and the West Pointers are pretty confident on what the outcome will be. Marty's more-Irish-than-Irish father (played by Donald Crisp) is shown sitting with a number of Generals, and making bets on the game with them. At first Marty is none too impressed with these so-called "Sons of Erin"--he remarks that Notre Dame is the name of a French Church, not a football team. But things change very quickly when ND quarterback Gus Dorais starts flinging passes to end Knute Rockne, and Army winds up being beaten 35-13. (The photo shows Tyrone Power, second from left, as Marty watching the game. The man wearing the "A" sweater is Harry Carey Jr., who plays none other than Dwight Eisenhower. Ike really was injured at the time, and did not participate in the Army-ND game.)

After the game Marty's father is shown gleefully collecting from the Generals. Marty angrily berates the ND players on the way to the locker room (he stops when the ND priest walks by). Marty then runs into his father, with whom he had placed a $25 bet. "Let that be a lesson to you, my boy," says the father. "Betting against the Holy Mother, the Church!"

Notre Dame really did beat Army 35-13 in that game in 1913. It was considered a huge upset at the time, and it gave the ND football program a huge amount of publicity, especially from East Coast sportswriters.

There's no doubt that because of his Irish Catholic heritage, Ford must have gotten a kick from shooting this sequence. On the surface this seems to be just another of Ford's humorous vignettes, but after Marty's talk with his Dad Ford shows the Army football coach (Ward Bond) telling the players that hopefully today they learned how to deal with the unexpected, since they will surely face it in battle.

THE LONG GRAY LINE is not considered one of John Ford's best films, but it certainly is of interest because of the man who directed it.....and any film which shows Maureen O'Hara in color can't be all bad. Any true Notre Dame football fan needs to see THE LONG GRAY LINE at least one to experience the dramatization of one of the most famous moments in ND sports history.


  1. I wrote about this in my recent book, PASS THE POPCORN, PLEASE: 87 WATCHABLE MOVIES YOU SHOULD VIEW. A horrible underrated movie.

  2. I have no idea who Maureen O'Hara is but I’m a big fan of Notre Dame football and I love watching an inspirational football movie so I will definitely add this one on my list of must see movies.