Fighting Irish schmaltz: “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American”

When it comes to college football fandom, I’m not naturally rooted. My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, has a terrific mid-major basketball program, but for decades its football team has mostly struggled. My law school alma mater, New York University, doesn’t even have a football team, though it once was quite prominent in the sport during the 1920s and 1930s.

And so on Saturdays during the fall, I often fall back on my northwest Indiana origins, when I became a Notre Dame football fan. I may have no educational or faith connection to Notre Dame, but I can’t help it, I am drawn to its football team. (I fully understand that hating on the Fighting Irish is a time-honored football tradition in itself. Those who cannot bear to read this rest of this post are hereby given permission to click to something else.)

Two movies, “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American,” capture the mystique and mythology of Notre Dame football, augmented by forms of dramatic license inherent in most sports flicks. The Urban Dictionary defines “schmaltz” as “a work of art that is excessively sentimental, sappy or cheesy.” Both films qualify for in that category. But that’s okay, I enjoy both of them, perhaps because of — not in spite of — their soggy stories.

Rudy” (1993) is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a scrappy, undersized blue-collar kid who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, set in the late 60s through mid-70s. The movie portrays his dogged determination in chasing that dream, fueled by numerous references to the storied traditions of the University and its football team. As befits your basic sports story, there are struggles to overcome along the way.

It is often quipped that “Rudy” is one of those sports movies that makes it okay for guys to cry. Personally, it doesn’t unleash the tear ducts for me, but it’s a heartwarming story nonetheless. Sean Astin makes for a likable, convincing Rudy, and the football scenes are decent. One might quarrel with some of the story twists inserted for cheap effect — the Notre Dame head coach at the time, Dan Devine, certainly has reason to be miffed at how he’s portrayed — but let’s remember that this is a Hollywood movie, not an art house film.

The movie also blows a kiss to Notre Dame and its Catholic traditions. A feature accompanying the DVD tells us that this was the first movie filmed on campus since (see below!) “Knute Rockne, All American.”

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Knute Rockne All American” (1940) is a paean to Notre Dame head coach and player Knute Rockne, the most revered figure in Fighting Irish football history. Rockne entered Notre Dame as a student at the age of 22, wanting to play football. As a member of the 1913 Irish squad, he teamed up with quarterback Gus Dorais to form the first potent forward passing combination in the history of the game.

After graduation, Rockne stayed on as a chemistry instructor and assistant football coach, eventually giving up a promising science career to become the school’s head coach. During the late 1910s and through the 1920s, he built America’s most successful college football program, leading the Irish to multiple national championships and becoming a national figure along the way.

If “Rudy” regards its main subject sentimentally, then “Knute Rockne All American” is an all out love letter to its protagonist, the University, and the sport of football. War clouds were hovering over America when the movie was filmed and released, and it appears to be no accident that it ties together football, faith, manhood, and patriotism as a thematic passage.

The movie stars Pat O’Brien as Rockne and a young Ronald Reagan as legendary Notre Dame football player George Gipp.

 

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