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Winning Is Gut Pride: A Look at the NFL Super Bowl Films

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Winning Is Gut Pride: A Look at the NFL Super Bowl Films

On January 15th, 1967, on a bright, clear day in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the big question which had troubled the football world for seven years was answered. For the first time, the Green Bay Packers, champions of the National Football League, played the Kansas City Chiefs, the best team in the American Football League.”—John Facenda

So begins Super Bowl I: The Spectacle of a Sport amid shots of Bart Starr dropping back and hitting #84, Carroll Dale, over the Kansas City defense, and then of Chiefs quarterback, Len Dawson, making his own connection in the middle of a brutal Green Bay secondary. Under John Facenda’s steady, omnipotent narration, a mosaic of action unfolds through that distinct slow motion technique—not so slow as to lose interest, but slow enough to absorb detail—so often used in the NFL Films series, which turns football from a mere sport into a poetic clash of titans. The Super Bowl films establish American football as the most cinematic of sports. Multiple cameras take us deep inside the brutal trench combat at the line of scrimmage, where hoarse grunts, bandaged knuckles, missing teeth, and bloody noses vie for dominance. We breathlessly follow a running back as he pivots, contorts, and gracefully maneuvers through a moving minefield of onrushing tacklers. We fade back out of the pocket with a quarterback as he scrambles and lets loose a perfect spiral pass, and the zoom lens tracks the ball tight as it soars through the air and lands gently into a receiver’s outstretched hands as he breaks into a full out sprint. And all the action and drama unfolds against the relentless ticking of the clock. It does not take a football fan to appreciate the stellar filmmaking at work here or to catch the suspense as the drama unfolds. But the films do more. They define the warriors’ code of pro football. The tone of the Super Bowl films is the closest modern thing to that of the ancient Greek poet Homer. Warrior is pitted against warrior, and heroism is forged from victory and defeat. John Facenda says of pro football in NFL ’68: “From the top, it looks executive and slick…but it’s more. The game has soul.” These films express that soul.

Even by the first Super Bowl, the event had a spectacle atmosphere around it (thus the title) and boasted the largest television audience yet recorded (65 million viewers). The Spectacle of a Sport establishes the setting, Memorial Coliseum on a bright Los Angeles day, with a series of exterior shots. The pre-game entertainment starts with the Grambling University marching band blowing out a march into the stadium air. Then Al Hirt takes over with an energetic number as the teams warm up before segueing to two men in jet packs, one representing the AFL, the other, the NFL, buzzing around the star studded coliseum as television crews capture it. As the game is about to begin a Chief trumpet player leads the rallying cry for the fans, but John Facenda tells us what was to be:

The clarion call of the Kansas City trumpeter went unanswered. Throughout the entire game, the Kansas City runners were hauled down at the line of scrimmage as the big, mobile Green Bay defenders over-powered the blockers.

The Spectacle of a Sport showcases so much of what is brilliant about the series. The camera work is extraordinary—capturing the action of each play with such uncanny anticipation and focus that it feels as if the play unfolded for the soul purpose of preserving itself on film for posterity. The action seamlessly follows the narration and elaborates or confirms each line. Frank DeCola’s score, jazzier than later NFL composer, Sam Spence’s, airily transitions from track to track and coordinates the mood and provides the charge of the narrative. The story of Super Bowl I is the same as Super Bowl II: One More for the Master—that Vince Lombardi’s Packers were the best football team on the field. On the opening drive, the Chiefs find some initial success using the play action fake (well dissected in a slow-motion breakdown of the play), but the Packers quickly adjusted. When Facenda says “the Green Bay front four is relentless,” the slow motion camera shows four towering green jerseys pummeling the Chief’s front line and descending on the helpless Len Dawson to make his point. However, bright spots and individual efforts on behalf of the Chiefs are retold, in glorifying detail. As Facenda explains that Chiefs running back, #21 Mike Garrett, was “one of the best backs on the field” the camera shows some tremendous moves by Garrett dodging Packer jerseys in desperation, gaining what yardage was available until the those Packer jerseys zero in for the kill like a pack of hungry wolves.

Mike Garrett is a complete player. He blocks.

His fakes were so convincing that often he was tackled even when he did not have the ball.

And when his quarterback is in a hole, Garrett lends a helping hand.

Above all, though, Mike Garrett is a great natural runner.

Kansas City did have some stars, but Green Bay was a team of stars.

The remainder of the story is about “superior Packer power.” After showing how the Green Bay passing game softened the Chiefs up for the Packer running attack, Facenda explains:

As the game wore on, the Kansas City defensive line folded under the steady pounding of the Green Bay blockers. The holes gaped wider, and the Packer runners dug deep into the soft underbelly of the Chiefs.

The Raiders in Super Bowl II: One More for the Master fared no better than the Chiefs. That film begins with a thoroughly beaten Raiders team returning in shock and awe back to the locker room. In the cinéma vérité locker room sequence that follows, a refreshing level of sportsmanship is movingly expressed by the losers. The Raiders certainly must have been disappointed by the loss, but in the locker room, they can only display a true humility and admiration for the team that just whipped them so thoroughly.

Coach—”Let me say this. We faced the Green Bay Packers today. And they are a very fine football team.

Lineman—”They didn’t give our offense room to do anything. I just think they’re a fine defense. I wish we can be as good in the future. I hope we can be as good in the future as they are.

Receiver—”I felt it was a day for me. A day of learning.

As Facenda explains:

For the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League, the 1968 World Championship game was a day of learning. For the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League, it was another day of victory.

Right from the beginning of the game, there was a sense of superior Packer Power. Grown strong, but not fat, on history.

Using every conceivable camera angle, the film offers a concise dissection of the Packer’s offensive dominance over the Raider’s defense. Explaining Green Bay’s passing success, Facenda says:

Throughout the season, Oakland’s defensive line, led by ’Big’ Ben Davidson [see below with his horseshoe moustache], had consistently put pressure on the opposing passers. Confident of this rush from the front four, Oakland’s corner backs developed the habit of playing pass receivers extremely tight to cut off the short pass, assuming that there wouldn’t be a long one.

But there was a long one. The Packer’s offensive line held off Oakland’s pass rush allowing the Packer receivers to break away from their short routs. The whole thing is shown in such clarity that it is essentially a tutorial on how an offense works.

As with the other early Super Bowl films, no grid iron shot is complete without clumps of sod flying free from churning cleats. It is a testament to modern day grounds-keeping technology that a dry sunny day in Pasadena or Miami in the late 60s would soil the uniforms with far more dirt than a snowy or rainy day at Lambeau Field in 2008. Going back through all the season recap films, it is interesting to note just how torn up and muddy the fields were during a game.

The Raiders, like the Chiefs before them, were thoroughly outgunned at almost every point of the field, but they offered a spirited and determined fight. “For Oakland Raiders fans, the game was like watching a man on a hill trying to hold back a huge boulder. Eventually, it was bound to start rolling, but there were times when the Raiders seemed to be saying that, if it did, it would not roll on this day.”

Alas: “The Raiders are a young team and their greenish hue became very apparent in the harsh light of a championship game.

The first two Super Bowl films retell the apex (and climax) of the Vince Lombardi era and focus also on the dominance of the NFL over the AFL. Super Bowl III would change all that.

Joe Namath is many different things to different people.

Namath was the focal point of Super Bowl III. The film begins showing the media frenzy that surrounded him as a go-go group, the Super Chicks, gush melodically about Broadway Joe. Namath, with his sideburns, shaggy hair, dimples and modish good looks, is the late sixties, and he relished the attention and took comfort in it. Though the Baltimore Colts were heavy favorites and the media considered the game a lock, Namath casually issued one of the most famous guarantees in sports history: “We’re a better team than Baltimore…We’ll win the Super Bowl. I guarantee it.” The still shot of Namath in his swimming trunks, relaxing in a lawn chair speaks volumes about his confidence.

If Namath was the late sixties, Colt quarterback, Johnny Unitas, represented a previous era. Warming up on the sideline one can tell he’s a different breed than Namath. He has a crew-cut and an All Star appearance. His body is wider than Namath’s, with his narrow legs running flush from the width of his waist, then tapering at the inseam. Unitas’ large shoulder pads give him a square-like appearance. He doesn’t look athletic, but damn if he wasn’t! He is a no frills tactician—one from the old guard, battle-scarred and limping—a sturdy old soldier. The film seizes on this contrast between two field generals—one at the beginning of his powers, the other at the end (ironically, it would be the older Unitas that would, some few seasons later, lead his team again to the Super Bowl, but the point in 1969 is effective).

Although the film is very much an ode to Namath, there is a sequence showing two comeback drives spearheaded by Unitas when the veteran is first brought into the game. At that point, “Broadway Joe learned that there is still a place for a proud old man in a young man’s game.”

Phillip Spieller’s soundtrack draws on the young man/old man distinction as well. When the story focuses on Namath or the upstart Jets, in slow clear motion, the accompanying music has a 60s pop to it with the potential to turn into a bass rhythm or a driving guitar riff with a happy-go-lucky Herb Albert vibe. These are nice touches to suggest Namath’s deft mastery over the intimidating Colts defense.

Joe Namath used [the] interception as the springboard for a brilliantly executed 80 yard touchdown drive. On three successive running plays, Namath sent Matt Snell into the spongy right side of the Colt defense. With the Baltimore defense properly concerned with the Jet running attack, Namath went to the air…

...”From then on, the third quarter belonged to New York. Joe Namath manipulated the offense so well that the Jets had possession of the ball for all but three minutes of the period.

Again, a progressive series of shots show Namath at the zenith of his powers, orchestrating a grueling series of drives that tap the Colts’ resolve.

When Unitas entered the game in the fourth quarter he is accompanied by a regiment of military drums and the type of horn heavy marches that express a war weary army rising valiantly up and charging against daunting odds. It is impossible not to pull for Unitas, but the day belonged to the young Namath. He read the Colts defense expertly and, despite the close score of 16—7, lead a skillfully orchestrated victory over Baltimore’s “precision and power.”

The game is a pillar of NFL lore. The end is dreamy and surreal with a triumphant Namath making his way among the mob back to the locker room—flashbulbs, stadium lights, microphones—Facenda’s narrative steps back—the orchestra yields to a few solitary piano keys - the battle is over, the war becomes a game again…..

Two champions…on a Sunday afternoon…A new one as a quarterback…An old one as a man.

The Super Bowl films tend to attach such appropriate themes and angles to each game. The old/young dichotomy resurfaces in various manifestations throughout the series. But it is more than age. Any contrast will do. In Super Bowl IV, the contrast was between two distinct team personalities: the circus act Kansas City Chiefs and the hard-nosed Minnesota Vikings.

In an age when most football coaches are still imitating Vince Lombardi’s fundamental approach to the game, Hank Stram, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, stands apart as an original thinker. In 1969, his progressive theories made Kansas City the most entertaining team in all of football.

They called it Hank Stram’s Wild West Variety Show.

Stram was the director, and with a team of stars, he translated his daring theories into hard-hitting facts.

During the recaps for the Chiefs, the music is marching material—energetic and celebratory—it matches the exciting high flying acrobats of the Wild West Variety Show. When Facenda transitions to the Vikings, the music turns to a funky dirty guitar riff.

The Vikings had neither the talent nor the diversity of the Chiefs. All they had was a spirit that refused to accept defeat and Joe Kapp, number 11, a hungry gut-fighter from Canada who played quarterback with faith and fury instead of finesse…Their strategy was basic: the team that hits is the team that wins.

Each shot of the scrappy Joe Kapp conveys the essence of his play. When he throws the ball, he wails about wildly as if every half yard represents a desperate struggle. His ungainly limbs scramble about ungracefully, and he jettisons the ball like he’s throwing the Ring of rings into Mount Doom. Some of his contorted faces the film captures are quite amusing.

But the team contrasts can best be seen between the personalities of the two coaches. This film’s highlights come largely from the sideline audio of Hank Stram. His banter (his Stramisms) encapsulates the personality of the Chief’s team and provides some of the film’s funniest moments:

Throw that thing on the outside. That double-wing [mutter]. Do it more often. H-He can’t cover that thing, Lenny. Throw it anytime, that pitch on the outside. That’s a good time to throw it, you see.

Look at that stuff in front. It’s like stealing. We….we oughta do more of it.

They can’t cover that in a million years. No way in the world they can cover that. That’s like stealing over there…..

We’re catching the moment…...Look at them movin’ around. They don’t even know where to go in the line-up… Kassulke was running around like it was a Chinese fire drill…..They look like they’re flat as hell.

Minnesota’s coach, Bud Grant, is a polar opposite to Hank Stram. He is silent, watching the action with a hawk-like focus. There’s something menacing about Bud Grant’s quiet stare.

The Vikings would go on to lose a total of four Super Bowls, each as heartbreaking as the one before, but in keeping with the spirit of the films, they are honored even in defeat. The films pay tribute to both victor and vanquished.

Super Bowl V, in which the Colts defeat the Cowboys, is about how fickle the game could be. Time and time again opportunities are missed and long drives are “shrouded in failure.” Sam Spence, the Carl Stalling of the NFL composers, came up with some of his finest material in this film, including the rousing rendition of “Up She Rises,” an upbeat ever-crescendoing march that is instantly recognizable as a classic football theme. It’s a signature piece in the NFL ensemble and it is used brilliantly to show a Colt drive. Other tunes were composed in the spirit of a good Western score, occasionally with some Mexican horns, the totality of which builds on the fevered excitement of the action on screen.

Once in a great while, the drama of an entire season narrows to a very small focus. To the final plays of the final game. [montage of hard hitting, grunting, bumping] With seven and a half minutes remaining, the two survivors of the most competitive season in NFL history stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out in a fight to the finish.

Super Bowl V was not the type of game where one team dominated the other, but instead, was a slugfest decided by a field goal in the final seconds of the game.

A season living in its last seconds ignites the spirit of a true champion.

Fast forward to another great, but very different, game. Super Bowl XVI in frozen Detroit. After initial shots of traffic and fans pouring into the Pontiac Silverdome, Facenda drew the contrast between the teams:

Perhaps, in one respect, Detroit’s Silverdome was an appropriate site for the Cincinnati Bengals to meet the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams had come in from the cold to feel the warm glow of success after years of bitter disappointment and failure. Neither team had ever been to a Super Bowl before, and they arrived in markedly different frames of mind. The 49ers appeared confidant and relaxed. Coach Bill Walsh set the mood for his team earlier in the week when he donned a bellman’s uniform and helped his players with their luggage. The Bengals, on the other hand, seemed anxious and grim. Proud survivors of a difficult voyage under a demanding captain, Coach Forest Gregg.

One cannot help coming away from this film (or the other 49er Super Bowl films) without concluding that, through and through, Joe Montana was a champion. The man was all legs and his shoulder pads look smallish. He could hang back in the pocket as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He had the ability to swiftly breeze around and make just the right throw at just the right time. His composure was so unflappable that if he was sacked in one play, he’d likely get up and make a first down on the next. Even during this first Super Bowl film, he stood front and center as the driving force of the game. He was the “prized pupil” of Coach Bill Walsh, who, himself, plays greatly into the film’s narrative as the mastermind of Super Bowl XVI.

Montana in a soft voice: “Brown right slot. F right halfback counter. 14-0

The 49ers took the ball over eight yards from their own goal line, and from there began the longest touch down march in Super Bowl history.

The accompanying disco-tinged music is distinctly early 80s, but nonetheless heart-pounding in its excitement. Seeing the 49ers offense click on all cylinders is a thing of beauty. But Bill Walsh’s genius did not end with the offensive game plan. He led a balanced attack which utilized even the very venue of the game. After the 49er’s touchdown drive:

The befuddled Bengals encountered still another aspect of Bill Walsh’s clever game plan on the ensuing kick off. David Verser misplayed Ray Wersching’s squib kick and the resulting poor field position led to a 49er field goal. Walsh had discovered this unique kick off in the season’s opening game in Detroit, when an injury had prevented Wersching from booming his kicks. Walsh noted the funny results on the hard surface of the Silverdome. So he turned accident into design…

The second squib kick resulted in a turnover.

And then there was the inspired play of the defense. During the third quarter, the 49er defense provided “the greatest goal line stand in Super Bowl history.” The film analyzes each of the four plays and breaks down the mechanisms at work: a missed tackle here, a brilliant anticipation there, a cut too soon and good head on collision, complete with circles, lines and arrows. The film cleverly associates the stand with the overall philosophy of Walsh’s game plan—that the total effort is made up of small intricate things done well.

Another contrast is the one in Super Bowl XII between the Orange Crush defense of the Denver Broncos and the Doomsday defense of the Dallas Cowboys. The former being a spirited group of upstarts brimming with exuberance, and the latter being a fearsome squad of cold, calculating professionals. A collision was indeed inevitable. The title shot of Doomsday in the Dome features the sun peaking over the Superdome while a haunting bass and cello refrain grounds the underlying mood, which seems more like the beginning of a George A. Romero “Dead” movie than a Super Bowl film.

From the beginning, Super Bowl XII was a coaches nightmare.

The cinematography is starker in this film, possibly as a result of the lighting in the Superdome—and the play is brutal and sloppy. The grinding game slowly goes Dallas’ way, but a third quarter Denver drive gives Bronco fans some hope.

As the fourth period began, Denver’s determined offense still needed more restoration work from Norris Weese. What it got instead was a demolition job from the Doomsday Defense.

What follows is a truly inspiring musical interlude that revisits the haunting refrain from the credits. The Doomsday line—each a towering brick wall posing as a football player, pounds through the Bronco offense and swarms its quarterback as if Hell has released its hounds. After the battered Bronco offense limps from the field, only the Doomsday Defense remains, their hands raised in triumph.

Another decisive move by the Doomsday Defense had opened the last door to the most treasured victory in football.

In assessing the damage, Bronco Jim Turner: “We were out there thinking about winning,” he said, “and they were out there thinking about football.”

In Super Bowl XII, it was a lesson on how a superbly conditioned team of eager athletes can pry open a tough hard hitting game and extract from it the stuff of victory.

There are so many great moments throughout the Super Bowl films that it is, frankly, impossible to cover them all. Forty two games provide forty two great stories. For the close games, the clock proves just as nerve racking and suspenseful in slow motion as it does live, despite the known outcome. The blow-outs are retold wonderfully, providing a healthy appreciation of excellence on the part of the winning team, and a heartfelt education for the losers. Over the years, some pretty eclectic songs have made up the soundtracks. At one point you are listening to some cool jazz; the next minute you are listening to something that sounds like Miles Davis circa Agharta. Other narrators ably tackle the Super Bowl films after 1984, and most of the season recaps provided on the DVDs, but whereas they provide a newsreel type sensibility, the late, great Facenda tells it like an epic story. His recitation is a kind of poetry, and the high-flying metaphors that he strings along add level after soaring level to the narration. He would certainly be fun to watch at an open mike night. All the points of technical brilliance and innovation on ample display in these films: the concise photography, the over-dubbed comments, the whimsical score, everything fits beneath the wide umbrella of Facenda’s deep commanding voice. As he recounts the struggles and complexity of the games, the series becomes more than just sports history; it becomes compelling human drama. The cinematic virtuosity of the Super Bowl films proves that even a game played decades ago in which we know the outcome, can and does remain exciting.