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The RBR Reading Room: Is It Possible to Make a Movie of Coach Bryant's Life?

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The tale of Paul W. Bryant's life would seem to be perfect for a movie. In addition to his stature as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football, the saga of his life includes a multitude of compelling themes that would seem perfect for a cinematic retelling. Sadly, that hasn't been the case.

There are two biographies of Coach Bryant based on film treatments of the legendary coach's life. The first is The Bear, a novelization of a screenplay for the 1984 film of the same name (which we'll get to in just a bit). It was penned by Richard Woodley, a writer seems to have penned quite a few of these movie/TV novelizations that were popular in that era. Michael Kane is credited for the screenplay. He also wrote the scripts for All the Right Moves and Southern Comfort.

The other is 2006's The Bear: The Legendary Life of Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant written by Don Keith who you may or may not know as the biographer of radio personalities Rick & Bubba. Keith based the tome on a screenplay that had been written by the late Al Browning.

Both of these books fall woefully short of capturing their subject but for dramatically different reasons. Woodley's work is far better written but hobbled by a source work that trades sentimentality for sincerity and has an astonishing lack of focus. It's a colorfully written description of scene after scene where the characters talk to each other basically to tell the reader the point trying to be made. And the historical inaccuracies are cringeworthy.

Keith's book has the opposite problem. It's source work is rock solid. Browning was a sportswriter who knew Bryan personally was quite close to the coach's family. It's pretty obvious Browning had enough raw material on hand to pour into a screenplay about the Bryant's life but he didn't complete it before his death in 2002. Wade took this material and turned it into a lightly fictionalized narrative of Bryant's life that is so cravenly sentimentalized as to be almost unreadable. Even if you try and imagine the story as being lines of dialogue in a movie makes it even worse.

The failure of both of these works, even on their own terms as fictionalized narratives, highlight any filmmaker faces when trying to portray Bryant's life story on the big screen. Documentaries have had success describing the chronology of his life but that's a far different undertaking that making a film that touches on the underlying symbolism he represented for not just Alabama but the whole of the South.

That's partially because Bryant represented so many different things to so many different people but also because there are so many seeming contradictions in his story as well. And none of that even touches on finding an actor with the proper charisma to capture the presence of a man whose presence prompted George Blanda to say "this must be what God looks like" upon meeting him for the first time.

Once you handle all that you get to the toughest part, understanding the man himself and conveying that to the audience. Good luck with that!

Perhaps the best lesson in how one shouldn't go about making a biopic of Bryant's life is the 1984 movie The Bear that starred Gary Busey. The film was billed as a Larry G. Spangler production. A bit of research reveals that Spangler's previous production work included the not-so-epic "The Life and Times of the Happy Hooker" (no, not the Lynn Redgrave version) and the awful "The Last Rebel," starring one Joe Namath. Spangler also produced a few episodes of The Joe Namath Show so, presumably, that's how he took the helm of the Bryant biopic.

If you didn't hate Gary Busey before...
this will do the trick.

The result is the kind of film that begs for a expressive metaphor to convey how bad it is -- dumpster fire, car wreck, Ebola outbreak, they all give an idea of the disaster you are in for if you choose to watch it. (Or look at it this way; the B-grade horror flick C.H.U.D. was released the same year with six times the budget and made more than twice as much at the box office).

The Bear is badly written, horribly acted and using cinematic techniques more at home in late-70s television dramas than a mid-1980s feature-length film. Gene Stallings reportedly acted as a technical adviser for the film but given some of the awful inaccuracies it includes (thunderstorms at the Junction? Wait... what?) you have to believe he got an easy paycheck for work that was completely ignored.

Many opposed the choice of Busey to portray Bryant including the late coach's family. Bryant's daughter appealed to Governor George Wallace who subsequently blocked the filmmakers access to the University of Alabama on the first anniversary of Bryant's passing (although they got a great deal of press for claiming that Busey received death threats if he set foot in town dressed as the late Alabama coach).

Busey's horrible performance highlights the first, and most difficult problem, a movie about Bryant's life must deal with -- Bryant himself. The sheer force of the legendary coach's personality and the formidable gravitas of his presence present an enormous obstacle in portraying him.

In The Bear Busey's portrayal consisted mostly of donning the attire Bryant wore and speaking in a gruff voice. The weight of the portrayal then fell to long winded speeches that hectored the audience instead of convincing them. To see how badly that missed the mark you just need to compare this locker room speech scene in the film to this actual speech by Bryant to the incoming freshmen.

The 2002 ESPN movie, The Junction Boys, that starred Tom Berenger succeeded somewhat better in its task due to two key advantages it had over the 1984 film -- it limited its scope to one key episode of Bryant's career and threw a heck of a lot more talent at the project. Moreover, the source book, penned by Jim Dent, is probably the best character study of Bryant anywhere in print.

Yet the portrayal in the ESPN film traded Busey's bluster for unvarnished brutality. Berenger's Bryant has more nuance simply because he's a better actor but the depiction is hardly an improvement. Even given its more modest aspirations, the success of The Junction Boys in revealing any truth about Bryant is an open question.

So why did the Wade/Browning book and the Busey film fall so short? Frank Deford summed it up very well in his movie review of the The Bear for Sports Illustrated:

[The Bear] is more a mural than a moving picture. There's no dramatic content, no structure, no story; instead of scenes, a series of disconnected, random vignettes has been strung together... Nothing edifies, nothing even tries to explain the essence of this extraordinary man, this 20th-century avatar.

The key point is that Bryant's story is far more than simply a collection of anecdotes about his life but this film as well as Wade and Woodley's books reduce it to just that. Yet even if a screenwriter were able to overcome this obstacle (and there's reason to believe Michael Vigilant's play, "Bear Country" has succeeded in doing so) there are numerous pitfalls getting the tale to the screen.

Historian Charles Reagan Wilson once noted that Bryant's life was a "rags-to-riches tale told in the Southern vernacular." And, unlike the historic heroes of the south, Bryant's battles tended to end in victory. It's this version of Bryant's tale that Browning's script seems to be following. But circumscribing Bryant's life with a parable of economic redemption revealed through football falls far short of what the legendary coach represented particularly since he didn't stop once he had found material success.

The prominence of football in American life -- the South in particular -- ups the societal symbolic ante on the impact of a coach of Bryant's almost unequaled stature. The parallels between his successes and failures and the country itself would seem to be a natural connection to make for a film looking to universalize Bryant's story. This is the true source of his continuing appeal no matter how much naysayers insist it's just overwrought hero-worship.

Yet it seems impossible to tell that story without a proper accounting the trials Bryant faced over his career; the allegations of brutality, the libel trial with Saturday Evening Post and, probably most important, the long, painful and controversial process to integrate Alabama football. These are included in the film but so slipshod a manner they hardly register with the viewer emotionally at all.

Moreover, Bryant's life intersected with some of the most important events of the Twentieth Century: the civil rights struggle, the great depression, World War II, the counter-culture movement and the rise of television as a dominant media force. Where do these fit in the telling of his story and how is it possible to explain his role in them without losing focus of the man himself? That may not be possible.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, any film about Bryant will have to answer to the high expectations of the Alabama faithful. While it might be too much to expect any movie to fully live up to that standard, failing to do so is a sure way to kill the support of the one group that could be relied on to make the project a financial success.

For many years, I have argued that the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the most misquoted utterances in American filmdom. In almost every case the phrase "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" is used to defend the tendency to mythologize the deeds of ordinary men. The problem is that sentiment completely overlooks the fact that the entire film that precedes the statement does the exact opposite.

John Ford's 1962 western epic shows how the truth behind the legend is actually more profound and important than the accepted retelling of it. The myth appeals to an ideal venerated by the common public but the truth peels away the trappings of hearsay and exaggeration to reveal the humanity of the men. That then reveals the reasons they chose to take the actions they did and the result is an even more important lesson about us all.

But Ford was a master filmmaker working with two superb artists in Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne (the latter being an actor Bryant was often compared to). The degree of nuance this trio of artists could pack into a single scene is breathtaking even today. And it's worth noting that the "hero" of the film is not the protagonist. The nobility of the sacrifice made by Wayne's Tom Doniphon is illustrated in contrast to the ascent of Stewart's Ransom Stoddard from humble school teacher to Senator. It's in their actions the filmmaker reveals their humanity.

If Bryant's biography is to be successfully brought to the big screen, like the famous Ford film, it almost certainly will need a cohesive narrative that relies on the ability of the acting to convey the motivations of the legendary coach. Bryant wasn't one to explain his motivations and any movie that takes such a direct path to tell his story is unlikely to succeed except in the most superficial degree. You can't show Bryant the man with a string of pointed dialogues, you'll have to go Ford's route and properly portray the portray the specific acts of the ultimate man of action.

Most importantly, the filmmakers would have to make a difficult but well-reasoned decision on one key aspect of Bryant's legacy to become the theme of the project. If that can be established the rest of the aspects of his life and career can be shown in perspective. Obviously, any movie that does that is doomed to leave a large number of people unsatisfied but it'll have a fighting chance to do better than leaving everyone disappointed like the efforts to date have done.