Thursday, September 23, 2021

Old School Sports

Knute Rockne, All American

The DVD box for Knute Rockne, All American features one of the supporting players very prominently while the title character is merely one of eight characters in a much smaller picture. 

This makes marketing sense, of course. Pat O’Brien, the actor who played the famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, is little remembered except by the aging fans who watch Turner Classic Movies. The actor who played George Gipp, the Notre Dame all-star football player, is better remembered. Not as an actor, particularly, but he was the 40th president of the United States. When people do remember Ronald Reagan as an actor, this role and the line, “win just one for the Gipper” tends to be what they think of. This film and Bedtime for Bonzo where he played papa to a chimpanzee.

If this were a blog on politicians in films that would all be very interesting. Since this is a blog about clergy and churches in movies, we really can’t spend time on Dutch and his ties to the Gipper. We won’t even focus much on the star of the film, Pat O’Brien, or his character’s gridiron innovations such as the forward pass and shifting lineman.

No, we must focus on the early 20th-century clergy at Notre Dame University, the ones who worked with Knute Rockne. We have to focus on the college president, Father John Callahan (Donald Crisp), who's portrayed as a faithful supporter of Rockne from his days as a student through his career as a coach when he became an American icon; and the professor of chemistry, Father Julius Nieuwland (Albert Bassermann), who encourages Knute to pursue a life of science.

Though Callahan and Nieuwland seem to be good men, the thing that struck me watching the film is the story wouldn’t be significantly different if the film was set at a secular school rather than a Catholic University. Father Callahan cherishes Rockne as a coach, as most any college president cherishes a winning coach. And Father Nieuwland appreciates a good student with a good mind and encourages him to pursue what he considers to be a more worthy goal than sports. But they perform their roles as president and professor pretty much as they would if they weren’t clergy.

Actually, that isn’t completely true. We do, at least, see Father Callahan perform a couple of priestly duties. When Knute’s first son is born, he performs the christening. And when Rockne dies, the priest gives the eulogy. But the priests rarely discuss matters of faith in the film, let alone matters specifically the Roman Catholic faith.

When Rockne is trying to decide between becoming a football coach and a career in chemistry, the two priests discuss his future. Father Callahan says, “Who can say for certain what a man was really born to be? That’s God’s will. Someday Knute will find his place in the world, and when he does, whether it be science or not, I have a feeling it will be the one he was meant to do.” So, sure, if you believe in God’s will, what happens must be it. But it’s a rather banal way to describe it.

Father Nieuwland has similarly vague things to say. He says, “Anyone who follows the truth in his heart doesn’t make a mistake.” He doesn’t seem familiar with the prophet Jeremiah who said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

Neither priest advises Knute to make his decisions a matter of prayer, which would be a fairly standard clerical thing to say. Nieuwland also says, “Anyone who helps mankind, helps God.” He seems to be making the point that football and chemistry can both be helpful to people and God likes that. The same can be said about almost any legal and moral profession, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of direction.

But again, for a film set in a Roman Catholic college, there isn’t much religion. I don’t think I remember hearing that fellow, Jesus, mentioned at all. God is mentioned as worth caring about, but I’m not sure where He would fall in the order of priorities between Him and football and education and America -- all lauded highly in the film.

Knute is always concerned with providing a good moral example to his team and encouraging his team, in turn, to set a good moral example for the kids out there. When a gambler comes to visit, Knute boots him out saying, “I won’t let gamblers ruin football like they ruined horse racing and baseball.”

Late in the film, Knute goes to Washington D.C. to testify when legislators debate about the dangers of football violence for the morality of the nation. Knute testifies that Father Callahan had considered moving to hockey, “but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for putting wooden clubs in the hands of Irishmen.”

The film does portray Knute’s early days in Voos, Norway, showing how Knute’s father took the family to America for the opportunity the United States offered. Knute was raised a Lutheran, but later in life converted to Roman Catholicism. I think that would be a very interesting bit of story to tell, but 1940’s Hollywood wouldn’t touch such a plotline with a ten-foot-pole.

God can be mentioned, but they can’t get too deep in the religious weeds -- which is fine for the film, directed by Lloyd Bacon and written by Robert Buckner (based on the writings of Knute’s widow). The film is even preserved in the U.S. government’s National Film Registry, but they didn’t give us much to write about here at Movie Churches, so the rather bland clergy in the film receive a respectable 3 out of 4 Steeple rating.

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