Starring: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
Director: David Anspaugh
Any list of the best sports movies has to include “Hoosiers.” This tribute to Indiana basketball was inspired by the true story of the 1954 Milan team that won the Indiana High School championship. Milan was a tiny school of roughly 50 kids, and in those days every school participated in the same high school tournament regardless of size. Basketball is a religion in Indiana, and the Milan story was told over and over again to each new generation of kids. It was the ultimate underdog story, and writer Angelo Pizzo crafted an original script around this event that he had learned about as a kid in Indiana.
“Hoosiers” is set in the fictional town of Hickory, Indiana, and the central character is Coach Norman Dale, brilliantly played by Gene Hackman. Pizzo reveals in the DVD extras that this character was initially inspired by Woody Hayes, who had to leave Ohio State after punching a Clemson player during a bowl game on national television. Coach Dale had a similar episode in his life, which brings him to this tiny town, looking for a second chance.
Pizzo also based the Coach Dale character on Bobby Knight, with his emphasis on fundamentals and his “four passes before a shot” philosophy. The coach’s approach doesn’t sit too well with most of the folks in town, and this provides one of the central storylines in the film.
Along with Gene Hackman, great performances were delivered by Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper. Hopper has had an amazing career, but his portrayal of “Shooter” in this film probably ranks with his best performances. Shooter, the father of one of Coach Dale’s players, is the town drunk who has a great basketball mind when he’s actually sober. Coach Dale decides to give Shooter his own second chance by naming him his assistant coach despite the reservations of everyone in the town. Shooter’s story provides many of the most touching moments of the film.
“Hoosiers” beautifully weaves these interesting personal stories around the drama on the basketball court. The settings are amazing, as most of the gyms look like they’re no bigger than a shoe box. The team gets off to a slow start under Coach Dale, but soon they’re on their way to the dramatic final game in Indianapolis. Along the way, the film provides excellent basketball action that authentically recreates the style of play from the mid-‘50s. The kids were played by basketball players who had never acted, so the game action was just as entertaining as the other storylines.
“Hoosiers” hits you with every sports cliché you can imagine -- the underdog story, the importance of being a team, the father-son relationship, and the love interest that doesn’t appreciate the sport. Yet the movie still works because it tells a great story and it captures the drama that we all love about sports. Everything comes together in this incredible low-budget film, from the picturesque landscape of Indiana in the fall to the wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith.
After Hoosiers was released in 1986, reporters asked the great Larry Bird, perhaps the most famous product of Indiana basketball, what he thought of the film. Bird replied, “Those guys got it right.” They sure did.
Great movies deserve great DVDs, and this Collector's Edition does not disappoint. It has plenty of extras, including the actual championship game from 1954 won by Milan.
The best feature is the commentary track featuring writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh. This was the first film for both of them, and the story behind the making of this film is fascinating. Believe it or not, Jack Nicholson was originally cast as Coach Dale, but he had to back out and was fortunately replaced by Gene Hackman. Pizzo and Anspaugh went on to make another great sports film, “Rudy,” in 1993.
The deleted scenes are also interesting. Both Pizzo and Anspaugh were forced by the studio to keep the film under two hours, and they agonized over which scenes to cut. They were most bothered by the cut scenes involving Coach Dale and Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey’s character). They felt that those scenes were needed to fully flush out their relationship. The scenes were good scenes, though for once the studio heads might have been right. The scenes were not critical, and they might have taken away from the other, more interesting storylines. The one deleted scene that should have been kept was the one showing Buddy asking Coach Dale to be reinstated to the team. This deletion left an important hole in the story, so keeping it would have made sense.
Throughout the extra features, we learn about how the movie was made, and how important it was to Pizzo and Anspaugh that it be made in Indiana. Fortunately, they prevailed against long odds, and their masterpiece can be enjoyed for generations to come.