The Bear. A film from Embassy Pictures, 1984. Larry G. Spangler, producer; Richard Sarafian, director; written by Michael Kane; starring Gary Busey as Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Reviewed by Elliott J. Gorn
Vol. 6, No. 6, 1984, pp. 20, 22-23
I first moved to Tuscaloosa, carpetbag in hand, in 1981. I was enough of a football fan to know that the University of Alabama produced consistently strong teams and that Paul “Bear” Bryant was one of the most successful coaches in the country. Still, I was unprepared.
Football at Alabama is unlike any other sports phenomenon I have experienced. Lee Ballinger, a steel worker from Ohio and author of a fascinating book on contemporary sports, In Your Face, visited Alabama in the fall of 1982. He concluded that Ohioans love their OSU Buckeyes, but that he had never seen anything like the Crimson Tide mania.
Earlier this year, I brought a friend to the Penn State game, which Alabama won six to zero. My friend is from Connecticut, has been to Yankee Stadium when New York clinched American League pennants, but he claims that the noise level in Bryant-Denny Stadium that day surpassed anything in his recollection. When Alabama scored, he had to restrain himself from leaping from his seat, throwing up his arms and shouting “Orgasm!”
So it was as seeker of enlightenment that I put down my two dollars for a Saturday matinee screening of Larry Spangler’s film, The Bear. Unfortunately, I remain unenlightened.
The Bear is not a singularly bad film, but it’s not a good one either. Gary Busey portrays Bryant with tolerable believability; the filming is competent though certainly not distinguished; the writing is a bit flat but I’ve seen worse. All of the facts are there. The film opens with Bryant’s record setting win number 315, cuts to Fordyce, Arkansas where strapping young Paul fights a bear at a local carnival, moves to his student football days in Tuscaloosa, his courting of Mary Harmon, and his succession of coaching jobs at Kentucky, Texas A and M, and Alabama, and ends with his final game at the 1982 Liberty Bowl in Memphis. In documentary fashion we go from locker-room to locker-room, half-time speech to half-time speech, victory to victory. Along the way we are treated to one close up after another of Bryant/Busey’s face: Great man shows grit, determination, courage, anger, compassion, etc.
It is all too prosaic and predictable. I half-expected before seeing the film that it would dwell heavily on conventional pieties–Saint Paul, the devoted father and husband, telling the boys to write their mamas, say their prayers and make their daddy’s proud. The film does emphasize this side of Bryant, sometimes excessively. But producer Spangler’s coach also smokes, swears occasionally, and kicks a few
deserving players. The Bear’s makers insisted on these elements of “authenticity” and for their pains were prevented from filming on the University of Alabama campus; Bryant’s heirs pressured the Wallace administration into keeping the film crews out-of-state. But even with the touches of the “real man” beneath the legend, the film remains hagiography. Toward the end, Bryant confesses to his black chauffeur that he feels guilty for ignoring his obligations toward the Almighty, but the coach is reassured (and we are reassured) that by helping the boys become good men, he was doing God’s work all along.
I do not mean to be cynical. Bryant was a remarkable man, and he deserves better than the cheap commercial hype, passing for devotion, which he has received. Perhaps the Coach is not an appropriate subject for a fine film, or good literature, or even first-rate journalism. No doubt many viewers are satisfied with an unartful invocation of Bryant’s achievements. A Tuscaloosa family sat behind me as I watched the film, and it was obvious that they enjoyed it. During the showing, I heard the father patiently explain to his wife and young children the precise dates of Bryant’s accomplishments, who played on which teams, and other details of the living past. I suspect that for this man, a truly fine film was not necessary. Merely recounting legendary events evoked layers of meaning, and his own vivid memories filled in what the movie missed. For such individuals, the film has a talismanic quality. Like a cross, or like Bryant’s houndstooth hat, the movie itself becomes a transcendent symbol of events whose significance are so implicitly understood that no explanation is needed.
Of course, an explanation is needed, maybe not for the converted, but certainly for the rest of us sinners who listened in slack-jawed silence as dewey-eyed fans assured us on the day of Bryant’s funeral that he was one of the greatest men who ever lived. Maybe, as my students tell me, Paul Bryant was a great man because he was a winner. But the story must be more complex.
The Coach’s personal history was well known, and it paralleled the region’s. Like so many of his contemporaries, Bryan t grew up a poor farm boy, the tenth of eleven children in an Arkansas family. But as a football coach, Bryant became intimately associated with that hallmark of corporate life, that seedbed of the bureaucratic and technological forces which transformed the South after World War II, the modern state University. Bryant, as the film indicates, was recruited to give the University of Alabama national visibility. Yet even as he succeeded, he remembered his roots, spoke the people’s language, mingled among average Alabamians, asked how they and their kin were doing. By maintaining this family feeling, Bryant allowed his fans to have their cake and eat their cornbread too. Alabama competed nationally, but did so with their own good ole boy at the helm. Moreover, the aura of the hometowner making it in the Big Game rubbed off on his teams. Bryant was a great motivator who got the most out of his players, the majority of whom were local boys, recruited out of small Alabama towns, the heroes of hundreds of communities who beat up on bigger, better fed opponents.
Despite the attempts to deify him, my impression has always been that Bryant’s flaws, in combination with his strengths, made him appealing. Everyone in Alabama knew that he muttered unintelligibly during his Sunday morning post-game television show because, like many of his fans, he toasted victory too frequently or drowned defeat too deeply the night before. Everyone knew about the revels of all-night poker games at the Stafford Inn in Tuscaloosa for influential alumni and Tide supporters. But again, these were the flaws which kept Bryant in touch with his fans, allowed them to identify with his spectacular success, because he too was human. The contradictions–Bryant’s pious devotion to mama, Mary Harmon and Southern womanhood, alongside his revelling in rough male camaraderie–was a double standard his fans understood.
Moreover, Bryant’s ascendancy came precisely when his region suffered from a damaged national image and an internal crisis of confidence. During the 1960s, when Northerners thought of Alabama, they envisaged police dogs, Bull Connor’s fire hoses, and bloodied freedom riders. But Bryant offered pride, unity, and a sense of accomplishment to the citizens of a state impoverished by a colonial economy and torn by racial tensions. Never mind that until the end of the decade his teams replicated the same pattern of institutional racism which embarrassed so many individual Alabamians. The point is that Bryant’s boys not only won they did so with dignity. They were truly proud representatives of a state still smarting from public humiliation.
The Bear fails to capture any of the context which made Bryant’s life meaningful, indeed, which makes all sports more than just fun and games. C.L.R. James, the Marxist historian and social critic, has written one of the finest works on sports I have ever read. I know nothing about, cricket and understand the game poorly. But by reading James’ autobiographical musings on the sport, I now have some grasp of the game’s social importance. James describes his own upbringing in Trinidad amidst accounts of fast bowlers, short legs and off breaks:
My father’s father was an emigrant from one of the smaller islands, and probably landed with nothing F5ut he made his way, and as a mature man worked as a pan-boiler on a sugar estate, a responsible job involving the critical transition of the boiling cane-juice from liquid into sugar. It was a post in those days usually held by white men. This meant that my grandfather had raised himself above the mass of poverty, dirt, ignorance and vice which in those far-off days surrounded the islands of black lower middle-class respectability like a sea ever threatening to engulf them . . . My grandfather went to church every Sunday morning at eleven o’clock wearing in the broiling sun a frock-coat, striped trousers and top-hat, with his walking stick in hand, surrounded by his family, the underwear of the women crackling with starch. Respectability was not an ideal, it was an armour. He fell greviously ill, the family fortunes declined and the children grew up in unending struggle not to sink below the level of the Sunday-morning top-hat and frock-coat.
Not a word about cricket, yet suddenly we understand the appeal of that restrained and genteel sport.*
It is this kind of description–placing cricket in the context of race, class and colonialism, placing it against the backdrop of James’ own family history and the social conditions of the Carribbean–which elevates his discussion
of sport to art. Precisely this sort of context is missing from The Bear. The American South is no less complex nor less interesting than Trinidad. Bryant’s accomplishments, the tragedies of recent Southern history, and the glories of Southern football all deserve their own C.L.R. James, someone who can tell the story so others might understand.
Elliott J. Gorn is assistant professor American Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He is completing study of the early history of prize fighting in America, to be entitled The Manly Art.