Lars Rockne and his family, including his four year old son Knute, emigrate to Chicago in 1892 from their native Norway. By his his mid-twenties Knute saves enough to attend obscure Notre Dame University, where he excels in football and chemistry. He and a teammate develop the forward pass as an offensive weapon while working as life guards on summer break and use it to upset heavily favored Army in a historic game. After graduation Rockne becomes a teacher while coaching part time but ultimately abandons academics to devote all his energies to football. During his tenure as head coach at the school, he develops such outstanding players as George Gipp, who dies prematurely from a strep infection, and the Four Horseman while introducing many innovative tactics including the backfield shift. Rockne, known for his staccato motivational speeches, devotes his life to maintaining the integrity of the sport he loves and promoting it as an integral component in the development of the American... Written by
Gabe Taverney (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When Warner Brothers decided to produce the biography of Notre Dame's legendary football coach, Knute (pronounced Ka-Newt) Rockne, there were major hurdles that had to be faced. Rockne had only passed away nine years earlier, at 43, and his image and distinctive speaking style were well-known to football fans, nation-wide, through newsreels and radio, as was his Cinderella-like story (born in Voss, Norway, he and his family had emigrated to Chicago, Illinois when he was five, he worked to pay tuition to attend Notre Dame, then went on to revolutionize football as both a player and coach). Any film about Rockne had to secure the permission of his widow, Bonnie Skiles Rockne, and the cooperation of Notre Dame, and both wanted final approval of both the script, and the actor to play 'Rock'.
While the script, focusing on Rockne's devotion to 'his boys', making football more exciting, and his unshakable faith in the importance of athletics and education to America's youth, would win Mrs. Rockne and Notre Dame's support, casting the coach would prove a challenge. When stocky, darkly handsome 41-year old Irish American actor Pat O'Brien (best known as James Cagney's frequent co-star) was announced to play the craggy Norwegian American Rockne, there was some concern raised whether he was 'right' for the role. But in full makeup, O'Brien was quite convincing, and he could mimic the coach's staccato speaking style perfectly. Knute Rockne would become O'Brien's 'definitive' role, as well as his personal favorite, in a career that spanned over sixty years.
From his introduction to football as a boy (played by Johnny 'Tarzan's Boy' Sheffield), as he admonishes his father (veteran character actor John Qualen) to "speak American, Papa...We're in America, now", through his years working at a Post Office earning tuition money, to his courtship of Bonnie Skiles (Gale Page) and on-field partnership with 'Gus' Dorais (Owen Davis Jr.), who would toss Rockne the forward pass against Army that would revolutionize the game, the story is both entertaining and informative (Rock, it is revealed, could have made a "first class" chemist).
Then Ronald Reagan appears, as flippant, yet private George Gipp, and the film achieves it's legendary status. Coach Rockne and player Gipp, as portrayed by O'Brien and Reagan, have a 'father/son'-like bond that is irresistible, and in less than ten minutes of screen time, Reagan establishes himself as no longer a 'B' actor, but a star to be reckoned with. The "Win One for the Gipper" speech has become one of the best-loved in movie (and sports) history, and, while it has been parodied frequently through the years (particularly while Reagan was President of the United States), it is still quite moving.
While Gipp's untimely death casts a momentary pall on the film, his place is soon taken by the legendary "Four Horsemen", as Rockne introduces 'the backfield shift' to football. The coach becomes the spokesperson of College Football, defending both himself and such legends as Alonzo Stagg, 'Pop' Warner, Howard Jones, and Bill Spaulding (playing themselves), against charges of gambling and football's place in an academic environment.
Through it all, Bonnie Rockne offers loving support to her often preoccupied but devoted husband and their large family. The bond they share is so intimate that she 'feels' the airplane crash that takes his life, in the film's tragic finale.
Punctuated by Notre Dame's classic fight song, KNUTE ROCKNE ALL AMERICAN is certainly not a 'perfect' film (watch how frequently jersey numbers appear, disappear, and change, as vintage newsreel footage is used during big games), but the overall result is both rousing and sentimental. It's easy to see why "Rudy" Ruettiger would be inspired by it, and would want to add his own chapter to Notre Dame's illustrious history.
The film certainly deserves it's 'classic' status!
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