surprisingly good little gem
17 July 2001 | by Robert D. Ruplenas
I checked this out during a recent John Wayne retrospective on American Movie Classics because it sounded so different from the Duke's usual "w/w" fare (war & westerns). Here he plays Steve Williams, a disgraced professional football coach enlisted to build a revenue-producing team that will save a down-at-the-heels Catholic college from being forced to close. In the process he has to fight for custody of his daughter from a spiteful and vengeful ex-wife.
Wayne plays this role beautifully; his performance makes us aware of the fine actor he made of himself as he worked his way up over the years from those low-budget westerns, learning all along the way. Donna Reed puts in a turn as a social worker, and Charles Coburn is in his usual fine fettle as Father Burke, rector of the failing college. Wayne/William's daughter is played very well by a young lady named Sherry Jackson, and there are many familiar faces among the character actors in the cast. Chuck Connors makes one of his earliest screen appearances here.
The pacing is good, and the story keeps us involved. These are all interesting people, and we want to find out what happens to them. The script is intelligent, gritty, and extremely witty in many places. Also notable is a very on-the-money portrayal of the corrupting influence of big-time athletics at the college level, as Wayne/Williams pulls many shady tricks to field a team that can stand up to the ridiculously ambitious schedule that Father Burke manages to finagle. The commentary is even more relevant today, fifty years later, as college athletics have spun almost completely out of control.
One of the nicest things about the movie is the way in which, surprisingly, it does not opt for the easy-way-out happy ending that we all think we see coming as soon as Donna Reed as the social worker comes on the scene. The film is brave enough to leave things a bit unresolved.
Altogether an off-beat, intriguing, well-made, well-written, well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable little "sleeper" that is well worth your while.