4th Down, Death to Go: Sports Thrillers in the 1970s

Two-Minute Warning (1976) Movie Poster
Two-Minute Warning (1976) Movie Poster
Thank God that football is back!

This summer, spent without the usual NFL OTAs and ubiquitous trade rumors, seemed a more dreary summer than any I’ve experienced since my tenth. (That was the summer I was the unlucky recipient of a burst appendix and had to spend most of it laid up in bed.)

In fact, I was so desperate for anything football-related that I pulled from my DVD collection two of my favorite sports-related thrillers: Black Sunday (1977), starring the late, great Robert Shaw, and Two-Minute Warning (1976), starring the late, great Charlton Heston.

I decided to watch Two-Minute Warning first, directed by Larry Peerce, who also directed the brilliant Goodbye Columbus and The Bell Jar. Though it’s not a fantastic piece of celluloid, the cast here is out of this world. John Cassavetes as a bad-a** SWAT commander is worth the price of admission alone, but then add to that additional star power including (but not limited to) Gina Rolands (Cassavete’s wife), Jack Klugman, Brock Peters, David Jansen, and Walter Pidgeon? Well, kiddo, you got yourself more stars than if you found yourself in an Irwin Allen disaster flick. As a matter of fact, the movie was regarded at the time AS a disaster flick and NOT a thriller, due to something that happens at the end which I will not give away here. No, you’re going to have to rent or ‘flix this movie, buddy! Like I said, this is not great cinema, but it’s fun as hell. The premise is basically this: During a championship football game, a sniper has set-up shop at the top of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum tower with a high-powered, automatic rifle fitted out with a very strong scope.

Heston does his Heston thing to perfection, sporting the hottest aviator sunglasses ever committed to celluloid, right up there with the ones he wore in The Omega Man.

You get the picture.

Robert Shaw as a commando in director John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (1977)
Robert Shaw as a commando in director John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (1977)
Black Sunday, however, is a totally different animal. Directed by John Frankenheimer (who also directed the awesome French Connection II) from the 1975 novel of the same name by Thomas Harris. (Black Sunday happens to be his ONLY non-Hannibal Lecter book, btw, and his female terrorist character inspired Clarice Starling.)

The premise to this taut thriller is that Dahlian Iyad (Marthe Keller), is a female member of a mid-east terrorist group named Black September, like the real group active in that same decade. Tormented Vietnam vet and blimp pilot (played to perfection by Bruce Dern) plans to help her hijack the Goodyear blimp, fit it out with a bomb that will shoot a bazillion lethal steel darts upon detonation, and fly this bad boy over the Super Bowl. Israel’s Mossad team up with the FBI to prevent the catastrophe.  (Just as an aside, those are the REAL Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys you’ll see up there on the stadium screens from footage filmed during the real Super Bowl. ) This is a very well done, tense film, and one you should definitely find and watch if you haven’t. How could you beat the Irish Robert Shaw, playing an Israeli secret service agent???

New York TimesAs I sat there watching both films, knee-deep in empty wine bottles, I got to thinking about how guns and sports seem to fit together in a very bad way. Of course I’m referring here to the 1972 Munich Olympic games where eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, along with a West German police officer, were taken hostage and then killed by members of the Palestinian group known as Black September. Even though I was only seven at the time, I vividly remember watching the TV with my parents, rooted to the screen, as the horrible events unfolded. In retrospect, it now feels like a turning point in many ways; up to that time, we used to only hear about terrible things, but now here they were right there in front of me. Very much like the Vietnam War being the first televised war: people were for the first time able to go beyond the P.R. and hyperbole, and see the real blood and death for themselves.

It was a game changer, those Olympics.

At the end of my little mini-marathon, I thought about the “why” of how sporting events got chosen as the backdrop for these films. Could it be as simple and cynical as wanting to ride on the back of the 1972 Olympics? Sure, could be. However, I believe that story played a lot into it. Where else can you get such a large group of people together, and we’re talking thousands here, all in one place? A rock concert? Sure. A political convention? Of course. However, neither of those two events have the global reach that a sporting event does. You know how many people watched the last Superbowl, between my beloved Steelers and the Green Bay Packers?

Player in Black Sunday (1977)One hundred and eleven million.

Think about that number. Mind boggling, right?

Global numbers. Global reach.

With one, swift blow, the sniper in Two-Minute Warning and the terrorists in Black Sunday would not only kill a lot of innocent people, their actions would reach millions of people.

As they say, you can’t buy that kind of advertising, baby.

Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.


  1. Laura K. Curtis

    Love this. I had completely forgotten Two-Minute Warning, but I loved Black Sunday. Such a great movie. Might have to watch it again.

  2. Helen Vail

    Riveting post. I could take or leave football, but you’ve convinced me to watch the films. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. RKLewis

    Thanks to both of you! Glad you enjoyed. 🙂

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