Sportsflicks: John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, or The Strangest Football Movie Ever Made

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The first in an occasional series on justly or unjustly forgotten movies about sports.

Between Knute Rockne, All American and Rudy lies a piece of Notre Dame lore so bad it makes the recent BCS National Championship and catfishing of Manti Te’o look like the 1979 Cotton Bowl.

John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! is an odd combination of Oscar-caliber talent, National Championship-caliber football and boycott-caliber Arab stereotyping.  Released in 1965, John Goldfarb stars Richard Crenna as a spy plane captain (named, yes, John Goldfarb) who is shot down in the Middle East and Shirley McClaine as a reporter for Strife magazine (you get it). Sir Peter Ustinov, the natural first choice when casting an Arab regal, channels his inner Jonathan Winters as lecherous manboy King Fauz. The supporting cast includes Jerry Orbach, Harry Morgan, Jim Backus, an unbilled Telly Savalas and other recognizable faces. The director is Quentin Tarantino favorite J. Lee Thompson, who directed The Guns of Navarone and a great many movies starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris. It is, all of it, almost unbelievably awful.

Crenna's “Wrong Way” Goldfarb  is a college football star turned U-2 pilot, running away from his past of scoring an own-goal touchdown in the Roy Riegels/Jim Marshall sense. He winds up in the Arab kingdom of Fawzia, which looks suspiciously like Saudi Arabia on a map. The king is upset, for his son was cut from the Notre Dame football team: “They no want Arab. They want all Irish.” This joke predates the discovery of the Celtic roots of Manti Te’o and Rocket Ismail, but it gives a sense of where things are headed, and how the film’s non-white characters talk. The Fawzians use the downed U-2 plane to blackmail Goldfarb into coaching the national football team. “Wrong Way”’s task: to turn a team of dervishes and Bedouin warriors into contenders, especially once the Fighting Irish come to town.

Shirley McClaine plays Jenny Ericson, the reporter who made Goldfarb’s safety infamous.  She crosses Goldfarb’s path at the beginning of the film and then again when they find themselves under Fawz’s golden dome, where Jenny is undercover as a member of the king’s harem. She freaks upon realizing that Fawz wants to sleep with her, but fellow concubine Terri Garr seems resigned to her own fate. This all really happens in the movie, to reiterate.

William Peter Blatty is best known for dark novels and films, including The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration, which are both entertainment and an exploration of his Catholic faith. (The Classical’s own David Roth is a huge fan of Blatty’s Exorcist III: Legion, a legitimately batshit and deeply Catholic horror-comedy in which Patrick Ewing and Fabio both appear as angels; he’ll have to explain that one to you himself.) Blatty’s earlier works, including the novel and screenplay to John Goldfarb Please Come Home, are more frankly comic; he wrote 1964’s A Shot In The Dark, for instance, the second and maybe best-loved Pink Panther movie. While contemporary events played a role in the creation of Goldfarb, Blatty was no doubt inspired by a prank he pulled in the late 1950’s, when he pretended to be an Arab prince and received the royal treatment in Hollywood, which he wrote about in his 1960 novel Which Way To Mecca, Jack?

Although Blatty is a Lebanese-American, his humor (at least in the case of Goldfarb) seems more in line with old-fashioned othering than exploring his identity.  Aside from Prince Ammud (played by Filipino Patrick Adiarte), the Fawzian team is mere exposition; the anonymous opposing teams in episodes of Friday Night Lights are drawn with more depth. Where there is detail, it makes a viewer long for the old shallowness: in what might be the film’s most cringe-worthy/downright-racist moment the Fawzians bite the Irish players. They also stop in the middle of the game to bow towards Mecca. Oh, and camels run across the field during a key play. Again, this all happens in the movie.

The Fighting Irish, for their part, are led by a hardass coach who must be good at his job, or at least good enough to have taken a bunch of cardboard cutouts and turned them into a dynasty. Notre Dame successfully had 20th Century-Fox shelve the film for a while because of its perceived disdain for the Irish. Compared to everyone else, they got off easy.

It’s not what you might call a “good” movie, but John Goldfarb, Please Come Home is worth viewing once if you can find it. It’s only satisfying in that you feel no guilt in making fun of it, but during its 96 minutes a million better ideas can bloom. If a film like John Goldfarb can inspire someone to improve upon its premise, then Notre Dame will not have been defamed in vain, and the scariest thing ever attached to William Peter Blatty’s name can finally rest in peace.

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