Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead

Just in time for March Madness comes a splendid new collector's edition of "Hoosiers," David Anspaugh's burnished basketball reverie from 1986.

This '50s-era period piece about the ascension to the Indiana State Finals of a high-school hoops team from a ridiculously small farm town is one of the most beloved of all sports movies--it was number one in the "ESPN 25" list of the 25 best sports movies of all time.

It certainly is a beautifully made film, with a luminous, Norman Rockwell-esque look, stirring music by Jerry Goldsmith, and fine performances, especially from Dennis Hopper as an alcoholic assistant coach, and from the charming non-actors who were recruited to play the team members, several of whom show surprising emotional presence.

But it's the performance of the star, Gene Hackman, that makes Hoosiers a classic. Indeed, Hackman might be said to save the film from itself.
Hackman plays Norman Dale, a former college coach for whom this high school gig is a last chance--he has a scandal in his past.

He gets the cold shoulder from the town, because he's new, because he's a laconic, somewhat aloof man who ignores the advice of the barbershop strategists, and worst of all because of his insistence on a more sophisticated passing game than the townies are used to.

He perseveres, even against the insolence of his some of his own players and the disapproval of the lady teacher (Barbara Hershey) he'd like to get close to. He's vindicated, of course.

Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo avoid any trace of irony or subversion in their approach--they make the point, early and often, that high school basketball is a way of life in rural Indiana, much the way high school football is in rural Texas, and even though they voice the criticism of this cultural value through the character of the uptight teacher, they ultimately celebrate

Though fictitious in its particulars, the movie was inspired by the true story of the 1954 Indiana State Finals, in which tiny Milan (pronounced "MY-lan") went up against the urban powerhouse of Muncie Central.

The tale had become a legend in Indiana on roughly the same level that the Battle of Agincourt was for the British, and it's as this sort of victory-of-underdog epic that the filmmakers treat the material.

This simple, guileless approach would probably seem too oppressively virtuous if it weren't for the fascinating complexity that Hackman brings to the role--his reticence, his nervous little chuckle in the face of Midwestern rudeness, and his startling moments of emotional nakedness.

Coach is tough and authoritative, but it never comes off as paternalistic because Hackman quietly shows you the toll it takes on him, and the uncertainties with which he struggles.
On the eve of the big game, Coach looks at his players and says, with perfect, uncondescending sincerity, "I love you guys." There probably isn't another American actor who could have made this treacherous line so touching and schmaltz-free.

The DVD--The extras on this two-disc Collector's Edition are first-rate.

Disc One contains the movie, with commentary by Anspaugh and Pizzo, as well as the trailer.

Disc Two contains an entertaining behind-the-scenes documentary, as well as nearly a half-hour of deleted scenes.

On most DVDs, the outtakes leave you feeling how right the decision was to delete them, but with Hoosiers, they seem like a real loss.

Scenes that gave fullness and coherence to the characters--especially to Hershey's character--were excised in the name of a running time under two hours. This is a rare occasion where watching the deletions adds to the richness of the movie.

There's one other fun extra--ghostly black-and-white footage of the 1954 Indiana State Championship meeting between Milan and Muncie.

Fifty-one years later, it's still a good game.

Hoosiers is rated PG. In most households, it would be considered suitable family entertainment.