Wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nolte) plays for a late 1960s-era professional football team based in Dallas, Texas, named the North Dallas Bulls, which closely resembles the Dallas Cowboys.
Though considered to possess "the best hands in the game", the aging Elliott has been benched and relies heavily on painkillers. Elliott and popular quarterback Seth Maxwell (Davis) are outstanding players, but they also characterize the drug-, sex-, and alcohol-fueled party atmosphere of that era. Elliott wants only to play the game, retire, and live on a horse farm with his girlfriend Charlotte (Dayle Haddon), who appears to be financially independent, and has no interest whatsoever in football.
The Bulls play for an iconic coach (Spradlin), who turns a blind eye to anything that his players may be doing off the field or anything that his assistant coaches and trainers condone to keep those players in the game. The coach is focused on player "tendencies", a quantitative measurement of their performance, and seems less concerned about the human aspect of the game and the players. As one player (John Matuszak) finally erupts to a coach (Charles Durning): "Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game." The coaches manipulate Elliott to convince a younger, injured rookie on the team to start using painkillers.
Elliott's nonconformist attitude incurs the coach's wrath more than once, and at one point, the coach informs Elliott that his continuing attitude could affect his future with the Bulls. After the Bulls lose their final game of the season in Chicago, Elliott learns that a Dallas detective has been hired by the Bulls to follow him. They turn up proof of his marijuana use and a sexual relationship with a woman who intends to marry team executive Emmett Hunter (Dabney Coleman), brother of owner Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest). Though the detective witnessed quarterback Seth Maxwell engaging in similar behavior, he pretends not to have recognized him. After they tell him he is to be suspended without pay pending a league hearing, Elliott, convinced that the entire investigation is merely a pretext to allow the team to save money on his contract, quits the game of football for good.
Part drama, comedy, and satire, North Dallas Forty is widely considered a classic sports film, giving insights into the lives of professional athletes.
Based on the semiautobiographical novel by Peter Gent, a Cowboys wide receiver in the late 1960s, the film's characters closely resemble real-life team members of that era, with Seth Maxwell often compared to quarterback Don Meredith, B.A. Strother to Tom Landry, and Elliott to Gent. Of the story, Meredith said, "If I'd known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more."Nick Nolte as Phil Elliott
Mac Davis as Seth Maxwell
G.D. Spradlin as B.A. Strother
Dayle Haddon as Charlotte Caulder
Bo Svenson as Joe Bob Priddy
John Matuszak as O.W. Shaddock
Steve Forrest as Conrad Hunter
Dabney Coleman as Emmett Hunter
Charles Durning as Coach Johnson
Marshall Colt as Art Hartman
Savannah Smith Boucher as Joanne Rodney
The film opened to good reviews, some critics calling it the best movie Ted Kotcheff made behind Fun with Dick and Jane and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "The central friendship in the movie, beautifully delineated, is the one between Mr. Nolte and Mac Davis, who expertly plays the team's quarterback, a man whose calculating nature and complacency make him all the more likable, somehow." Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "'North Dallas Forty' retains enough of the original novel's authenticity to deliver strong, if brutish, entertainment". Newsweek magazine's David Ansen wrote, "The writers -- Kotcheff, Gent and producer Frank Yablans -- are nonetheless to be congratulated for allowing their story to live through its characters, abjuring Rocky-like fantasy configurations for the harder realities of the game. North Dallas Forty isn't subtle or finely tuned, but like a crunching downfield tackle, it leaves its mark."
However, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen wrote, "North Dallas Forty descends into farce and into the lone man versus the corrupt system mentality deprives it of real resonance. It's still not the honest portrait of professional athletics that sport buffs have been waiting for." Sports Illustrated magazine's Frank Deford wrote, "If North Dallas Forty is reasonably accurate, the pro game is a gruesome human abattoir, worse even than previously imagined. Much of the strength of this impression can be attributed to Nick Nolte ... Unfortunately, Nolte's character, Phil Elliott, is often fuzzily drawn, which makes the actor's accomplishment all the more impressive." In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, "Charlotte, who seemed a creature of rhetorical fancy in the novel, still remains a trifle remote and unassimilated. Dayle Haddon may also be a little too prim and standoffish to achieve a satisfying romantic chemistry with Nolte: Somehow, the temperaments don't mesh."
The novel highlights the relationship between the violent world of professional football with the violence inherent in the social structures and cultural mores of late 1960s American life, using a simulacrum of America's Team and the most popular sport in the United States as the metaphorical central focus. Recurring scenes of television and radio news reporting violent crimes, war and environmental destruction are scattered throughout various scenes, but left out in the same scenes recreated in the movie. Throughout the novel there is more graphic sex and violence, as well as drug and alcohol abuse without the comic overtones of the film, for instance the harassment of an unwilling girl at a party played for laughs in the movie is a brutal near-rape at an orgy in the novel.
At the end of the novel there is a shocking twist ending in which Phil returns to Charlotte to tell her he's left football and presumably to continue his relationship with her on her ranch, to find she and a black friend (who is not in the movie) have been regular lovers, unbeknownst to Phil, and that they have been violently murdered by Charlotte's ex-husband (also left out of the movie), who has been stalking her throughout the novel.