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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

‘Ugly, vulgar and tawdry’: Reviewing the worst movie ever made about Notre Dame


Notre Dame has a certain mystique. The Golden Dome, Notre Dame Stadium, Basilica bells, Touchdown Jesus, haunted buildings, the Grotto. Just walk around campus and you’ll feel it. 

So it’s no surprise Notre Dame is a favorite choice of Hollywood when it comes to colleges. “Rudy” speaks for itself, and President Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing” graduated from Notre Dame. 

But there’s a movie that even more forcefully elicits that “Only Notre Dame” feeling.

That movie is the 1965 Cold War comedy, “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!”

It takes a special level of offensiveness to get Notre Dame to try to block a movie that’s not really about Notre Dame. “John Goldfarb” does just that. 

In the film, former college football star turned U-2 pilot John Goldfarb (Richard Crenna) crash lands in the fictional Arab country, Fawzia. Meanwhile, Strife Magazine writer Jenny Ericson (Shirley Maclaine) travels to Fawzia to go undercover in the king’s harem and report on it. Before both of these instances, the Fawzian king’s son was cut from Notre Dame’s football team for not being Irish. 

As a result, the train-and-women-obsessed king blackmails the U.S. Department of State into setting up a football game between an all-Fawzian team and Notre Dame on a field set up in the desert for the king’s son. The king threatens to turn “Wrong Way” Goldfarb over to the Soviets if he doesn’t agree to coach the team. The nickname “Wrong Way” was coined by Ericson after Goldfarb scored an own-touchdown during his college football career.

Goldfarb goes on to lead “Fawz U,” made up of Whirling Dervishes, to a win after Ericson scores the game-winning touchdown on the oil-soaked field in a game rigged against the Irish. 

Now, I enjoyed watching the movie. It’s entertaining and hilariously satirizes the Cold War — at least at times. But by any objective measure, it’s an awful movie — even relative to ‘60s comedies – that offends just about everybody: Muslims, women, Notre Dame football, government officials, you name it.

To put it concisely, Judge Henry Clay Greenberg, in his 1964 decision blocking the release of the movie following Notre Dame’s lawsuit (this decision was later reversed), called the movie “ugly, vulgar and tawdry.”

With music by John Williams (then “Johnny”) and a script by William Peter Blatty, who went on to write “The Exorcist,” this was no small indie joint Notre Dame tried to block. Adjusted for inflation, the budget for “John Goldfarb” was about $11 million more than the budget for “Rudy.”

While the University justifiably did not want to be referenced in the movie, its mere presence in “John Goldfarb” shows just how powerful Notre Dame’s mystique is. The Fawzian king’s son didn’t try out for Bear Bryant and Alabama or USC. No, he went to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s other major pop culture references are either actually about Notre Dame, involve a Catholic jock or reference the Gipper. In “John Goldfarb,” Notre Dame is replaceable by any other legendary football program — which only makes it funnier.

No serious person would change their view of Notre Dame based on this movie. The funniest part of the movie — at least for a Mendoza College of Business student — is when Notre Dame’s coach tells the State Department he won’t throw the game against Fawz U because of “ethics.”

The long, storied history, quirks and traditions of Notre Dame make this such a special place to go to school. The existence of a major studio film where a fictional Notre Dame team plays a team of Whirling Dervishes in a desert in a made-up Arab country only adds to that charm.