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Spirit of Notre Dame Alive and Well

Jordan Gamble | Friday, November 21, 2008

A forgotten piece of Notre Dame legend returns to campus tonight.

Out of print for years, the 1931 film “The Spirit of Notre Dame” was eclipsed by 1940’s “Knute Rockne All-American” and 1993’s “Rudy.” Even the most obsessive Notre Dame fans haven’t seen it or even know it exists. Knute Rockne III, the grandson of the legendary coach, hopes that will change after this Friday, when “The Spirit of Notre Dame” screens at the Browning Cinema in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. Tickets are $3 for students and $5 for faculty and staff.

“I think it’s a great idea they’re reintroducing it,” Rockne III said in a telephone interview from his home in Utah. “It leads to the history and mystique of Notre Dame. I hope that every time they show it, it’s a sellout crowd.”

Indeed, “The Spirit of Notre Dame” and the history of its production should be the stuff of legend.

“One of the tidbits about this movie is that this is the movie that killed my grandfather,” said Rockne III. “When he was going to California, he was going to write this script and put it into production,” and it was on that trip that Knute Rockne’s plane crashed in Kansas.

The whole story can be found in Murray Sperber’s book, “Shake Down the Thunder.” Sperber, along with the help of University Archives, found letters from Knute Rockne to the University president. Rockne wrote that although the film’s creators offered him $50,000 to portray himself in the movie, he had no intention of accepting the money.

“The only thing is I thought perhaps there might be a chance to put out a picture that might be instructive and educational as regards Notre Dame in every sense of the word,” Rockne wrote in a letter dated March 30, 1931, one day before he died.

Ted Mandell, a faculty member in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre, said the University went ahead and allowed the film to be made, for the sake of Rockne’s widow and in the hopes that it would fulfill Rockne’s original intent. “This film came out because of that (Rockne’s death). Universal rushed out this film, and it came out seven or six months later, kind of taking advantage of the tragedy,” Mandell said.

Universal Studios took the commercial approach for the story, focusing on football more than the University would have liked. The story has a Rockne-esque coach butting heads with a George Gipp-esque player, with cameo appearances by none other than the original Four Horsemen.

“Notre Dame football players were these mythical characters. That’s how the legend all began, and still persists 70 years later,” Mandell said. “The University is now very careful to not be known as a football school, which started all the way back in 1931 when it got taken advantage of by Hollywood with this film.”

In his book, Sperber describes the film as “a sports potboiler exploiting the school’s name.”

But Rockne’s grandson sees merit. “I think this movie really does go beyond football. Football is the vehicle by which the message and values of Notre Dame [are shown].” Rockne III thinks the movie is important because of, he says, “how it deals with the atmosphere and psychological makeup of Notre Dame in that particular period of time.”

Christine Sopczynski, the outreach specialist at FTT, agrees with him. “The film itself isn’t that strong” she said, “but it shows the football culture and what it was like. The film’s screenwriter actually came and lived with the football players for a few weeks. From that perspective it’s fascinating.”

But just getting a copy of the film to show to any crowd has been a journey, said John Vickers, the Managing Director at the DPAC. The idea to resurrect “Spirit” came after the University announced its fundraising campaign also called “The Spirit of Notre Dame.” But unlike the other Notre Dame films, “Spirit” was not on DVD, video, or even in the university archives. With funding from the College of Arts and Letters, Vickers used his contacts in the film industry to track it down.

“I basically went to Universal Studios and convinced them that we should have a copy of one of their film titles here on campus. They took one of their negatives and struck a new print,” he said.

That new 35 millimeter print will be shown Friday night before finding a place in the Notre Dame library, and Vickers hopes other groups, such as alumni clubs across the country, give the film life outside of campus.

Rockne III, who will be at the screening Friday and will flip the coin to start the Syracuse game Saturday in honor of his grandfather, has high hopes for the future of “The Spirit of Notre Dame.”

“I really hope that every student on campus goes to see it.”