This glowing tribute to the American Dream tells the true story of Knute “Rock” Rockne, who emigrated from Norway to the United States as a small boy. Through good old-fashioned determination and hard work, Rockne rises to become a legendary football coach at the University of Notre Dame, changing the sport forever by leading the previously unremarkable Fighting Irish to new glory. One of his devoted players is the ill-fated George Gipp (Reagan) whose dying words “win one for the Gipper” would be re-popularized by the Reagan presidential campaign 40 years later.
Knute Rockne, All American by Lloyd Bacon (USA, 1940, 98 min.).
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Legend has it that Reagan himself had the idea to tell the Knute Rockne story on film. A Rockne fan and a football player himself, Reagan thought someone ought to make a biopic that would reinforce America’s origin story “by stressing Rockne’s immigrant journey from Norway to the pinnacle of American sports success.” He pushed the idea at Warner Brothers until Lloyd Bacon and Robert Buckner made it a reality. Despite its sentimentality and some stiff acting, Knute Rockne, All American remains a fascinating cultural artifact for its portrayal of immigrants as vital contributors to American culture, a portrayal that stands in stark contrast with today’s common narrative depicting immigrants as parasitic criminals. The film is also important for its inauguration of the “Gipper” line that would become part of the fabric of modern conservatism. Besides using it as his own political slogan, Reagan would revive it at the 1988 Republican National Convention when he told George H. W. Bush to “go out there and win one for the Gipper.” Later, George W. Bush would use the line at the 2004 RNC when accepting the Republican nomination, shortly after Reagan’s death.