As the photographs and videos from the Bicentennial Torch Relay have demonstrated, Indiana is a beautiful state. The visual appeal stems from the simplistic aesthetic that infuses every aspect of the state – a certain simplicity that is endearing and genuine. Outsiders may mistake this simplicity as naiveté, and this is perhaps the reason why so many television shows and movies based in Indiana often use the setting to reinforce an uninformed, subdued atmosphere. The recent hit television show, Stranger Things, is based in a fictional Indiana town, where the relaxed routine of daily life sharply contrasts the terrifying events that begin to occur within the town. Comedy television series, such as The Middle and Parks and Recreation, also use an Indiana backdrop to illustrate a simple-minded, wholly unimpressive setting where, occasionally, interesting things happen. Using Indiana in this manner, and stereotyping the state aesthetic as pedestrian, is a bit infantilizing.
Very rarely do these stories view the charm of Indiana as anything other than podunk. If a television show or movie does choose to portray the Indiana landscape in a more empathetic light, ironically enough, these stories are primarily filmed in other states. For example, Stranger Things was primarily filmed in Atlanta, Georgia. The Judge is a recent example of a Hollywood movie that takes place in Indiana, but was primarily filmed in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Public Enemies, about the notorious Indiana gangster John Dillinger, was also primarily filmed outside of Indiana in various cities in Wisconsin and Illinois. Though there are various reasons as to why a film might not actually be filmed in the same state where its story takes place, it is disheartening to never see Indiana portrayed as the beautiful, serene state many Hoosiers call “home.”
Perhaps this is why the 1986 film, Hoosiers, holds such a special place in our hearts. The subject of the film concerns a treasured state pastime – basketball – and is told through the traditional narrative of the redemption story. Gene Hackman plays coach Norman Dale, who has been asked by an old friend to replace Hickory High School’s old basketball coach after his passing. The fictional town of Hickory, Indiana, is small, and the way of life is fueled by the ultimate success or failure of the high school’s basketball team. Needless to say, Dale’s bold attitude and unconventional techniques rub the townsfolk the wrong way. Eventually, Dale’s influence over the team inspires them to become better than they ever had before, allowing them to not only play at the state championship, but to also win the title. The win is also a personal triumph for Dale, who many years ago had hit one of his players on a team he coached in Ithaca, New York. To win with his new team, during a new chapter of his life, proves that a person can redeem themselves from past mistakes. The events of the movie were based off of the real-life state championship win by Milan High School in 1954.
All of the filming for Hoosiers was done in Indiana, with primary shooting completed in New Richmond, a city in Montgomery County. (The torch passed through this area on October 13th, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.) The film was directed by David Anspaugh and written by Angelo Pizzo, both of whom grew up in Indiana and met at Indiana University in Bloomington. The story of Milan High School’s victory had been passed down to them as young boys multiple times, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the event; during the 1950s, Indiana had only one class division for all high school teams. This setup was changed in 1997, but until then, every high school had an equal shot at winning state championships. When Milan became the smallest school to ever win the Indiana state championship within a single-class tournament, it set a precedent that truly, any school could defeat the odds (1).
A combination between their shared admiration for this iconic story, along with their love of film, inspired Anspaugh and Pizzo to make a film about this famous event in Indiana high school basketball. The film would also serve as homage to the state. It was important to both of them that the film be completely shot in the Hoosier Heartland because, “the state of Indiana, they argued, was just as important a character in the story as any of the people” (1). Though based on a real event, the film’s final script did contain a few changes. In the film, Milan High School is called Hickory High School. It is portrayed as an underdog with little to no reputation, even though the Milan High School basketball team started playing the 1953 – 1954 season as heavy favorites (2). Also, Gene Hackman’s Dale is a curmudgeonly, no-nonsense man in his 50s. The real Norman Dale, Coach Marvin Wood, was in fact a soft-spoken man who rarely yelled at his team in a fit of anger (3). Also, Wood was in his mid-20s when he coached this team to victory. He taught his team to play using the offensive system, taught to him by his coach at Butler University, Tony Hinkle (3). In the movie, Dale’s approach is distinctly defensive. In fact, it is this new way of playing the game that upsets the townspeople and initially causes a sense of distrust in the new coach, along with their general apprehension towards change.
Hoosiers is filled with traditional sports movie tropes: the protagonists are seen as underdogs – the coach’s methods are unconventionally, but have the best intentions – initially the team doesn’t perform well, only to pick up the pace later on – not to mention the never-ending montage sequences used in the film. During the time of its release, critics either detested or greatly appreciated these clichés within the film, as well as the general 1950s aesthetic that the film harkened (4). Regardless as to whether or not you are a fan of sports movies, the basketball game is not the hallmark of Hoosiers’ legacy. It is the symbolism of the film – what it represents about Indiana’s aesthetic – that makes viewing this movie almost a rite of passage for all Hoosiers. Every shot in the film – from the rolling farm pastures, to the small town of Hickory, to Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis – is reminiscent of other areas of the state. The aura the film creates is relatable to all Hoosiers, as it creates a picturesque world that is brimming with integrity. The message of the film – that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard, and everyone has a shot at redemption – parallels the work ethic of many Indiana natives. The film is a love letter to the state that puts our level-headed, determined, and nuanced nature on a pedestal. Hoosiers reminds us that the qualities that Hollywood says makes us simple minded are in fact the qualities that make us simply fantastic.
1. Andrea Passafiume – “Hoosiers (1986)”
2. Jeff Merron – “‘Hooisers’ in Reel Life”
3. Phillip M. Hoose – Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana
4. Ron Briley – Basketball’s Great White Hope and Ronald Reagan’s America