Travis Leamons // Film Critic
THE BLUE KNIGHT (1973)
Not rated, 188 minutes.
Director: Robert Butler
Cast: William Holden, Lee Remick, Joe Santos, Sam Elliott, Eileen Brennan, Vic Tayback, Anne Archer and Lucille Benson
Available today on Blu-ray through wbshop.com
Close to fifteen years after Sgt. Joe Friday said his last, “Just the facts, ma’am”, on the first run of DRAGNET, there was a television event that shaped the police procedural: The long-running staple programs for major networks (CBS, primarily), and the reason why it’s hard to remember just who the hell was in NCIS, SVU, CSI: L.A., JAG, and NUMB3RS. (I made one of those up to see if you were paying attention.)
The week of November 11, 1973, NBC premiered THE BLUE KNIGHT as a serial movie of the week. Four nights of program blocks devoted to a cop drama shot on location in Los Angeles. It was a ratings hit; something the network was unable to achieve two years prior with the melodrama VANISHED, which was four hours long and aired on consecutive nights. THE BLUE KNIGHT began a trend. ABC and CBS would produce their own miniseries to attract ratings. When PIONEERS OF TELEVISION devoted an entire episode about the mini-series, in 2013, this adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s popular cop novel was noticeably absent. RICH MAN, POOR MAN, ROOTS, and THE THORN BIRDS – all highlighted.
THE BLUE KNIGHT beat them all and became must-see TV before NBC made the phrase a staple for its Murderers’ Row of Thursday night television programming.
The story falls in line with what is expected of a police procedural. We have a uniformed officer, Bumper Morgan (William Holden), patrolling his beat. Driving up and down streets of Los Angeles Bumper scans the neighborhood for derelicts, pimps and racketeers, and other sleazy no-gooders. Bumper is a hard-nosed cop that’s pushing fifty. Young recruits, who wouldn’t know a swizzle stick from a nightstick, are the new breed of law enforcement. Working the beat is all he knows. He hates it, and he loves it. But he can’t drive a patrol car and carry a nightstick forever. Bumper puts in for voluntary retirement, much to the delight of Cassie Walters (Lee Remick), a city college instructor that Bumper plans to marry. THE BLUE KNIGHT shows his remaining days on the job, distilling thirty years of experience in a short timeframe.
The miniseries, which gets a Blu-ray release courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, clocks in at a little more than three hours and is a penetrating look at an officer that grumbles and growls as much as a dog left chained. Bumper’s not a just-the-facts-ma’am cop. He’s unafraid to threaten, falsify records, or engage in a war of words with fellow officers (including a young Sam Elliott). He drinks, smokes, and flirts with women. Bumper’s too old to do a young man’s job and the years have caught up to him as if it were a game of tag.
THE BLUE KNIGHT is remarkable television at a time when audiences had become more attracted by the Hollywood renaissance in cinema. Western television stalwarts BONANZA and GUNSMOKE were about to be put to the pasture. Comedies M*A*S*H, ALL IN THE FAMILY, and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW were thriving. There were few cop dramas at the time (ADAM-12, THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, and KOJACK – which made its TV debut two weeks before the miniseries aired). The popularity of THE BLUE KNIGHT, first as a novel, then as a miniseries, would spawn a short-lived TV series (with George Kennedy as Bumper), the anthology series POLICE STORY (Joseph Wambaugh was a consultant), and gave us S.W.A.T., BARNEY MILLER, POLICE WOMAN, HILL STREET BLUES – the list goes on.
From a character perspective, Bumper Morgan is the template for the likes of Andy Sipowicz (NYPD BLUE) and Vic Mackey (THE SHIELD). They were once beat cops that became detectives, with higher pay grades and bigger vices. Both characters, and the series for that matter, would invigorate the cop drama; where it was less about the procedural and more about the grey area, where the cloud of moral doubt swallows cop, criminal, and victim alike. Writing from his personal experiences as a LAPD officer, Joseph Wambaugh’s THE BLUE KNIGHT was one of the first to show that a cop is neither a pig nor is he Galahad. Simply an ordinary man who suffers and endures. You know, human.