Pros: well-shot football scenes with credible Rob Brown
Cons: historical inaccuracies undercut the value of showing the history
I don’t know why I wanted more football after the cliff-hanger Super Bowl, but I pulled the 2008 “The Express” off the shelf, despite its running length (130 minutes). I thought the movie was fairly standard sports movie triumph of the underdog with racial dynamics similar to those in the basketball uplift “Glory Road” (2006). not least Texas racists (Texas A&M fans there, Cotton Bowl UT fans here.
The “Elmira Express,” Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown [Finding Forrester]), the first black winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1961 (and 1960 Cotton Bowl MVP) was a genuine role model” “a credit to his race” during the Civil Rights struggle, absorbing cheap hits and racial epithets while excelling at Syracuse University, where he was recruited by Jim Brown (Darin Dewitt Henson) and assigned Brown’s jersey number 44 by crusty coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid [The Alamo, Far From Heaven]), as if Davis needed more pressure. The cheap shots begin in practice and continue with white referees (the only kind there was then) ignoring them in games.
The triumph (the Heisman Trophy and meeting with President Kennedy) are followed by tragedy in the form of leukemia, but the “Brian’s Song” aspect is downplayed, as is any life Davis may have had away from football, though he has a loyal girlfriend (Sarah Ward) in some scenes.
There is a lot of football action in the movie that is gripping and almost believable. The UT defensive stars look very old to me, and both Brown and Henson look leaner than the great athletes they are playing.
I am glad that Ernie Davis was commemorated, but again (as with “Coco and Igor”) was frustrated by some historical inaccuracies and puzled by others. To reiterate my position on biopics and historical movies, telescoping characters and events is acceptable practice, and sins of omission are tolerable, but falsifying known facts is not.
That Davis did not play a single down as a Cleveland Brown and died of leukemia at the age of 23 are facts, but it was not his leukemia that accounted for the former. Rather, (new) owner Art Modell traded (future professional football hall of famer) Bobby Mitchell, who had been the Browns’ starting halfback alongside fullback Jim Brown) to Washington without consulting (long-time) coach Paul Brown, who not only refused to play Davis (who had been cleared by doctors), but refused to allow him to suit up to be introduced with the starting lineup before an exhibition game. IMO both Modell and Brown and also Redskins owner George Preston Marshall were s.o.b.s (and Marshall integrated the Redskins only under considerable pressure from the Kennedy Administration). Moreover, having grown up a fan of black Uniontown, PA quarterback Sandy Stephens, who led the University of Minnesota to a National Championship and a Rose Bowl victory, I find the representation of Modell as a champion of racial equality suspect. (Jim Brown was already there when Modell acquired the team.) The Browns drafted Stephens but made it clear that he would not be allowed to play quarterback (and he went to the Canadian Football League, where he did).
The Brown/Modell conflict, which soon (1/9/1963) led to Brown’s termination would distract from the Ernie Davis story, so I regard its omission as acceptable simplification. Why the opponent of the exhibition game was made the Chicago Bears instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t matter, though I don’t see any reason to make the change. The 1959 game at Morgantown, West Virginia University’s Mountaineer Field, has the most virulently racist crowd throwing epithets, bottles, etc. and Coach Schwartzwalder acceding to local pressure not to let his black star score so that the team may get out alive. But the UWV game was a home game in Syracuse!
The extent of UT Longhorn dirty playing in the 1960 Cotton Bowl is a matter of continuing controversy, but Coach Schwartzwalder did not keep Davis in the locker room at the start of the second half, and the win by Syracuse (already declared the National Champion before the game against second-ranked Texas) was not preserved by Davis forcing himself back onto the field with Syracuse’s lead reduced to one point. Texas scored last, but was still 9 points down. Yes, the movie’s game is more dramatic, but this misrepresentation undercuts the veracity of the movie.
And this is followed by the Syracuse team refusing to go to collect the Cotton Bowl trophy at a segregated country club. The whole team, including Cotton Bowl MVP, went and collected the trophy. The country club would not allow the black players to stay for the dinner and dance, however, and most of the Syracuse white players left with the barred black ones. (I guess, this could fit into the simplifying history category, along with the simplification of Jim Brown’s character.)
The DVD has lots of bonus features,* though too little of the real Ernie Davis playing football (for 1960 Cotton Bowl highlights, including what looks like local refereeing taking away a Syracuse touchdown just before halftime and two two-point conversions by Davis, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3W1jFlKz5s).
The bonus features make me round up a 3.5-star rating for the movie.
* Pasting the list:
Making of The Express”
Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis
Inside the Playbook, shooting the football game
From Hollywood to Syracuse, the Legacy of Ernie Davis
50th Anniversary of 1959 Syracuse National Championship
Deleted Scenes with optional commentary by Director Gary Fleder
Feature Commenatry with Director Gary Fleder