On the Aisle
Film Review by Tony Macklin
Missing the kick
Story of the Heisman winner too mythologized
The Express is running on two rails at the same time. There’s sentiment, which is true. And there’s sentimentality, which is not.
At its best, “The Express” is a moving tribute; at its worst, it’s conventional manipulation.
Because it basically is set in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, which was a racial cauldron, the movie has a serious responsibility. It is out to entertain, but also it is out to inform.
The time and place of “The Express” give it a palpable resonance that many sports movies lack.
“The Express” is the story of Ernie Davis, who was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, as best college football player of the year. It’s based on the life of the actual man, but it mythologizes him and sweetens the gridiron. It doesn’t veer as badly into malarkey as many sports movies such as “We Are Marshall.” But it can’t help itself from making cheap, easy distortions that detract from its integrity.
The basic plot of “The Express” is about men caught in a time of social conflict and disruptive change in America. Both Davis (Ron Brown) and his coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) want to concentrate on football. Davis only wants to play football and is not political, but the times force him to recognize that he is a participant in the conflict.
Schwartzwalder just wants to coach football, but he too becomes effected by changing times and shaken values.
Ernie Davis was born in 1939 in the coal town of Uniontown, Penn., and when his mother married, he moves to Elmira, N.Y., and takes up football. He becomes a star.
Jim Brown, who had been star running back at Syracuse University, and his coach Ben Schwartzwalder recruit Davis, although the movie seems to overstate Brown’s
involvement. Also, Schwartzwalder seems to suffer through a dismal season, losing to Holy Cross, but in truth, the loss to Holy Cross was their only loss in the regular season. “The Express” is full of such distortions.
There are a bunch of stock characters in “The Express,” led by Pops (Charles S. Dutton), the wordly-wise grandfather. Guess what happens to him? If you’ve ever
seen a movie, you’ll know.
The other stock characters are Sarah (Nicole Beharie), the intelligent African-American coed at Syracuse; Will (Nelsan Ellis), the friend who is left back in Uniontown, working in the mines; and of course Jack (Omar Benson Miller), the large, good-natured teammate who always has a platitude and a supportive smile.
Rob Brown (“Finding Forrester,” (2000), and “Take the Lead,” (2006)) has a bland but winning personality. He portrays Ernie Davis as a very decent fellow. In “The Express,” Davis has few edges and only occasional moments of volatility. Calmness dominates.
The actor who gives “The Express” its vigor is Dennis Quaid. Although it may seem as though he has played many coaches, this is his initial role as a coach. As Ben Schwartzwalder, who coached the Orangemen for 24 years, Quaid plays a man pulled by two different worlds, the old and the new. Like America, his character is undergoing an inevitable transition.
But director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who adapted a book by Robert Gallagher, weren’t satisfied to leave history alone. It seems filmmakers always think they need a “run, Forrest, run” sequence in their sports movies. They just can’t allow an authentic moment to remain unimbellished.
In “Invincible” (2006), Mark Wahlberg played Vince Papale, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles. In reality Papale tackled a kick returner, who fumbled, and Papale recovered and ran for a short touchown. That in itself was terrifically dramatic. And authentic. But in the movie “Invincible,” it was turned into a long TD run. Run, Forrest, run.
In “The Express” there are several such meaningless distortions. In the actual Cotton Bowl in 1960 when undefeated Syracuse played Texas, Ernie Davis caught a pass for an 87-yard touchdown. It was on the second play from scrimmage. But in the movie, it is put much later in the game for psuedo-dramatic purpose. And the pass seems to be a long heave that stays in the air forever. Then we get a distant shot that shows the play was mostly a run. Jeez.
But, perhaps, the most contrived element in “The Express” is the pivotal game at West Virginia in 1959. It is a bitter racial frenzy, with the fans throwing bottles and spewing viciously at the Syracuse players who had three African-Americans on the team. It is one of the most intense, provocative scenes in the movie. But guess what? There is only one problem. The game in 1959 was a home game at Syracuse. Not at West Virginia.
I know from personal experience that West Virgina was a hotbed of racial anger. When I went with the Villanova basketball team to a game in Morgantown, the fans screamed, “Is Villanova a Negro school?” Except they didn’t say Negro.
But that game actually was at West Virginia.
There is also an irony in that years later, coach Ben Schwartzwalder was accused of discrimination by nine players who boycotted spring practice at Syracuse. What happened? Did Ben suffer a relapse?
What’s bothersome about “The Express” is that it is a good movie based on truth, but it sells truth short. Ernie Davis and a significant era of America deserve better. The most galling thing about sports movies is when they take what is actually dramatic and twist it into inauthentic posing.
When in doubt, distort.
Run, Forrest, and Vince, and Ernie, run away from reality.
On the Aisle