' Cinema Romantico: The Express

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Express

If you know me, or if you've been reading along with this blog from the beginning, you know how much I love college football. It's important to me, and it's not that I just cheer for a particular team passionately (which I do) but that I also fancy myself an exceedingly amateur college football historian. It's why in a lot of ways I'm really glad a biopic of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, has reached the big screen. Most people know about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball and Jesse Owens' four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and Texas Western University starting five black players against five white players from the University of Kentucky en route to winning the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship (recorded not all that faithfully in the film "Glory Road") but not as many people know about the 1960 Cotton Bowl in which Syracuse took three black players into the heart of Texas and Jim Crow and defeated the Lone Star State's favorite team in a racially charged game. A game in which Davis accepted the Cotton Bowl MVP afterwards at a Dallas country club....and then had to leave since the club didn't allow blacks. But sports movie tend to trod a well-worn path and every time the screenwriter and director approach a fork in the road for some reason they tend to ignore the sage advice of poet Robert Frost and take the road more traveled.

Before going any further I should probably state for the record that my affection for the sport means I'm probably not the best person to offer fair analysis. In his review for the esteemed New York Times, A.O. Scott stated that the majority of viewers' "knowledge of college football in the 1960's is hazy or non-existent." And that's probably accurate. And maybe those people can enjoy this movie more than me. My knowledge of college football at that time is not hazy nor non-existent. I know about Ernie Davis and I know about the 1960 Cotton Bowl and....but I'll get to that.

So, as established, "The Express" is fairly standard. The most important relationship is between player and coach (Ben Schwarzwalder who is played here by Dennis Quaid, a solid performance in which he apparently gargled with gravel before each take) and there is a grotequesly underdeveloped love interest and a Best Friend/Teammate (Omar Benson Miller) and a supportive uncle (Charles Dutton who, along with the appearance of the man who played Notre Dame coach Dan Devine in "Rudy" as the Syracuse athletic director, apparently means these two are required to be in college football movies) and dialogue that isn't so much words as it is platitudes and, of course, the Inspirational Locker Room Speech (which is fairly weak, actually - I'd give two out of ten) and a heap of sap. But it does have a few things going for it.

I liked the way it showed that even at a school in the north there was a still a clear racial divide and I thought the film did a pretty good job of showing how the coach was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of blacks playing for him but also recognized the best player should play and slowly came to have his eyes opened with no small assist by Davis himself and, hey, I liked the music score, too, in the way it lent the feel of a collegiate marching band to most of it.

Unfortunately, Rob Brown is a bit disappointing in the lead role. Yes, he looks a lot like the real-life Ernie Davis, but he's very just very blah. No charisma. His smile when he wins the Heisman Trophy is just so phony. I would have preferred Derek Luke, a terrific actor, or, if they could have made this movie several years ago, a younger Will Smith.

But my main issue boils down to the following question: why do sports movies so routinely insist on fudging facts when it's not necessary? I understand that not every single fact can be represented faithfully and not every word every person said was written down and, for God's sake, I'm even willing to forgive the fact "The Express" teaches us that Ernie Davis learned he would make a good running back in much the same manner as Forrest Gump. Sometimes, though, movies take it too far in their re-ordering of the truth for what the filmmakers (in this case Gary Fleder as director and Charles Leavitt as writer) would probably call "dramatic license".

As a young boy Ernie Davis grew up with a stutter and he overcame it the older he got, particularly because he was forced to deal with more social circumstances the more famous he became for his exploits on the football field. The movie, however, solves his stutter in a single passage when the Uncle has Ernie read a bible passage at the dinner table and tells him to take a breath. Really? Really?

The aforementioned "Glory Road" was guilty of taking a landmark event and turning it around because Texas Western did not come from behind to defeat Kentucky in 1966. They led the whole game. Ernie Davis had an injured hamstring in the 1960 Cotton Bowl, yes, but he did not sit out after halftime only to return heroically against his coach's wish and lead his team to victory. He played the whole game. The 87 yard touchdown catch you see Davis after the make-believe return-from-the-locker-room moment happened, sure, but it happened on the third play of the game, not in the fourth quarter.

Perhaps I'm nit-picking. But perhaps not. The movie is correct that there was a brawl in the game - purported to be incited by a racial slur by one of the Texas players and chronicled in Life Magazine at the time - but they also make the 1960 Cotton Bowl appear to have a crowd that was nothing beyond 50,000 about-to-riot Texans wearing ten gallon hats. I'm surprised these extras weren't given six-shooters to wave wildly.

Likewise the scene set during a game against West Virginia in which their home crowd is portrayed as bottle-throwing thugs which causes Quaid's coach to not allow Davis to score a touchdown for fear of a riot only to watch as Davis refuses his coach's order and goes ahead and scores never happened. Not only did it not happen the game against West Virginia that particular season wasn't played at West Virginia. It was played in Syracuse.

Clearly the filmmakers were trying to craft a morality play, demonstrating racial prejudice during that period in America. Okay, that's fine. But do you really have to change things up so radically to do so? "Glory Road", again, had coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas) tell his team he was starting five black players to make a social statement. Except, of course, that never happened. Haskins started five players, as he said again and again before passing away earlier this year, simply because it gave his team the best chance to win. His decision was made solely for the sake of the game and therefore wound up transcending the game. It's the same damn thing with Ernie Davis but the movie refuses to show it that way.

In real life Davis was a soft-spoken, warm person who did not particularly like confrontation. The movie has him making statements-making statements in regards to racism. But in real life, most especially in that crucial Cotton Bowl game, he never made statements-made statements. He did his - as they have the movie Davis say at one point - "talking on the field."

The problem is "The Express" doesn't have him do his talking on the field.

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