Rated PG. Click here to view the trailer.
It’s hard to dump all over a movie that exposes the ugliness of prejudice and unfounded hate while showcasing the triumph of the human spirit, but I’m going to have to do it.
Rob Brown is Ernie Davis, the Syracuse halfback nicknamed The Elmira Express. He overcomes expectations, an inexplicable speech impediment (the movie promptly loses this subplot) and hate to become to become the first African American to win the coveted Heisman Trophy (1961). The movie follows his college career at ‘Cuse and focuses largely on his relationship with coach Ben Schwartwalder, played by Dennis Quaid. Coach Schwartzwalder is racist in a 1960s old-white-guy-who-thinks-he-is-tolerant-of-“negroes”-but-really-isn’t kind of way, although we wouldn’t have much of a movie if Davis’ heart and determination didn’t show him the beauty and value of every human being blah blah blah.
The Express is an OK effort but this same movie has just been done so many times and there’s nothing special here, save that it’s based on a true story. If you wanted to get picky about it, you might could argue that most movies owe something to previous films in their genre, but the underdog-football-triumph-over-adversity-drama-kum-by-yah thing has been done to death (see Remember the Titans, Any Given Sunday, Brian’s Song, Rudy, Invincible, heck, even The Little Giants).
There is a fairly significant Pride of the Yankees-style “life event” that happens to Davis near the end of the film (it’s common knowledge to any one who knows the story, but I didn’t know it so I won’t spoil it here), but it just tacks on an extra 30 minutes and deflates story that should already be over. Movies aren’t supposed to climax (here, it’s “the big game” vs. vile and racist Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl for the national title, a feat I doubt Syracuse will be repeating this season) near the END of the movie but The Express barrels right on past it and keeps going. Think of it as scoring a touchdown then insisting on wading 20 yards into the stands to give the ball to a poor kid with leukemia. The “life event” would have been fine as a few words scrolling across the screen just before the end credits roll kills all the movie’s momentum. Give credit to The Express for not exactly following the formula, but take it right back for failing to tell a good story. The story may be mostly true (more on that in a minute), but this is a feature film, not an HBO documentary narrated by Bob Costas.
Brown is decent at Davis, but he is just so stinking polite and earnest that it’s annoying and begins veer toward unbelievable. Maybe the real Davis was like that, I don’t know. Quaid does a great job yelling and providing the only real drama in the movie. Sure, he comes to accept Davis but you know he’d have a conniption if Davis started dating his daughter.
The best acting job is turned in by Omar Benson Miller, who plays Davis’ black teammate, JB. His is actually a much more interesting story. He suffered just as much as Davis, but got none of the glory or recognition. As one of Davis’ lineman, you could say he cleared the way for The Elmira Express., but figuratively and literally. I’d like to see a movie about him. I’d also wouldn’t mind a movie about Davis’ hero, Jim Brown, who preceded him at Syracuse. He undoubtedly faced more adversity and it is universal consensus he was denied the Heisman because of the color of his skin. I’m just not sure Davis merits a movie, rest his soul.
There’s no denying that Davis’ Heisman win was a big step toward racial equality, but does it really necessitate a full-length feature? I don’t mean to diminish his accomplishments. I’m sure a black man winning that award meant more than I can imagine. If I were thrust into his cleats, I would have given up and run home. But, being named the best football player in America doesn’t exactly rank high on my list of Civil Rights Landmarks. Should Halle Berry get a biopic because she was the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress?
I’m picking on the movie for not embellishing the story and making it more movie friendly. “But then it’s not true!” That might be, but the movie does take many liberties with reality, so why not take a few more and make a better story? A key moment in the film shows a matchup at West Virginia, where the redneck Mountaineer fans hurl beer bottles and slurs on Davis, thus giving oomph to the whole We Shall Overcome theme. The game on that date was against West Virginia, but it took place at Syracuse and there were no bottles thrown at him (although I do not doubt opposing players took cheap shots). Davis’ quarterback, Dick Easterly, saw the movie and had this to say: “I apologize to the people West Virginia because that did not happen. The scene is completely fictitious. We’re sitting watching this thing, saying, ‘Jeez, where did they get that from?'”
The movie later shows the Orangemen being informed their black teammates cannot attend the Cotton Bowl MVP trophy (which Davis of course won) because the banquet is at an all-white country club. They of course boycott, showing those hillbilly Texans just how much more empathetic Yankees are. In reality, they attended and Davis accepted the trophy.
The movie also shows them riding a bus to that game, seeing racial injustice and Sorrow, riots over school intergration while they ride a bus 1,300 miles through Arkansas. Too bad they actually flew straight from Syracus to Dallas. Once they get to their Dallas hotel, the team’s three black players are forced into a dirty broom closet. In reality, they had a suite.
Again, this is a movie and the writers are allowed to play with the truth to tell the story. Quaid reportedly said that “Sometimes if you get all the facts right, you miss the truth.” In this case, I agree. Creative mainpulation can enahnce a story. But why make those changes to history and not massage Davis’ character to make him more believable? I make this point not to come to the defense of WVU or racists that lived in Oklahoma’s dingy basement, but for the sake of Story. For all his obstacles, Davis’ rise to glory is just too easy and free of speedbumps. Where’s the struggle? At least let his get angry once in a while or show him getting tackled for a loss. Let him get pissed off and punch an opposing player who has been wailing on him all game. Americans wants our heroes to have flaws!
Another note: Easterly apparently agress with me that Jim Brown’s story might make a better movie: “I [saw] a lot of things [in The Express] that never were done to Ernie but maybe happened to Jim Brown. Hell, the movie’s more about him than Ernie.”
A final note: To read more about the movie’s inaccuracies (remember, I’m not saying playing with the truth in a movie is neccesarily wrong), and Davis’ former teammates’ thoughts on the movie, check out this excellent article.