Racism is bad and it almost never wins. If you didn’t know that, you haven’t been watching sports movies for the last fifty years. The Express is another in a long line of movies where a sports figure kicks racism’s ass.
It’s tough to make a movie about trailblazer who didn’t actually blaze any trails. Ernie Davis was a college running back from 1959 to 1961 who was the first black football player to win the Heisman Trophy, the highest award given in that realm. He didn’t really break down any other doors, so the two plus hours of The Express mostly focuses on how being a black man in the late 1950’s sorta sucked and that football players and their coaches often clash, but also have a father-son type of relationship.
The Express comes right out of the Pride, Glory Road, Remember the Titans, and Running Brave school of racism in sports movie clichés. After a too long look at his youth, Davis (Ron Brown) is recruited by Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) to play football at Syracuse University. He’s great and sets all sorts of records, but has to deal with racist teammates, racist opposing fans, players, and coaches, racist referees, and his kinda racist coach. Ben is ok with Davis running the football, but not dating white girls. Some of the racist events were reportedly invented by the filmmakers, making you wonder how much of this movie that is “inspired by real events” is actually real.
The relationship between Davis and Schwartzwalder is the heart of the movie and both actors do their best to rise above the standard sports biopic box they are put into by director Gary Fleder and writer Charles Leavitt. Quaid portrays a man who cares more about winning the National Championship than championing racial injustice. Brown also gets more into Davis’ genuine niceness and politeness and ability to get along with seemingly everyone than being the type of activist some wanted him to be.
I genuinely like the relationship between the two men and that helps make the film more interesting to watch. I also like the many football scenes and felt they have a realism that is often lacking sports films. Fleder uses the same guy who worked on Friday Night Lights to stage the games and Brown has a real athleticism that is a long way from John Goodman as Babe Ruth.
The movie does go on too long though. It also makes its climactic football event be the 1960 Cotton Bowl between Syracuse and Texas. The build up all goes to that game rather than the 1961 Heisman win, which is what supposedly made Davis such a forerunner. When he wins you wouldn’t know it was such a big deal since it is hardly ever discussed during the movie. There is also a fairly long final act after the Cotton Bowl dealing with Davis’ health as he makes the jump from college to pro that feels anti-climatic and adds nothing to the story that had been told up to that point.
Your interest in this movie is probably going to be directly related to your interest in football and football movies. If you aren’t generally into those, then this probably isn’t the movie for you. If you do like your movie football crunching then this reaches the recommend level by the skin of its teeth. Enjoy The Express, but don’t expect too much.
The Express was a pretty big bomb in theaters, earning about $10 million on a $40 million budget. The producers could have let the lack of interest cause them to make this a bare bones DVD release, but they did, to their credit, try to put a little something into it for those who did bother to buy or rent. The picture and sound are excellent and there are some decent extras.
Director Gary Fleder provides a commentary track. It’s interesting in that he spends a lot of time talking about the uncredited work done by The Rookie director John Lee Hancock on the script. Other than saying there is a difference between “truth and fact,” he doesn’t speak much about scenes in the movie that aren’t actually true. Like the game at West Virginia where Ernie is subject to racist anger from the fans; several people have pointed out that there was no game in West Virginia that year and that the actions of the fans were not true to history. It would be nice to hear this taken head on, but Fleder doesn’t even admit the scenes (and others) aren’t true.
Fleder also provides an optional commentary for about seven minutes of deleted scenes. These are pretty non-essential scenes (which is why they were cut), including one where Ernie stops at a Texas gas station and sees a whites only drinking fountain. Like a lot of the racism scenes that were left in the movie, it’s very direct and heavy handed, and Fleder was fortunately talked out of using it.
In addition to the commentaries, there are four other extras. “Making of The Express” is just what it sounds like, a standard making-of featurette. It features interviews with the actors and creative people and behind-the-scenes shots. Although only 13 minutes long, it does spend more time on the look of the cinematography and the period detail than you might normally find in one these extras. That’s good, as these things are often so carbon copied, anything different is a welcome diversion.
“Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis” is also 13 minutes and discusses Davis the person, rather than Davis the movie personage. It includes some of his former teammates, family members, and childhood friends as well as his predecessor running back at Syracuse, Jim Brown. Everyone talks about how great a guy and athlete Davis was and even people like Bob Costas, who was 11 when Davis died, speaks about his personality as though Costas knew him. It’s worth watching but as with anyone’s memories, you wonder how much is truth and how much is how they want things to be.
The five-minute “From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis” looks like it was made specifically for Syracuse University. It really only deals with what was shot on campus and also the premier that was held in Syracuse. It even interviews students who were used as extras. Some places are mentioned on campus by name, making you think that Syracuse students or potential students were the target audience.
Finally, there are about seven minutes detailing the football scenes from the movie. Rather than the presentation being in the format of a featurette, director Fleder and football consultant Alan Graf do a commentary on the movie and rehearsal footage of the football scenes. They even use a Maddenesque pen to draw right on the screen. It’s more effective than a puff piece and interesting for movie football fans like me.
I am mildly impressed by the number of extras and effort that have been put into this DVD release. The movie isn’t great, but the DVD would be a good rental for the football fan in the house.