Carly at the Movies: Football like it really was

Column by Carl Larsen

For some reason, the name Ernie Davis has been all but forgotten by all but the most rabid football fans. So a film like “The Express,” currently playing at the Colonial Mall Cinemas in Staunton, comes along at the right time to remind us of his accomplishments and tell a whacking good story at the same time.

It’s the based-on-fact tale of the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy. A common enough happening nowadays. But this was an amazing eventt in a time when the civil-rights movement was just beginning in America.

“The Express” is far better than many of the other “First Black” films (i.e. the oldies about Jackie Robinson or Joe Louis), and under the hand of TV director Gary Fleder tries like crazy to avoid the usual sports film clichés.

But how the heck are you gonna get away from The Big Game Syndrome? At least the Big Game in this movie is well-done. The football players shown are portrayed by real players, many of them with NFL experience, and the good guys are not always noble. Let’s give it a high mark for Attempted Authenticity.

Davis was a remarkable running back who played at Syracuse when traveling teams were segregated and black players were shockingly abused by many fans, verbally and physically.

The scenes depicting Syracuse University’s visits to play teams like West Virginia and Texas are jaw-droppingly good reminders that we aren’t really many years beyond a moral Dark Ages.

Davis is well-played by Rob Brown, the young, untrained actor who popped up in the lead of “Finding Forrester” back in 2000. He looks good on the gridiron, too, as he actually played college ball at Amherst.

The Syracuse football coach at the time, Ben Schwartzwalder, is portrayed by reliable Dennis Quaid, veteran of several previous sports-related films like “The Rookie” (2002) and “Any Given Sunday” (1999). And he’s shown as being not entirely gallant, either. After all, coaches have always faced a variety of pressures and, like the rest of us, do not always take the high road.

So in some ways, “The Express” is a cut above your usual sports film. But in other ways, well, perhaps it’s the nature of the game. You’re bound to recognize some situations, and of course there’s no real surprise along the way.

My biggest complaint was that one of my favorite character actors, Charles S. Dutton, didn’t get more screen time. He plays Ernie’s grandfather. The females in this movie are pretty much along for the ride; whether they’re Mom or That Cute Co-ed, they’re essentially cheerleaders. Such is the nature of athletics. On film, anyway.

My whole moviegoing experience was enhanced, I must add, by my local theater’s new gimmick to lure customers on slow days. Harkening back to the age of Dish Nights at the movies, every Tuesday is now “B.Y.O.B.” day. No, that’s not “bring your own bottle,” it’s “bring your own bag.”

Show up with any size bag you choose on any given Tuesday, and they’ll fill that sucker with hot popcorn for fifty cents instead of the usual seven bucks. I walked in with a standard-sized grocery bag, plunked down my two quarters, and had enough popcorn to last a week.

It’s a great idea that could bring throngs to theaters in Staunton, one would think. And, of course, fulfill the lifelong dream of us popcorn lovers. Hint, hint.

But let’s get back (chomp, chomp) to The (chomp, chomp) Express.

The movie is rated PG, and it’s a good one to take the kids to. The moral lessons aren’t too sappy, and while we tend to glamorize athletics, let’s not forget the past. We surely don’t want to have to re-live it.


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