Monday, 24 June 2024

Uplifting sports movie rolls nicely in 'The Express'


I am a sucker for uplifting sports movies, no matter whether it involves an individual or the entire team overcoming great odds to triumph in a blaze of glory. Simply put, “The Express” is that kind of inspirational homage to athletic achievement.

This fact-based story follows the extraordinary life of college football hero Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.

To this day, considering his fight for equality and respect in the turbulent late 1950s and early 1960s, Davis is arguably as deserving of being a civil rights icon in the sports world as Jackie Robinson. At least, “The Express” will leave an indelible impression that Ernie Davis is a real hero worthy of lasting recognition.

“The Express” rolls out the story of football glory when the No. 1 ranked Syracuse University Orangemen square off against the University of Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1960.

At this point, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) is the outstanding running back on the Syracuse team coached by Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), a decorated veteran and Southerner with a single vision of a national championship.

Then, in a series of flashbacks that start before the first snap of the ball, the story of Ernie’s journey from early childhood in the care of his Pennsylvania coal miner grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) to his standout high school years as a football player in Elmira, New York, unfolds.

Having acquired the nickname of the “Elmira Express,” high school wonder Ernie is scouted by numerous coaches from prestige schools. Coach Schwartzwalder is most persistent, going so far as to use Syracuse alum Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), the legendary football player for the Cleveland Browns, to help persuade Ernie during the recruiting process.

It’s not that the coach is so eager to recruit black players, considering that Brown was difficult to handle. It’s simply that he recognized talent, even at a time that blacks weren’t fully accepted on college campuses in the integrated North.

When Ernie first arrives at Syracuse, he draws stares and antagonism from many unfriendly white students. Fortunately, Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller), another black student on the football squad, becomes Ernie’s friend and soul mate, and together they deal with intractable racism both on and off the field. Even on the enlightened Syracuse campus, the athletes of color have to overcome inherent prejudice.

Things are really ugly when the team travels on the road during its championship season, facing an extremely hostile crowd in West Virginia, where the coach warns the players to keep their helmets on at all times.

The stark reminder of the nasty racism of the pre-Civil Rights era shows up most vividly and forcefully during the famous Cotton Bowl game. Playing in front of a hostile crowd in Dallas, the Syracuse Orangemen are subjected to vile taunts and hostility. Worse of all, the referees were clearly biased in favor of the Texas Longhorns, overlooking late hits and other infractions by the home team. It’s little wonder that at some point the contest turns from a game into a full-blown brawl clearing both teams’ benches.

When Syracuse wins the championship, the team is invited to celebrate at a whites-only country club. Of course, Ernie and Jack are pointedly excluded from the festivities, and by now the Orangemen have bonded so that the entire team refuses to attend if the black teammates are excluded.

It’s not until the next season that Ernie is in the running for the Heisman Trophy, winning it and capping another milestone in his college career.

“The Express” turns poignant and sad when Ernie’s post-college career is cut short by leukemia. Rob Brown’s Ernie endures his challenges on and off the field with dignity and grace. To be sure, the movie is a very inspirational sports story, but you come away with the feeling that there’s much more to know about the Ernie Davis story.

This standout player will never be a household name like Jackie Robinson, or even Jim Brown, but “The Express” helps to bring some well-deserved recognition, and in the process delivers a very appealing entertainment.


Aficionados of Alfred Hitchcock are going to love the DVD release of the “Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection,” featuring eight restored and remastered classic films, some of which have been out of print for years.

The set is highlighted by Hitchcock’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, “Rebecca,” starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in a dark tale of love and obsession.

Ingrid Bergman appears in two classics, first alongside Gregory Peck in “Spellbound,” and with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” a tale of crime, passion and espionage. Gregory Peck defends a beautiful woman accused of poisoning her husband in “The Paradine Case.”

The spy thriller “Sabotage,” the drama “Young and Innocent,” and the high seas thriller “Lifeboat” are also featured. The terrifying whodunit “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is one of Hitchcock’s earliest films.

This DVD collection is loaded with extras, including screen tests, still galleries, vintage radio interviews, an “AFI Tribute to Hitchcock” and more.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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