Film The Express stretches the truth
By DAVID BARRON Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Having played on film the likes of singer Jerry Lee Lewis, astronaut Gordon Cooper and gunslinger Doc Holliday, Dennis Quaid knows that the practice of melding reel life and real life is fraught with compromise.
"Sometimes if you get all the facts right," Quaid said, "you miss the truth."
Truth, however, is more than an artistic commodity. Quaid's latest film, The Express, which opens today, unfortunately settles for selective veracity amid an occasionally well-intentioned cartoon depiction of its subject, the late Syracuse running back and Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis.
The basic facts survive generally unscathed. Davis, in life and on film, was a great running back for the Syracuse Orangemen, the first African-American winner of the Heisman and, by all accounts, an even greater young man, a continuing inspiration to those who knew him and played with him.
Davis endured hardship off the field, dying at 23 from leukemia as he prepared for his first season with the Cleveland Browns. He also was the subject of abuse and prejudice on the field; one of the more unfortunate examples occurred in Dallas, where Syracuse played the Texas Longhorns in a fight-marred Cotton Bowl game after winning college football's national championship in 1959.
In search of an allegedly greater truth, unfortunately, the facts are rearranged to a degree that disturbs John Brown, Davis' teammate, roommate and close friend at Syracuse and with the Browns.
Asked whether the film is a truthful portrayal of his friend, Brown, the model for the character J.B. in The Express, offered a less-than-glowing endorsement.
"It is a good Hollywood movie," Brown said. "And I'm happy that through the years of people trying to write something (about Davis) that something was produced. And, in short, no."
In attempting to make points that summarize the nature of Davis' life, character, accomplishments and example, director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt succumbed to a common malady affecting sports films: They exaggerated sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes with hilarious overkill. And, on occasion, they flat-out lied.
Perhaps the most outrageous example is the ugly scene in which the Orangemen, with three African-American players, roll into West Virginia to play the Mountaineers and are greeted with boos, bottles, curses and racial epithets. The hatred and hostility will no doubt shock and outrage viewers; Variety has cited it, in fact, as portraying a "level of racist vitriol pouring out of the stands that is a topical reminder of America's racial heart of darkness."
One problem: The 1959 game between West Virginia and Syracuse was played in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen," Dick Easterly, 69, the quarterback of the 1959 Syracuse team, told the Charleston Daily Mail. "I don't blame people in West Virginia for being disturbed. The scene is completely fictitious."
There are elements of truth in the Cotton Bowl segment, which accounted for three pages in The Elmira Express, Robert C. Gallagher's biography of Davis that is the alleged basis for the film but accounts for probably 15 to 20 minutes of the two-hour movie.
The score is correct — Syracuse beat the Longhorns, 23-14, with Davis winning the most-valuable-player award, and there was a bench-clearing brawl at the end of the first half. Much of the rest, however, is fantasy.
"I know it's a movie," Brown said, "and when you see something that's about your life, it's hard to be objective. I had to keep telling myself, 'This is not a documentary, this is not a documentary.' "
Some of the inventions are comical. Brown chuckled at the scene in which the Syracuse Orangemen, all 80 or so of them, made the 1,300-mile trip from upstate New York to Dallas in a single bus rather than the airplane that actually took them to Texas.
The film also shows Syracuse checking into its Dallas hotel and Davis, Brown and teammate Art Baker assigned an unkempt room with three rumpled cots.
"That was fiction," Brown said. "(The filmmakers) had us living in a pigsty. We actually stayed in a suite that was located behind the kitchen that had a separate entrance. They did tell us to stay off the elevator, though."
Filmmakers took liberties with the game as well. To heighten the tension, they show Texas cutting the score to 15-14 before Syracuse scores a final touchdown. In fact, the Orangemen, who were two-touchdown favorites, led 23-6 before Texas' final fourth-quarter score in a 23-14 victory.
The official account of the game does not include anything matching the description of a play in the film in which a Texas player takes a running head start and slams into Davis from behind after the ball has been blown dead.
Another scene depicts Davis being visited in the Syracuse locker room by Jim Brown, his predecessor as Syracuse's top running back, and encouraged to return despite an injured leg. Davis, of course, returns and promptly reels off a long touchdown run.
Play sheets from the game, however, indicate that Davis remained in the game throughout the second half. While he did have an 87-yard touchdown play, it occurred on the second play of the game, not in the second half.
There was, however, a fight during the game that apparently had racial overtones. According to accounts compiled by the late Austin sportswriter Lou Maysel, author of Here Come the Texas Longhorns, the brawl erupted after Texas lineman Larry Stephens directed a racial slur at Brown. Stephens died in 1998, and Brown declines to discuss the incident in deference to Stephens' memory.
After the game, the on-screen Orangemen refuse to attend the postgame awards banquet because their African-American teammates will not be allowed to attend. They are shown accepting their trophies at a Dallas barbecue joint.
Once again, Brown said, there's an element of truth — but not much.
"We all attended the banquet," he said. "Texas was on one side, and we were on the other side. They had the speeches, and we ate And they handed out the trophies, and then me, Art and Ernie were asked to leave. We were taken by a representative of the NAACP to another party in Dallas."
One of the Orangemen, Ger Schwedes, suggested that the entire team leave in support of their African-American teammates, Brown said. School officials, however, vetoed the suggestion.
Davis, unfortunately, was not unaffected by his treatment in Dallas. According to a relative interviewed for an ESPN SportsCentury documentary that aired in 2000, he resorted to his childhood habit of stuttering when he described the incident.
Brown, however, prefers to remember his return to Dallas in 2001, when he accompanied Davis' family for a ceremony enshrining Davis in the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.
"I ran into Darrell Royal (who in 1959 was in his third season as the Longhorns' coach), and he apologized to me," Brown said. "I will never forget that. He's Darrell Royal. Who am I?
"But he took the time to come up to me and apologize and say that he was trying to win a game and was not aware of what was going on to that extent on the field. He didn't have to come up to me, but he did, and I will always appreciate that."
There are other departures from fact in The Express. One scene depicts the ceremony in which Davis is announced from among three finalists as the winner of the Heisman Trophy. However, it was not until 1977 that the Heisman winner was announced in that fashion; prior to that, the winner was announced via a news release and then invited to an awards banquet in New York.
Another scene shows Davis, wearing his Cleveland Browns uniform, preparing to be introduced to the crowd at a Browns game. The introduction took place, but Davis was dressed in street clothes, unable to don his uniform because of a decree by Browns coach Paul Brown.
Brown, however, is most offended by a scene in which Davis was shown shouting at his coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, who is played by Quaid.
"Ernie didn't like to hurt people, and they had him being confrontational," Brown said. "He was too respectful of Ben to get into an argument with him in front of the team. That never would have happened."
He also disapproves of the manner in which Schwartzwalder is portrayed.
"Ben had been an Army trooper. He was gruff," Brown said. "He may have been a bigot. He was from West Virginia, and at that time people assimilated whatever their constituencies were. But he was never mean, in my opinion, and in the movie I think they made him too mean."
Despite his qualms about the film, Brown is grateful that moviegoers will have a chance to learn about his friend.
"Some fans today probably think that the Heisman was always won by a black guy. But that's not true," Brown said. "And so I'm glad that people can see this film to learn that there really was an Ernie Davis and that he was a really, really exceptional person."
He wishes, however, that the film had been closer to the Ernie Davis he knew.
"He was a gentleman and a gentle man. He really was," Brown said.