It's hard to make a movie about a saint. Someone who's unfailingly brave, polite, patient, dedicated and hard-working provides little dramatic fodder, unless fate or his enemies kick him around. Even “Gandhi” derived some excitement from the fact that some Indians disapproved of the G-man and his tactics. But everybody liked Ernie Davis.
That's what makes “The Express” slow, steady going. It's an inspirational football tear-jerker in the tradition of “The Knute Rockne Story” and “Brian's Song,” and it's old-fashioned in ways good and bad: It espouses values many of us have forgotten or still need to learn, yet it's unwilling to dig into the dark corners of Davis' soul and life – assuming there were any.
It comes from “Elmira Express: The Story of Ernie Davis,” a worshipful biography by Robert C. Gallagher. (Davis lived in Elmira, N.Y.)
The book depicts Davis as the rare athlete who never slacked, offended or did anything staggeringly stupid. He became an All-American running back at Syracuse University in the early '60s and the first African American to win the Heisman trophy. Gallagher's interviewees recalled Davis' kindness, selflessness and willingness to work as hard as less talented teammates.
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The screenplay by Charles Leavitt (who wrote the socially conscious “Blood Diamond”) follows that model, but Leavitt realized he'd better add meat to those sanctified bones. So he reminds us constantly of the civil rights era around Davis; he seldom suggests Davis was an activist, but his courage in playing before Southern racists reminds us of the turmoil the United States went through.
Leavitt and director Gary Fleder also shift the focus of the book from Davis' life to his relationship with coach Ben Schwartzwalder (played by Dennis Quaid, who gets top billing over Rob Brown in the title role). Schwartzwalder can hardly be portrayed as a bigot – he recruited Jim Brown five years before Davis – but the movie makes him seem unaware of the things black players went through.
The movie glosses over details about which I wanted to know more. (Davis was reportedly the first black man to join Sigma Alpha Mu, the Jewish fraternity known for members such as author Philip Roth and NBA commissioner David Stern.) By the time it reaches its dramatic climax, we can't help but feel we've gotten the point about brotherhood more than once.
The acting is credible, and Darrin Dewitt Henson has an eye-grabbing role as Jim Brown, who helped convince Davis to attend his alma mater. Brown dominated the NFL before quitting at the height of his career to act in “The Dirty Dozen,” star in blaxploitation movies, become Richard Pryor's confidant and have one of the screen's first hot interracial romances (in “100 Rifles,” with Raquel Welch). I'd look forward to a dramatization of his life.