A Review - The Express: The Ernie Davis
By Al Owens
FIRST, A LITTLE BACKGROUND: There are well over three thousand counties in the
United States. The odds that two of the first 27 recipients of one of the
highest honors in all of sports – The Heisman Trophy – would have been natives
of one county – Fayette County, Pennsylvania, must have been enormous.
Connellsville’s illustrious quarterback Johnny Lujack was the 13th Heisman
He’d led the Notre Dame Irish to three National Championships. What’s even more
fascinating is the fact he’d quarterbacked the Irish to the first championship
in 1943. He then joined the military, and when he returned to college – he led
them to two more of those championships.
New Salem born and (for 12 years) Uniontown resident, Ernie Davis, had an
equally compelling story. He would become the first African-American to win the
Heisman, after voters had overlooked members of his race 26 times.
The odds makers, too, would have not wanted to place any odds on the fact that
in the same year Uniontown’s Davis would gain All America honors, his fellow
Uniontown native (and fellow Midget League teammate) Sandy Stephens, would also
become a first string All American.
Yet, unlike Lujack who went on to lead NFL’s Chicago Bears and would become an
All-Pro on both defense (1948) and on offense (1950), Davis never had the
opportunity to play in a single professional football game.
He died of leukemia at the age of 23.
His early life, his battles, his accomplishments and ultimately his untimely
death – are the framework for the new Universal Studios release – The Express.
THE MOVIE: The Express begins in Uniontown. Young Ernie Davis and his uncle
Willie are seen walking railroad tracks – collecting empty pop bottles to earn
They encounter a group of racist white kids who try to strong arm the bottles
away from them and teach them never to venture “north of Union Street.” (A bit
of dramatic license, since Union Street runs north and south)
Willie Davis flees on a passing train. Ernie runs on foot. He outruns the pack,
and he makes it back home with the sack full of bottles in tact.
A few moments later, he and his grandfather, also named Willie, gaze through a
window at (another example of dramatic license) the fictional Uniontown Modern
On one of the display TV’s they can see the image of Jackie Robinson.
Those two scenes are really what this film is all about.
Davis’ ability to escape racial hostility by simply beating people at their own
game – and his fervent desire to reach heights that had never before been
reached, define this movie.
Yet, to some degree, Gary Fleder, the film’s director, seems to have gotten lost
on the way to making a movie about an extraordinary human being. He instead,
made a football movie. It’s one that’s mostly satisfying, but lacks stronger
emotional impact, because Hollywood convention got in the way.
The film follows Davis from Uniontown to Elmira, N.Y., where he gains prominence
as an exceptional athlete. Always, near the surface is his grandfather, played
with requisite sensitivity by Charles S. Dutton (Rudy, and TV’s Roc), and who
becomes the real emotional center of the film.
Yet, when Davis matriculates to Syracuse University, the film begins to go thin.
After repetitive scenes that indicate Davis’ athletic prowess, there are even
more scenes that indicate the very same thing.
Ok, I get it. He’s a fast, elusive running back, with racial demons constantly
chasing him off, but mainly on a football field.
There are so many scenes that request your patience in that regard, you begin to
wonder if Davis actually played that many games in real life.
Yet, the film stands on its own as a fine tribute when the characters are
allowed to reveal parts of their humanity.
The movie’s most recognizable face, Dennis Quaid Dennis Quaid (The Right Stuff,
The Rookie) may have had the toughest job of all.
He had to inhabit the body of Ben Schwartzwalder, the hard nosed Syracuse coach,
who had to somehow show human side, while at the same time, exude the toughness
of a Marine drill instructor.
Quaid struggled hard not to become a caricature. But the material doesn’t always
allow him to win that struggle.
Rob Brown (Coach Carter, Finding Forrester) as the title character fared a
little better. He gives a winning portrait of a likeable, charismatic young man
- with dignity at his heart.
When the script eventually calls for Davis to begin showing the effects of a
disease he will never escape, Fleder avoids the usual slow death scenes with a
once vibrant man, falling into decline.
That’s to his credit. But unfortunately, he also injects the movie with far too
many football clichéd moments that work against a story that should have had a
natural emotional appeal.
MY TAKE: The Express is a movie that should be seen by everybody living in
Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It is, if not a great film, a worthwhile
historical document that reveals certain purity, without becoming sappy. That is
something rare out of Hollywood these days.
For national audiences, this could be a more difficult sell. While it possesses
the nuggets of a great story - it only possesses part of its spirit.
THE EXPRESS: Opens October 10th at Uniontown Mall – Carmike 6 Theatres