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Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express,
the Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner
by Robert C. Gallagher
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
. "The Express"

Many sports films start out with the handicap of being written by someone who thinks that the characters representing the sides need to be polarized as good and bad. Our guys and their guys. A sub genre known as "first black" suffers even more from hack writing by dividing the viewpoints along color lines. But, when you're telling the story of a man who was such a great football player that he was honored with a Heisman Trophy, why is it necessary to make him such an immaculate goodie-good that you can't relate to him as a fellow human being? Why does he get the stereotype treatment?

Was Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) really such a perfect pancake of a guy when he took over the team leadership role from graduating Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) at Syracuse College? Of course, his field dominance is undisputed, as the record shows. But in this rendering of the role, Davis' off-field energy and individuality is sapped until all that's left is a robotic mechanism in a uniform. There's an occasional glimpse of the man, here, but for anyone wanting a full-out realistic portrayal, the character impression is highly suspect. It makes one long for a warts-and-all portrait.

The field plays are uneven--poor to pretty good--and, when they're good enough to make you groan in sympathy, it's owing as much to the sound effects as to the choreography.

As for acting, the sole performance worth talking about is Dennis Quaid's, ("Vantage Point") playing the standout college coach Ben Schwartzwalder who found a way, with Davis, to nurture his Orangemen into their first national championship. Besides pushing his personal envelope to one of his best pieces of work, his is the only part that develops a developmental arc. What we see here is a coach who, in the civil rights chaos of the early 1960s, was probably as cut in the ways of everyday prejudice as anyone. But, there's a transformation in the tough man.

The effect his star player has on Schwartzwalder's understanding of the issues offers a grain of truth and salvages the film from the garbage heap of PR fluff. Yes, somewhere along the line, when the black members of his team were expected NOT to deliver the touchdown and not insist on a hotel room equal to those afforded to the white team members, he learned to demand what was right. He saw the changes coming and fought to have them realized on the field. It was a time when Jackie Robinson of baseball was carving out a new social dynamic in sports and Schwartzwalder was astute enough to join the charge.

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Following in those exalted footsteps, the Davis history includes a tragic ending. Following his draft into the NFL--when playing for Cleveland was his strongest desire--his dream was denied by Leukemia which, in short time, would take his life. But not his legend.

Too bad the movie is too busy representing the civil rights injustices of the sixties with a synthetic spotlessness to score a real and grimy touchdown of new-millenium credibility and inspiration.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Dennis Quaid and Rob Brown
College coach, star player.

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