When we wrote last week (linked here, with a blog followup linked here) about how the fact fudging in the movie “The Express” about the life of former Syracuse star and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis started to bother us to a point where we even suggested Hollywood create some kind of “Truth Committee” that puts a label on sports films to let the audience know just how much bending of information was done to someone’s real story, we wondered if it was only us who was making a bigger stink about this.
At least one other astute media writer, Neil Best at New York’s Newsday, added his thoughts (linked here) and backed up the notion that a dramatic license in Hollywood doesn’t necessarily mean you can drive on the other side of the road without fear of injuring someone. Ask the West Virginia football fans.
It led us to finding NBC/HBO sportscaster Bob Costas, a graduate of the famed Syracuse communications department in the early 1970s who was asked by the producers to help in the promotion of the movie, for his take. Costas did a sit-down interview with another Syracuse star, Jim Brown, portrayed in the film as the person who helped recruit Davis, that aired before a recent NBC Notre Dame telecast. Costas also did voice-over work on radio spots for the movie.
Costas felt that while some liberties were taken, it was not much different than what scenes were altered in other films such as “Glory Road,” on Don Haskins’ 1966 Texas Western basketball team’s run to the NCAA title with five African-American players and how they were treated during that time. The same with Ron Howard’s portrayal of James Braddock in “Cinderella Man,” in how Max Baer’s character may have been done up almost cartoonish in order to get a dramatic effect across.
A Q-and-A with Costas from this morning hitting on some of our problems with “The Express”:
==On his involvement with the film’s promotion:
“(The film’s producers) were naturally interested because of my Syracuse connection. When I saw a screening that wasn’t fully edited in March, I liked it and spoke with (director) Gary Fleder, who invited me to the premiere (in September). My general feeling was that it’s a moving story. Certainly, there’s a greater interest in Davis in the East, but I know from those who attended the premiere, there were more than a few tears (in the audience). It’s a great thing that this ‘forgotten person’ was a great person and he got his due.”
==On his exposure to stories lately about some of “The Express” fact-twisting:
“I did see some. We know that the (1960) Cotton Bowl didn’t go down to the last play and Syracuse won big. There are certain events that are composit to reflect the general tone of the times, to pull together a sense of the overall conditions in the country that impacted Davis and create a specific dialogue. A lot would say that’s just a case of dramatic license.”
==On the specific case of those in West Virginia who says the scene showing the Mountaineer fans pelting Davis and Syracuse with garbage was fabricated:
“I imagine if someone was from there and would have known that particular game was not as specifically ugly or the crowd was like that, again, what I’d guess is the elements of that were present and it was pulled together for dramatic purposes. Whether the West Virginia coach said those exact things, what is essentially true is the attitude that was out there at that time. …there were a lot of subtle racists attitudes that were around then, and in the 1950s and ’60s, there were people in authority who expressed racists attitude without regard, almost shocking now but maybe not so shocking back then.
“I think that’s was Gary was trying to pul together. If this exact thing didn’t happen in that exact place, those issues were bubbling everywhere in the country.”
==On how you trust a sports movie staying true to its story:
“Whenever the subject is sports or not, when it says it is ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by a true story,’ that’s the caviat that you are aware of. Jim Brown said they essentially got everything right. The story wasn’t just that Ernie Davis was a great football player who had a tragic ending, but he was a person of common grace. It’s a worthwile story of a forgotten American sports figure. Unless you’re from that part of the country, even if you’re an avid college football fan who logs 10 hours a week of ‘SportsCenter,’ you probably didn’t know about him. It’s a rich story that was largly unknown. I was aware of him with my background and I knew (coach) Ben Schwartzwalder a little. I will say he caught one of the great breaks since Rocky Rocky Marciano was played by Paul Newman (in the 1956 movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me”). By any measure, Dennis Quaid (who played Schwartzwalder in “The Express”) was an upgrade for a man who someone said looked like an anvil with ears.
“The other thing that Jim Brown said, and was confirmed by Schwartzwalder’s widow who is 96 now and liked the movie, is they got the essense of his character correct as well. He was not a bigot. He said himself he didn’t understand the subtlies of what was going on at that time. Schwartzwalder was touched by Davis and he changed because of their relationship.
==On his overall take of “The Express”:
“I’m not that critical of the film. I know it was a labor of love. A lot of it is very touching. The football scenes were very well done. Rob Brown (as Davis) is very plausable. And the tone of the times seems authentic. They got it from the people who knew him. So if you bring the dynamics of the time in the space of two hours, it may not be literally true, but it is essentially true to the times.”
(Where to buy that Ernie Davis NFL rookie card? It’s $124 at this link).