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The Express

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The Express

The Express
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gary Fleder
Produced by John Davis
Written by Charles Leavitt
Based on Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express by Robert C. Gallagher
Starring Rob Brown
Charles S. Dutton
Dennis Quaid
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Kramer Morgenthau
Edited by Padraic McKinley
William Steinkamp
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • October 10, 2008 (2008-10-10)
Running time 130 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $40 million[1]
Box office $9,808,124[1]

The Express (also known as The Express: The Ernie Davis Story) is a 2008 American sports film produced by John Davis and directed by Gary Fleder. The storyline was conceived from a screenplay written by Charles Leavitt from a book titled Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, authored by Robert C. Gallagher. The film is based on the life of Syracuse University football player Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, portrayed by actor Rob Brown. The Express explores civil topics, such as racism, discrimination and athletics.[2]

The motion picture was a co-production between the film studios of Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton star in principal supporting roles. The original motion picture soundtrack with a musical score composed by Mark Isham, was released by the Lakeshore Records label on October 28, 2008.

The Express premiered in theaters nationwide in the United States on October 10, 2008 grossing $9,793,406 in domestic ticket receipts. It earned an additional $14,718 in business through international release to top out at a combined $9,808,124 in gross revenue. Since the film had a $40 million budget, it was a financial failure. However, preceding its initial screening in cinemas, the film was generally met with positive critical reviews. The Blu-ray version of the film, featuring deleted scenes and the director's commentary was released on January 20, 2009.


Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) is a young African American growing up in Pennsylvania with his same-age uncle Will Davis Jr. (Nelsan Ellis), in the late 1940s during a time of racism and discrimination. Davis lives with his extended family, including his grandfather, Willie 'Pops' Davis (Charles S. Dutton), who guides and educates him. Davis' mother, Marie Davis (Aunjanue Ellis), eventually returns to their residence to inform the family that she has remarried and can now afford to raise Ernie at her own home in Elmira, New York. Upon relocating to Elmira, Davis enrolls in a Small Fry Football League and excels on the field as a running back with help of critical blocks from Gil (Michael Mannix).[2]

Several years later, Syracuse University football head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) searches for a running back to address the absence of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), the graduating player completing his All-American senior season. Schwartzwalder is impressed with Davis after viewing footage of him playing for Elmira Free Academy. Schwartzwalder convinces Brown to accompany him on a recruiting visit to see Davis and his family in hopes of luring him to sign with Syracuse. After their visit, Davis decides to enroll at Syracuse and spurns the recruiting efforts of other colleges.[2]

At the start of the 1959 college football season, Davis immediately excels playing for the varsity team, to lead Syracuse to victories over several college football teams. After Syracuse defeats UCLA to conclude the regular season undefeated, the team decides by choice to play the 2nd ranked Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl Classic. During the game on January 1, 1960, Davis boldly attempts to lead his team to victory but is hampered by an injured leg and biased officiating. Towards the end of the game, Davis scores a crucial touchdown to preserve a Syracuse lead. The matchup concludes with a victory for Syracuse, and its first national championship.[2]

In 1961, Davis goes on to win the Heisman Trophy following his senior season in college. He later becomes a professional athlete in the National Football League and signs a contract with the Cleveland Browns. Later however, following a series of health concerns, Davis is taken to a hospital to undergo medical testing. During a routine practice session, team owner Art Modell (Saul Rubinek) informs Davis he will be unable to play the upcoming season due to his condition. Subsequently, Davis holds a press conference and announces he has been diagnosed with leukemia. The Cleveland Browns honor Ernie by allowing him to suit up in uniform and join the team while running out before a televised game.[2]

The film's epilogue displays a series of graphics stating that Davis died on May 18, 1963 at the age of 23; while in condolence, President Kennedy expresses sympathy for Davis' fine character as a citizen and an athlete.[2]



The premise of The Express is based on the true story of Ernie Davis, the charismatic athlete who became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, college football's greatest achievement. Excelling in high school football, Davis was later recruited by dozens of predominantly white universities. A local sports columnist dubbed him the Elmira Express.[3] Davis was told of his terminal illness, leukemia, during the summer of 1962.[3] According to a saddened Art Modell, he said "They told him as gently as they could that it was an incurable case of leukemia. It was awful, but the way he took it, it seemed like much more of a blow to me and his teammates than it was to him."[3]

Following the NFL draft which saw the Washington Redskins trade their pick of Davis to Cleveland for Hall of Fame running back Bobby Mitchell, Davis signed a $100,000 contract with the Browns.[3] On May 16, 1963, Davis visited Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. He promised to make a career comeback even though he looked terminally ill.[4] Two days later on May 18, Davis died from the then-incurable disease. Fellow teammate and close friend John Brown, remembered him as a "genuine gentle man as well as a gentleman."[4] President John F. Kennedy called Davis "an outstanding young man of great character" and "an inspiration to the young people of this country."[4] The book titled Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, authored by writer Robert C. Gallagher, became the basis for the film.

Set design and filming

Filming began in April 2007 at Chicago area locations including Lane Technical High School, Amundsen High School, J. Sterling Morton West High School in Berwyn, Northwestern University in Evanston (at Ryan Field, the Northwestern Football stadium), Aurora, Mooseheart, the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Hyde Park (at the former Windemere Hotel) and at Memorial Park and on Walnut Street and Olde Western Ave. in Blue Island.[5] It concluded its fifty-three day shoot at Syracuse University.[6] Meticulous research was undertaken over several months to recreate the period uniforms and locations depicted, including the creation on film of several stadiums such as Archbold Stadium, that no longer exist. Existing buildings that were not on the Syracuse University campus had to be digitally removed from shots, such as the Carrier Dome.


The original motion picture soundtrack for The Express, was released by the Lakeshore Records label on October 28, 2008. It features songs composed with the considerable use of the violin, trombone and cello musical instruments. The score for the film was orchestrated by Mark Isham.[7] Michael Bauer edited the film's music. Original songs written by musical artists Vaughn Horton, Frankie Miller, Ralph Bass, Ray Charles, and Lonnie Brooks among others, were used in-between dialogue shots throughout the film.[8]

The Express: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Film score by Mark Isham
Released October 28, 2008
Length 49:28
Label Lakeshore Records
The Express: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
No. Title Length
1. "Prologue"   1:31
2. "Jackie Robinson"   2:06
3. "Elmira"   1:57
4. "Lacrosse"   2:07
5. "Training"   4:17
6. "A Meeting"   1:17
7. "A Good Man"   5:45
8. "I'm Staying In"   1:18
9. "Cotton Bowl"   7:36
10. "Don't Lose Yourselves"   4:43
11. "Ernie Davis"   1:37
12. "Heisman"   1:12
13. "Draft"   2:35
14. "Rain"   1:51
15. "I'm An Optimist"   2:46
16. "What Kind of Bottle"   1:49
17. "The Express"   5:02
Total length:

Historical inaccuracies

Journalists and film critics noted that a scene of "racist vitriol"[9] involving the October 24, 1959 game between

Additionally, Lovece remarked that "Aside from the fact that the game didn't even take place there, Schwartzwalder had earlier led West Virginia high-school teams to state championships, and was a beloved and respected figure with devoted fans there who wouldn't have given his teams any lip — so much so that on his death in 1993, WVU even instituted the Cotton Bowl Classic against the University of Texas, recalled no such events and said, "I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen. I don't blame people in West Virginia for being disturbed. The scene is completely fictitious."[11]

Syracuse center Patrick Whelan, a Davis teammate, said of the movie's inaccuracies, "[W]e’re sitting watching this thing, saying, 'Jeez, where did they get that from?' "[12] Screenwriter Charles Leavitt expressed surprise at the scene in the finished film, whose original script did not involve West Virginia.[13] However, Leavitt's explanation that "the scene was supposed to depict a 1958 game at Tar Heels Stadium in North Carolina" is inaccurate on all counts; Davis was a freshman in the 1958 season and therefore did not play on the Orangemen's varsity team; Syracuse did not play North Carolina in football until 1995; and the name of UNC's home field has been Kenan Stadium since its construction in 1927. In addition the story of the game, as far as sequence of plays and scores go, is considerably out of order.[14]

Moreover, some claim that the racial tension depicted in the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic versus the Texas Longhorns is inaccurate, though this is highly disputed. Bobby Lackey, quarterback for the University of Texas states, "I told the Cotton Bowl people that those things didn't happen, and they were making up stories to try and sell more movie tickets, I wasn't going to watch any of that." Lackey continued, "Larry Stephens was my roommate, if anything, he was trying to get the guy into a fight so he could get him thrown out of the game because their athletes were so much better than ours. But I don't know a one of my teammates that said anything derogatory. How are you going to say the N-word in a football game and spit on somebody? Coach Royal would not have put up with that kind of behavior. It was a long time ago, but I know we shook hands and told him nice game and that his team deserved to win." Lackey said, "Then we all walked off the field."[15]

However, Lou Maysel, in his University of Texas football history bio Here Come the Texas Longhorns, wrote that Stephens, "possibly the most even-tempered player on the Texas team," told John Brown, a black offensive tackle for Syracuse, "Keep your black ass out of it," when Brown protested a penalty to an official.[16] Brown stated that there were "guys who called us racist names on the field," including a Texas lineman who kept calling him "a big black dirty [expletive]."[17] Brown says that the player has since apologized and that he has forgiven the player. Additionally, Al Baker, Syracuse's black fullback, said after the game, "Oh, they were bad. One of them spit in my face as I carried the ball through the line."[16][18] Patrick Whelan and Dick Easterly, both white players for Syracuse, said that although the film may have fictionalized parts of the story, the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic was the team's worst confrontation with racism.[12]

The order of games played and the score of at least one game was fictionalized for the movie. Penn State, a longtime rival of Syracuse, provided Syracuse with their toughest test of the season, in which the Orangemen improved to a 7-0 record, defeating Penn State 20-18.[19] The film places this game among the first three games of Syracuse's season, and cites the score of the game as 32-6. The actual correct score of 20-18 is shown in newspaper clippings later in the movie, when Ernie heads home after his father's death. Ironically, the film premiered on October 3, 2008, in Syracuse's Landmark Theatre; the day before Penn State defeated Syracuse 55-13 in a game during which Davis was honored at halftime.[20]

Early in the movie, Art Modell (who, in another inaccuracy, is played by Saul Rubinek in the movie: Rubinek was 58 when the film was made, while Modell was 37 in 1962) is being shown giving Jim Brown his Cleveland Browns jersey in a photo op. This incident could not have happened in real life—Brown's rookie season was 1957, and Modell did not purchase the Browns until 1961. Had there been any such presentation by the Browns at this time, it would have very likely been done by Browns head coach and general manager Paul Brown.

The scene where Bobby Mitchell go to the Redskins, was made by Paul Brown behind Modell's back, adding to the tension between the two. Marshall, who was widely known for his racist views, was forced to desegregate the Redskins by the Kennedy administration, which threatened legal action over the team's segregation. The United States Department of the Interior made it known that it would not allow a segregated Redskins team to play in the newly built D.C. Stadium, which was federally owned.


Critical response

Among mainstream critics in the U.S., the film received generally positive reviews.[21] Rotten Tomatoes reported that 61% of 114 sampled critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 6.2 out of 10.[22] At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average out of 100 to critics' reviews, the film received a score of 58 based on 27 reviews.[21]

Jim Lane, writing in the [24] Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times called it "special" while remarking, "There is a lot of football in the movie. It's well presented, but there is the usual oddity that it almost entirely shows mostly success."[23] In the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Hartlaub wrote that the film "deserves plenty of credit for abandoning the "Remember the Titans"/"Glory Road" school of screenwriting as laid out above and exploring the racial issues in Davis' story in more realistic terms." He thought Quaid gave a "memorable performance" by portraying Schwartzwalder as "sort of an accidental civil rights hero."[25] Mike Clark of USA Today, said the film was "an entertaining race-laced contest of wills". He found the football scenes filled with "kinetic" energy, and the lead performances to be "appealing".[26] The film however, was not without its detractors. Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor, believed the film was a "compendium of virtually every sports movie cliché ever contrived" and that the storyline was "milked for every drop of inspirational uplift."[27] Left equally unimpressed was Anthony Quinn of The Independent. Commenting on the segregational history, he said "we have to suffer apologetic non-dramas like this, the story of a fleet-footed black footballer (Rob Brown) who hits the big time just as his racial conscience starts to bother him". He thought the screenplay was "stewed in such pieties, served up as warm and homely as apple pie – only there's no taste to it."[28] Graham Killeen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, added to the negativity by saying, "Producer John Davis (The Firm, Behind Enemy Lines), no relation to Ernie, and director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Don't Say a Word) are masters of the predictable, the safe and the bland. And Davis' story doesn't play to their strengths." He ultimately called the film "an all-brawn, no-brain pigskin potboiler".[29]

Writing for the Boston Herald, Stephen Schaefer said the subject matter was "paean to a supremely talented if largely unfamiliar sports hero, one which scores both on and off the field."[30] James Berardinelli writing for ReelViews, called the film "an engaging and at times powerful tale of one individual's struggle against the system" and noted that "as a story of courage and inspiration, this works as well as any sports-related bio-pic."[31] Berardinelli also thought that although Ernie's depiction of "on-field accomplishments were extraordinary, it was the environment in which he struggled to achieve them that makes him the worthy subject of a motion picture."[31] Describing some pitfalls, Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe said the film was "especially egregious since it bundles the civil rights era, garden-variety bigotry, and the achievements of Ernie Davis". He didn't believe Davis was "as bland as "The Express" makes him out to be. Aside from managing to get made at all, the movie doesn't do Davis's legacy any favors by giving us the store-brand version of his life."[32] Morris however, was quick to admit "There is so much ripe material here for a socially or historically curious movie." But he frustratingly noted that the filmmakers were more interested in "making a safely commercial football drama that doesn't deviate from the genre's shorthand imagery and plot points."[32]

Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, stated that The Express "finesses a cinematic hat trick: It's entertaining, deeply moving and genuinely important."[33] She praised the individual cinematic elements saying the motion picture was "Filmed with pulverizing accuracy, they bristle not only with physical action but also historical and political symbolism."[33] She also complimented the lead acting by mentioning, "As warm as Brown's portrayal of Davis is, it's Dennis Quaid as Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder who provides the movie's most fascinating figure."[33] Similarly, John Anderson wrote in Variety that the film was "a muscular movie with social conscience that portrays Ernie Davis – the first African-American collegian to win college football's coveted Heisman Trophy – as the heir to Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson." On its production merits, he commented how the film displayed "Terrific editing by William Steinkamp and Padraic McKinley" which "intermarries the onfield action, flashbacks to Davis' Southern boyhood, a smattering of period footage and a great deal of stylized visualization to a degree that distracts from the very basic sports-movie arc of the story".[34] However, on a negative front in The Village Voice, Robert Wilonsky was not moved by the lead acting of Quaid or Brown. He thought Brown portrayed Davis with "quiet subtlety (to the point where he almost disappears in some scenes)" and felt Quaid was "stuck with the thankless role of accidental civil-rights pioneer". He summed up his disappointment stating, "like all formulaic biopics, The Express sacrifices the details for the Big Picture—hagiography without the humanity (wait, is that his girlfriend? Wife? What?), populated by sorta-enlightened Yankees, rabidly racist Southerners, and a ghost who remains as elusive as the running back no defender could ever catch."[35]

Box office

The film premiered in cinemas on October 10, 2008 in wide release throughout the U.S.. During its opening weekend, the film opened in a distant 6th place grossing $4,562,675 in business showing at 2,808 locations.[1] The film Beverly Hills Chihuahua soundly beat its competition during that weekend opening in first place with $17,502,077.[36] The film's revenue dropped by 52% in its second week of release, earning $2,191,810. For that particular weekend, the film fell to 12th place screening in 2,810 theaters but not challenging a top ten position. The film Max Payne, unseated Beverly Hills Chihuahua to open in first place grossing $17,639,849 in box office revenue.[37] During its final week in release, The Express opened in 31st place grossing $151,225 in business.[38] The film went on to top out domestically at $9,793,406 in total ticket sales through a 4-week theatrical run. Internationally, the film took in an additional $14,718 in box office business for a combined worldwide total of $9,808,124.[1] For 2008 as a whole, the film would cumulatively rank at a box office performance position of 146.[39]

Home media

Following its cinematic release in theaters, the Region 1 code widescreen edition of the film was released on DVD in the United States on January 20, 2009. Special features for the DVD include; deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Gary Fleder; "Making of The Express"; "Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis"; "Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games"; "From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis"; and feature commentary with director Gary Fleder.[40] During its release in the home media market, The Express ranked number eleven in its first week on the DVD charts, selling 97,511 units totalling $1,949,245 in business.[41] Overall, The Express sold 370,534 units yielding $6,566,801 in revenue.[41]

The widescreen high-definition Blu-ray Disc version of the film was also released on January 20, 2009. Special features include "Making of The Express"; "Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis"; "Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games"; "From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis"; "50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship"; and deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Gary Fleder.[42]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "The Express".  
  2. ^ a b c d e f Gary Fleder. (2008). The Express [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
  3. ^ a b c d "Ernie Davis' legacy lives on long after his death". National Football League. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  4. ^ a b c "Why Ernie Davis Matters". History News Network. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  5. ^ Salles, Andre (13 June 2007). 'The Express' stops in Aurora at the Wayback Machine (archived June 16, 2007). The Beacon News. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  6. ^ The Express’ to Film Scenes on Campus Next Week; Extras Needed. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  7. ^ Express Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  8. ^ "The Express (2008)". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved 2010-08-08. 
  9. ^ Anderson, John (28 September 2008). The Express. Variety. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  10. ^ a b Lovece, Frank (October 2008). The Express. Film Journal International. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  11. ^ Thompson, Matthew (8 October 2008). New movie shows WVU fans in false, ugly light. Charleston Daily Mail. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  12. ^ a b Persall, Steve (5 October 2008). Teammates say 'The Express' changes history. St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  13. ^ (23 October 2008). Screenwriter: WVU not in original 'Express' script. The Charleston Gazette. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  14. ^ Rives, Bill (2 January 1960). All-time Cotton Bowl Classic results. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  15. ^ Golden, Cedric (10 October 2008). The Express isn't a flattering portrait of Texas football. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  16. ^ a b Krizak, Gaylon (17 September 2008). Utility Infielder: 'The Express' unenlightens Horns. San Antonio Express-News. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  17. ^ Cogill, Gary (15 October 2009). The Express (PG). WFAA. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  18. ^ Merron, Jeff (9 October 2008). 'The Express' in real life. ESPN. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  19. ^ Syracuse Yearly Results: 1955. College Football Data Warehouse. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  20. ^ Clayton, John (16 August 2008). 'Express' movie will premiere in Syracuse's Landmark Theater. The Daily Orange. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  21. ^ a b The Express. Metacritic. CNET Networks. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  22. ^ The Express (2008). Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  23. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (8 October 2008). The Express. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  24. ^ a b Lane, Jim (9 October 2008). The Express. Sacramento News & Review. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  25. ^ Hartlaub, Peter (10 October 2008). Movie review: 'The Express'. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  26. ^ Clark, Mike (10 October 2008). Davis biopic 'The Express' doesn't fumble the telling. USA Today. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  27. ^ Rainer, Peter (11 October 2008). Review: 'The Express'. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  28. ^ Quinn, Anthony (5 December 2008). The Express (PG). The Independent. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  29. ^ Killeen, Graham (10 October 2008). ‘The Express’ is slow train to mediocrity. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  30. ^ Schaefer, Stephen (10 October 2008). 'Express wins gridiron glory. Boston Herald. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  31. ^ a b Berardinelli, James (October 2008). The Express. ReelViews. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  32. ^ a b c Morris, Wesley (10 October 2008). 'Express' doesn't stray from safe playbook. The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  33. ^ a b c Hornaday Ann, (10 October 2008). 'The Express': A Tale of Football and Awakening. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  34. ^ Anderson, John (28 September 2008). The Express. Variety. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  35. ^ Wilonsky, Robert (8 October 2008). Makes a Footnote into a LegendThe Express. The Village Voice. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  36. ^ "October 10–12, 2008 Weekend".  
  37. ^ "October 17–19, 2008 Weekend".  
  38. ^ "October 31-November 2, 2008 Weekend".  
  39. ^ "2008 Domestic Grosses".  
  40. ^ "The Express Widescreen DVD".  
  41. ^ a b "The Express". The Numbers. Retrieved 2010-08-08. 
  42. ^ "The Express Widescreen Blu-ray".  
Further reading

External links

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