Movie Review: Depression Era football phenoms, “12 Mighty Orphans” take on Texas

Texas filmmaker Ty Roberts, whose “The Iron Orchard” was a period piece about the post-Depression Era boom in the Texas oil industry, takes on another piece of Texas lore with “12 Mighty Orphans,” about a scrappy, undersized football team of the 1930s.

He takes care to get the dust, blood and hardscrabble grit right in this story, and attracted a “name” cast this time, with Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Treat Williams and no less than Robert Duvall showing up for a cameo. It’s a somewhat fictionalized, sentimental, old-fashioned “Big Game” football tale aiming for the heartstrings and occasionally hitting them as it tells a familiar story of pluck, deprivation and “heart.”

No, it’s not a huge improvement on “Iron Orchard.” But it should play in Texas, where football is one of the icons of the state religion, right up there with cattle, cowboys, The Alamo and oil harvested in “Iron Orchards.”

As the title says, they were orphans, players for the Fort Worth Masonic Home, “perennial underdogs in their tattered uniforms,” as Sheen’s folksy, tippling medic and assistant coach “Doc” narrates. The movie depicts them as Seabiscuits of the gridiron, a media phenomenon inspiring a weary, downtrodden America as it climbed out of the hard times via Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Wilson plays a very successful Texas high school coach who drags his wife (Shaw) and two little girls to Fort Worth for a teaching job at a school which didn’t even have a football team. He and his wife would teach multiple subjects, and on the side, he’d give the boys “self respect” through the game he knew so well. His wife would teach the girls to be “young ladies.”

The kids were older orphans, the teens “that no one ever takes home,” and the film (based on journalist Jim Dent’s book) gives us little bits of the trauma some of the boys experienced before arriving there. Many were abandoned by their families, but Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker of TV’s “Stargirl”) is dropped off by the sheriff (comic Ron White) covered in his father’s blood. The old man was killed by shotgun, something the movie doesn’t go into much detail about.

The experience made Hardy furious and broken, with that rage eventually focused on football, where he became “the toughest sumbitch” coaches and players on every team he met had ever seen.

Wilson’s Russell experiences World War I flashbacks watching the “combat” on the football field. But the actor gets some nice scenes inspiring the players and sticking up for the kids, defending them from the sadistic manager (Wayne Knight) of the home and its for-profit printshop business, rallying them against “the city boys” who made up their foes in that storied 1938 season.

“It’s tough to get you to believe when all you’ve known is hurt, loss and abandonment.”

The movie suggests this huge career step backward for Rusty Russell was because he himself was an orphan. As the movie has him arriving at the school in 1938, when Russell actually came on board in 1927, our buy-in to the story includes accepting that this is “the Hollywood version.”

The players — Hardy, Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), Wheatie (Slade Monroe), Chicken (Sampley Barinaga) and Fairbanks (Levi Dylan) et al, were real. As was the Fort Worth newspaper tycoon Amon Carter (Treat Williams) who championed them.

But little touches like having the “Doc” a “Hoosiers” style boozer and letting Coach Russell, after a season-opening beatdown, invent the “spread offense” thanks to a drawing by his daughter encourages eye-rolling. Profanity in the dialogue aside, the film feels sanitized and borderline whitewashed — “Texas history” as Texans like to remember it.

There’s a big cast, and hints in the closing credits of much that was cut out in editing — orphanage romances, Hispanic players on the team, etc. Good actors are cast and kind of left in the lurch with nothing much to play.

When you’re bringing in a second villain, a rival coach (a hammy Lane Garrison of “Iron Orchard”) hellbent on stopping these “orphans” by hook or by crook, a rich Masonic benefactor (Duvall, in one scene) and no less than FDR (Larry Pine) enlisted as a fan, “kid in the candy store” casting hurts the movie.

As a director, Roberts comes off as more of a producer. He can get a movie made, he’s just damned artless in making it.

A few jokes dress up some seriously dull dialogue, topped with the colorless “Seabiscuit” imitating voice-over narration by Sheen — “Rusty knew that life inside the orphanage held little promise…”

The script lets few of the player characters stand out, and the film has an “assembled” rather than written and directed feel. The simple story has no flow to it beyond the inexorable march through that “magic” season.

Leave this one to Texas, because even if you’re starved for football this summer, “12 Mighty Orphans” don’t quite fill the bill.

MPA Rating: PG-13, violence, alcohol abuse, profanity

Cast: Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Vinessa Shaw, Jake Austin Walker, Wayne Knight, Treat Williams, Ron White, Larry Pine and Robert Duvall

Credits: Directed by Ty Roberts, script by Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer and Ty Roberts, based on book by Jim Dent. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:57

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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