12 Mighty Orphans

This inspiring, true(y) story of a Depression-era football team of orphaned boys plays earnest as all hell, but scores no points of originality.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is an old-school sports movie based on a true(y) story that plays its cards straight down the line — too straight, if you ask me.

Back in 1938 a Texas orphanage formed a football team with just a dozen boys, giving hope to the Depression masses as they turned people’s heads, fought their way to the state championship game and changed the way the sport was played forever. 

It’s inspiring stuff with rousing action, technically well-made and sure to draw a tear or two from the audience. It shares a lot of the DNA of “Hoosiers,” as castoff hicks are dismissed by the titans of the sport, a troubled coach is brought in from outside the community and, after butting heads with some of the local powers-that-be, forges the players into a tribe of warriors.

There’s even a drunkard assistant coach a la Dennis Hopper, played here by Martin Sheen, who also serves as narrator.

Director Ty Roberts (“The Iron Orchard”) co-wrote the screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer based on the book by sports author Jim Dent. Together they’ve built a movie that is completely impervious to irony and subtlety. All the Texans say what they mean and mean what they say, and each of the boys falls into a pretty predictable “type,” as do the supporting adult characters.

The actors deliver the dialogue with all the heartfelt conviction they can muster, particularly Luke Wilson as head coach Rusty Russell. But it often registers as hammy and stilted, one cornpone bit of soothsaying merging into the next.

This movie plays earnest as all hell, but scores no points of originality.

It takes place at the Fort Worth Masonic Home, which in the 1930s housed about 150 boys and girls ranging from tykes to near-grownups. Some were orphans whose parents were dead, but many were simply abandoned by folks who couldn’t afford to feed them in the wake of the Dust Bowl.

Russell, who was nearly blinded in the Great War and later had success with other sports teams, is recruited as a teacher and to build a football program from scratch. His wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), is brought in as English teacher and to do supportive wifey things while staying firmly relegated to the background.

Things follow a pretty standard route. First they have to overcome the lack of a field or equipment, then get the students academically eligible to play, and finally convince the Texas football A-league to admit them as a team. After all that plays out, they’re left with just the titular dozen players, none who have football experience or are big enough for traditional toughman play.

Sheen plays Doc, the over-the-hill doctor and good soul who’s looked upon as a father figure by most of the orphans, who tends to split lips and strained knees, in between constantly nipping at his breast pocket whiskey.

It’s tough to create 12 distinctive characters for each of the kids, so three or four get star billing and the rest sort of fade into a Greek chorus — including the two Latino students, which seems a very un-woke choice these days. 

There’s Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), the scrawny but scrappy kid who really has no business on a gridiron; dashing Fairbanks (Levi Dylan), nicknamed after the movie star, constantly chased by girls off the field and by opposing players on it; and Wheatie (Slade Monroe), the gritty natural leader who becomes quarterback by default.

The spotlight falls mostly on Hardy Brown, played by Jake Austin Walker, who’s not that big but hits like a sledgehammer. Brought to the orphanage in the opening act after witnessing his father murdered — Hardy’s overalls still sticky with his blood — he is the sullen troublemaker who gets into fights with the other orphans, joins the team under protest and, of course, will become the most fervent team-firster by the end.

(A note on historical accuracy: the real Hardy Brown did indeed go on to a 12-year NFL career as a feared tackler, though he was too young to play on the 1938 orphans team and his father’s death occurred when he was little. By Hollywood norms, these are fairly standard deviations from recorded reality.) 

A couple of rival newspaper men, including one played by Treat Williams, help get the word out about the Mighty Mites aka orphan team, at one point even enlisting the help of FDR himself to help overcome some cattywampus sports bureaucracy. Robert Duvall turns up in a too-short cameo as a school booster.

There are two main villains. Wayne Knight plays Frank Wynn, who runs the “day-to-day” at the school, meaning he has sign-making class that is basically a child-labor operation, and he carries a big wooden paddle that he swings freely with the boys in the name of discipline, but enjoys a tad too much. Screenwriter/actor Garrison plays Luther, head of the rival Polytechnic school team, a football snob who’s constantly rubbing Russell’s face in his lack of resources or talent, though the bait is amiably refused.

As screen heavies go, there’s the top, there’s over the top and then there’s over the top of the top, which is where these guys fly. Luther wears a Hitler haircut and sports John Lennon sunglasses, a little twerp braggart sucking on phallic stogies, and seems like a time-traveling alien who picked up bad habits from every era.

Frank has the mustache to go with Luther’s hair, though if his mustachios were a bit longer I think he might start twirling them. He’s always sweaty and stooped, a foot shorter than the orphans he terrorizes, and we’re just waiting around for his uppance to come. 

I don’t want to pick on Knight, who’s had a lovely career, but he’s transparently doing a (more) evil version of his Newman character from “Seinfeld,” and even whips out the tittering laugh. This is a situation where you look to director Roberts to step in to protect his actor and his movie against bad choices, and he didn’t.

The football action, and there’s quite a lot of it, is staged very well with plenty of kinetic mayhem. This is back in the day before face guards or body padding, and the players are basically hurling themselves into a brick wall on each down. I also liked the portrayal of Russell’s innovation of what became known as the spread or motion offense, using the whole field and putting more emphasis on speed and skill than just sheer size.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is far from a bad movie. My guess is most sports film fans will cheer for it more than I did. To me, it’s the storytelling equivalent of the anachronistic way of playing ball the orphans overcame: line it up, plow straight ahead and hope for glory.

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