“12 MIGHTY ORPHANS”

Published On June 18, 2021 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

“12 MIGHTY ORPHANS”
​Starring Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Jacob Lofland, Sampley Barinaga, Levi Dylan, Slade Monroe, Treat Williams, Vinessa Shaw, Carlson Young, Natasha Barrett, Lane Garrison, Scott Haze, Kelly Frye, Larry Pine, Robert Duvall
Screenplay by Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer
Based on “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football,” by Jim Dent
Directed by Ty Roberts
Produced by Houston Hill, Angelique De Luca, Michael De Luca, Brinton Bryan
Cinematography by David McFarland
Edited by James K. Crouch
Music by Mark Orton

The superb, inspiring new film “12 Mighty Orphans” is simply an instant classic, a masterpiece of drama, sports drama, sports biography (the film is based on an equally-inspiring true story), and quality, excellent movie entertainment on every level–and, importantly, this film is–finally–the movie that moviegoers deserve to properly welcome them back to real movie theaters!

“12 Mighty Orphans” is the movie to see in the theaters this weekend–the opening weekend of June 18-20, 2021–and do yourself a favor and go on back and see this classic film again on subsequent weekends–it’s that good.

And, just to be clear, here’s some reality-based and well-deserved accolades for this excellent film, and this not an over-reaction or over-exaggeration: “12 Mighty Orphans” is easily the best film released so far in 2021; it’s easily far better than any major feature film released in 2020; it’s easily better than most movies released in 2019; it’s generally one of the best movies, overall, released in years; it’s easily one of the best sports films in many years; the film includes dozens of outstanding performances from a talented case of up-and-coming young actors–many of whom deserve instant casting in more movies based on their above-average, moving performances in the movie; Martin Sheen enjoys one of his best roles and best performances in years; and the film marks, hands-down, the best performances in their careers–really for the talented actors Luke Wilson and Wayne Knight.

Please–do yourself, your family and your friends and anyone else who you know a favor and go out to the movie theaters and see “12 Mighty Orphans!”

To the entire cast and crew’s credits, the movie works on all levels–production, direction, acting and writing.

The film is well-produced overall as an intelligent, emotional, moving and beautifully crafted production, with attentive, detailed and impressive attention to every detail as a period film set during the Depression years in the 1930s and, in flashbacks, on the battlefields of World War I. Accolades to the hair, make-up, props, set design, production design and art direction crews who wonderfully worked hard on making sure that every detail was period-authentic to the film’s time period. Offices, houses, cars, the interiors of an orphan’s home, old printing presses, old newspapers, meeting rooms, Texas high school football stadiums, schools–and more–are all beautifully, painstakingly, authentically reproduced to place the moviegoer directly in the center of those locations in the Texas country of the Depression years. Even items placed on desks–lamps, papers, notebooks and other smaller props–are period-appropriate. Never during the film does the viewer doubt the time and place that the film’s events are taking place. And the hair, make-up, costuming and wardrobe crews also deserve accolades–hundreds of actors and extras appear in period-appropriate clothes and hair throughout the film, and, again, the period-specific details are never lacking.

Confident, in-control, assured–and always down-to-earth and smart–director and co-writer Ty Roberts manages to present a successful film that excels in story, plot, subplot, writing, dialogue, story development, plot development and character development while also overcoming and turning aside the always-lurking dangers of sports drama cliches–said another way, the film does not come across as cliched or unoriginal, despite the familiarity of come-from-behind, underdog sports teams existing, yes, in hundreds of other films. When that occurs in a film–a familiar story that somehow does not come across as familiar and instantly stands on its own as, somehow, original–that is a testament to professional and talented filmmaking. “12 Mighty Orphans” is only slightly assisted in this feat by being based on a true story. Yes, that does help–but the film world and film history is filled with sports drama biographies based on true stories that, alas, end up coming across as tired, cliched and unoriginal. None of those negatives apply to “12 Mighty Orphans.”

The movie features a long list of excellent performances by its actors, as noted. Luke Wilson superbly shines as the lead character, Harvey Nual “Rusty” Russell–based on a real-life character–who is an innovative, creative, smart, caring and talented Texas football coach who defies expectations from just about everyone when he takes a job as a teacher and head football coach at a somewhat run-down, somewhat neglected and dirt-poor Masonic Home and School for orphans in the area of Texas that eventually became Fort Worth. But Russell knows what he’s doing–an orphan himself, he understands the needs, wants, cares and feelings of these kids, and he has a plan to help them not just in the classroom, but on the football field–and not just to win games and gain some fame, but to learn essential life lessons. Of course, real sports fans, athletes and boosters know that sports is about far more than just wins and losses in record books–sports is about building character, teamwork, athleticism, discipline, practice, dexterity, awareness, establishing goals, working to achieve those goals, dealing with the joys of winning and the despair of losing and moving on, and dealing with the concurrent ups and downs that come with playing sports–the injuries, the rehabs, the work-outs, getting up from a tackle, fumble or interception and moving on to the next play to try to make things better. Russell instills these life lessons in the kids he drafts for his football team at the Masonic Home, and if any cynical observer thinks the subsequent story is predictable and familiar–again, Roberts and his cast and crew make this film shine so brightly, and add various true-to-life plot twists and turns and subplots, they, again, prevent the movie from being predictable.

Wilson wisely does not overplay Russell–he presents Rusty Russell as a real human being, with his own fears, doubts and troubled background. Russell went through the hellish nightmare of World War I as a soldier, and although he made it out alive, the horrors of war continue to slightly impact him. But Russell is also smart enough to channel those fears into his teaching and coaching–and he smartly uses the same survival techniques from the war to surviving, thriving and succeeding on the football field. Thankfully, he doesn’t over-lecture, over-emphasis or even mention much his war experiences, but Wilson slyly uses Russell’s background to infuse the man’s psyche and character just enough to make the man human. Additionally, Russell himself is an orphan, and that understanding of the kids he’s overseeing helps him tremendously, too. Luke Wilson simply–yet also intricately and creatively–presents Rusty Russell as a down-to-earth, relatable person–albeit, a person who is also, additionally, an incredibly intelligent, talented and caring person! Credit should be extended to Luke Wilson for an exceptional performance.

In the movie, Russell comes to the Masonic Home as a well-known and respected high school football coach and literally creates and builds the Home’s football team and program from literally nothing. When he starts, many of the team’s players don’t even have decent shoes, the Home does not have a football field, there are no pads or helmets or anything else–and the school has one football. This is an orphans home in Depression-era country Texas, and resources in general are in short supply. But Russell sees potential in his kids–as talented and hard-working athletes and football players and as smart kids in the classroom who are actually smarter than they think they are–and he digs in, determined to not just create a working football team and program at the Home–but to actually win some games and prove to the rest of the area’s Class A high school district that these kids–as human beings and as athletes–should be respected and should be taken seriously.

With the help of the school’s much-loved, much-respected, grandfatherly and caring doctor, “Doc” Hall, Russell clears an empty, rocky field at the Home and makes it a makeshift football field. He arranges to get needed shoes, pads, helmets and other equipment for his evolving football team. He quite seriously and quite determinedly makes sure his players pay attention and actually learn in the classroom–if they can’t pass standard tests, they can’t play in the district’s high school football league. Russell and Hall instill in their players the aforementioned sports and life lessons and if anyone is not moved watching these young kids–and, concurrently, these young actors–slowly and assuredly learn, grow, mature, grow up, bond and develop as young men, both on-screen and off-screen, then you just don’t have a heart.

The evolution of the Masonic Home football team’s players in the movie is moving, emotional–and continually inspiring. The kids do start to take their lessons and their football team seriously, they do bond and grow up–and, yes, lo and behold, they even start to win games! Yes, yes, you’re saying–I’ve seen this before, this is tired and cliched, predictable, we know what happens. However, remember–in this movie, it’s not tired, it’s not cliched, it’s not predictable, and, guess what, you don’t know what happens, completely, thanks to some solid and interesting plot turns and subplots.

And, also, again–all of this really happened, in real-life. Rusty Russell and Doc Hall did indeed take a rag-tag, poor and neglected orphans home and group of kids in Texas country during the Depression and build a successful–and, yes, winning–football program at the Masonic Home. The fact that all of this actually happened does make the film and the story all more impressive, but, again, it’s a testament to the quality of the movie that filmgoers do not need to know the true history going in.

But it’s not giving anything away to note that Russell and Hall, in the movie, start winning football games and start beating bigger, stronger and better-equipped big-time Texas high school football teams! And how Russell did it is even more impressive–and, again, noting here what Russell did is not a spoiler and will not spoil the enjoyment of the movie. This is true: Way out there in the middle of Texas country, at a poor orphans home from 1927 to 1942, during the Depression and the early years of World War II, Rusty Russell, with the assistance of Doc Hall, simply, incredibly–and truely–revolutionized the game of football. Really. Rusty Russell revolutionized the game of football.

Russell, astutely knowing and noting that his Masonic Home football players were generally smaller, far less bulky, not as big and generally not as experienced as his bigger, bulkier, scarier and longer-trained opponents in the competitive Texas Class A football district he was playing in, creatively and innovatively simply developed–right there in Texas country–what became known as the spread offense. Without getting into football technicalities too deeply, basically the spread offense spreads out the offensive players, prompting the defense to also spread out their various defenders, thus creating various pass options, run options or combination pass-run options that were concurrently difficult for the defense to defend. Russell and Hall essentially tweaked and forever changed the game of football to not just help their team win–but to experiment with, open up and evolve the game of football. The spread offense may seem familiar to modern-day football fans, players and coaches, but when Rusty Russell created it, and when he also created other innovative offensive and defensive techniques, plays and systems, he changed the game of football.

So when Russell and Hall started surprising, confusing and confounding opponents with their innovative plays, formations and options in their Texas Class A district during the 1930s, the Mighty Mites–as the Masonic Home’s football team became known–started to win games. In fact, several of the Mighty Mites football teams reached the playoffs–and championship games! According to one source, during his sixteen seasons at the Masonic Home, from 1927 to 1942–Russell took the Mighty Mites to the state championships ten times!

And, it should be noted, along the way, the Mighty Mites also inspired people and communities dealing with the nightmare of the Depression, and the teams became local, regional, statewide and even national heroes–to the point of attracting the attention of the media, football coaches, players and managers across the country, and, yes, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House in Washington, D.C. That once-rag-tag group of kids without parents or families or support or even proper shoes evolved to be national heroes for a struggling country!

The movie focuses on one particular team and those particular players, and the movie follows them as they evolve from that initial rag-tag group literally without shoes, with literally no idea how to properly play football, and, for some of them, an inability to read well at their age-level, to a championship-level, agile, proud and winning team of players–and students. And, yes, along the way, they learn the importance of classroom learning, and they learn to read, too. The latter lessons were provided–in the movie and in real life, too–by Russell’s equally-smart and talented wife, Juanita Russell, who taught English and reading at the Masonic Home. Does that sound too good to be true? Well, it is true–Russell’s wife did indeed teach at the Masonic Home. Vinessa Shaw is wonderful in the movie as Juanita Russell, who provides another level of support and assistance to her husband as he tries to build a team, a program and character.

Martin Sheen as Doc Hall is another wonder to watch in “12 Mighty Orphans.” As noted, this is one of Sheen’s best roles and performances in years. Doc Hall, in the movie and in real life, was a charitable, caring man who truly cared for “his kids” at the Masonic Home–to the point where he worked at the Home without a salary. Like Wilson, Sheen doesn’t over-do it, remains grounded, steady, down-to-earth and relatable–and sympathetic. Doc Hall has his demons, too–he’s an alcoholic–but, again, to the film’s credit, this is presented as a character flaw and isn’t over-stated, over-played or over-dramatized. But the movie is smart enough to show that even for folks in their senior years, like Hall, there’s still time for maturing, still time for developing, and still time for redemption and a second chance. Sheen’s subtle, caring characterization of Hall as a real person is enjoyable to watch. And the chemistry between Wilson and Sheen as Russell and Hall is equally enjoyable to watch.

Not as enjoyable to watch–in terms of the evil nature of the character–but fascinating to behold because of the actor’s performance–is Wayne Knight as the tortuous, sadistic, money-grubbing, evil and corrupt Masonic Home headmaster Frank Wynn. Wynn is brutal, nasty, mean and just nightmarish. Wynn doesn’t really care about the kids at the home; he takes advantage of them and uses them illegally to work at a side printing press at the home–from which Wynn takes kickbacks for the cheap labor; he carries a paddle and occasionally violently beats some of the kids to keep them in line–and he even bizarrely conspires with competitors to work against Russell and Hall to bring down the Mighty Mites football program, simply to preserve Wynn’s illegal activities. Knight has always been a talented actor, for a long time now, but this is his career-high performance. Wynn is so far removed from Knight’s well-known comic characters, moviegoers will marvel at the characterization. It’s not always easy for comedic actors to play flat-out, sadistic villains, but Knight has no trouble portraying Wynn as the face of evil.

But the true scene-stealers and movie-stealers in “12 Mighty Orphans” are the young actors who wonderfully portray the core twelve football players–the Mighty Mites–from the Masonic Home. Led by a thoroughly impressive performance from Jake Austin Walker as the real-life Masonic Home football hero Hardy Brown, who evolves from a troubled, lonely, violent and angry 17-year-old into a heroic student, athlete and team leader, this is the type of performance that should get Walker booked in numerous subsequent projects. Walker, also, keeps his performance under-stated and down-to-earth–it’s clear that was the simple direction from director and co-writer Ty Roberts for his actors on this project–and what Walker can do with a glare and stare and look is a mini-lesson in acting. Walker can instill and project deep emotions and feeling with a slow-burning presence, a physicality and measured, smart dialogue.

And his teammates–as actors in the cast and as players on the football team–of fellow actors who play the other players on the Mighty Mites are equally excellent. Although the Mighty Mites eventually excelled on the football field–not just because of Russell’s and Hall’s innovations, but also because they were indeed good athletes, they tried hard and they worked hard and they persevered and they were quite smart–the Mighty Mites also excelled as students, as leaders, as members of the educational and athletic communities and as respectable young men. And it wasn’t easy for them–at nearly every turn, from adults and players and coaches, the kids from the Masonic Home had to endure biased and prejudicial bullying, hate, slurs and insults, with much of it negatively and cruelly putting them down as “orphans.” That’s a lot to take for kids in their late teens who are trying to grow up without moms and dads and families and who are under the tyranny of a sadistic headmaster in the middle of the country during the Depression without much support, and, again, to watch not just the Mighty Mites but the actors playing the Mighty Mites grow, bond, mature and succeed is just, well, inspiring and positive. Kudos to this group of actors for their great performances.

Additionally, the always-great and under-utilized Treat Williams is strong as Amon Carter, the real-life founder and publisher of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper, and Larry Fine is strong in brief scenes as FDR.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is immensely, consistently positive, upbeat and inspiring. And that’s precisely the type of movie that the America of the summer of 2021 needs, as the country emerges from its own modern-day type of depression–fourteen horrid, horrible, nightmarish months of a virus pandemic that, much as like the Depression of the 1930s, shut down businesses, put people out of work, put millions of people at financial risk, caused many people to have problems paying basic bills for basic things such as rent, mortgages, food, medicine and car repairs, put some people at risk of losing everything, infected millions of people with a debilitating virus–and tragically killed more than 600,000 innocent people.

So it’s a truly fascinating achievement and occurrence to see, all of these decades later, the truly inspirational positivity of the Masonic Home’s Mighty Mites of the Depression era working to once again lift up the hopes and dreams of a decimated American population. Talk about paying it forward.

The country owes a huge debt of gratitude to Russell, Hall, the Mighty Mites, the Masonic Home, FDR and all of the people who supported them–not just for winning some football games, but for helping generations of young men and women find themselves, find their callings, mature and evolve and grow up, and find their own versions of family. The end credits of the movie show some brief true-life biographies of many of the film’s central characters, and their true-life achievements are just remarkable. Some of the Mighty Mites players indeed went on to excel as football players in college and the National Football League. Some of the Mighty Mites excelled in business and in various professions, and several of them were war heroes during World War II–including one of the Mighty Mites who was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project!

Doc Hall worked for most his career at the Masonic Home–without a salary.

And Rusty Russell? Besides his groundbreaking, innovative, amazing and successful years coaching and teaching at the Masonic Home, he indeed went on to excel at coaching and teaching at other high schools and at the collegiate level for decades before enjoying a well-deserved retirement in the early 1960s! To this day, thousands of students, thousands of athletes and countless football players and coaches owe Russell huge thanks, and his successful legacy endures to this day, every time a group of twenty-two football players walk on a football field, line up against each other on the gridiron on autumn and winter Friday nights, Saturday afternoons and Sunday afternoons, and spring into action when the quarterback yells “hike.”

The enduring and endearing inspiration of Rusty Russell, Doc Hall and the Mighty Mites carries on to this day. That’s true positivity, and that’s true inspiration.

Go Mighty Mites!

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