There’s certainly no shortage of inspirational sports movies, especially those surrounding the game of football. From “Rudy” to “Blind Side” to “Remember the Titans,” it’s hard to compete in the category — and while “12 Mighty Orphans” gives a good effort, it doesn’t come close to accomplishing the task.
During the Great Depression, it was especially difficult to come by hope, and even more difficult for a group of orphans at a masonic home near Fort Worth, Texas. Based on a true story, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), a high school football coach, takes a job as a teacher and football coach at a masonic orphanage. Alongside him is widower Doc Hall (Martin Sheen) as the orphanage’s doctor, who has been there most of his life. Together, they create a football program, teaching the orphaned boys about family, perseverance, and hope.
The story certainly has all the makings for a great inspirational movie. The orphans, who had no family left or whose family didn’t want them, were left to work at the orphanage’s print shop under demanding boss Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight) while not learning or at practice. Russell initially has to convince the boys to learn how to play the sport, and for some time the boys practice without a real football, shoes, or padding. But as the boys learned the sport, fighting with, and sometimes against, each other, they created their own family. The team also had to fight for the right to even play in the league. And despite the difficulties they had in their own personal lives or together playing football, they overcame so many hurdles to making history in the state tournament — with a lot of credit due to Russell creating an adaptive style of offense.
It would be impossible not to mention the acting talent of Wilson, Knight, and Sheen, all of whom are powerhouse actors who bring to life each of their characters so perfectly. As a football coach, teacher, and colleague, Russell is the perfect blend of tough love and compassion. A tough line to walk, Wilson approaches each part of his character with just the right angle. Sheen can almost never go wrong in any role he takes, and he expertly plays the alcoholic doctor who views the orphans as his own children. I’ve heard it said that playing a villain isn’t about just being mean or evil, it’s about understanding the character’s own desires, and that in their mind, they’re right. Knight plays one of the story’s main villains, and he finds his own character’s desires to play it well. From the football team to the other coaches, the casting was well done.
But unfortunately, despite the good casting and great setup for a motivational movie, nothing really gelled. When I saw the movie “Fame” many years ago, I was so excited to see a new film version of one of my favorite musicals. As the filmmakers tried to keep up with everyone’s storylines, no one character got the depth they deserved. “12 Mighty Orphans” faces the same fate. Hall and Russell each have their own back stories that might have carried a film in and of themselves. Each of the orphan football players has a story to share, too, but in trying to focus on so many of the potential storylines, most of the movie fell flat because there wasn’t enough time to go in depth about their issues. There were a couple, sure, but none of which was effective enough to where the audience could connect with them on a deep level.
Inspirational sports films are never really about the sport; the sport is just the vehicle for the emotional journey our characters go on. “Remember the Titans” isn’t really about football, it’s about overcoming racism. “Blind Side” isn’t really about football, it’s about a family helping a boy overcome homelessness and academic challenges to succeed, which meant going to college and, later, playing in the NFL.
In “12 Mighty Orphans,” I think the goal was to provide hope through football during the Great Depression. But that goal was never fully realized, because the goal seemed not actually about characters achieving their own individual goals, or overcoming individual obstacles, but just about winning football games or being allowed to play. And despite all that, ironically, there wasn’t enough football in this movie, and somehow the emotional connection to the characters was lost in translation.
And yet, for its lacking in the areas we have come to expect from top-tier inspirational sports movies, it does stir the soul, offering lessons in hope and love. It just doesn’t rank up there with other inspirational sports films.