’12 Mighty Orphans’ Offers a Story of Hope During Tough Times

By Mike Szymanski

Everyone wants a story of hope during tough times, and this is a story inspired by true events during the tough times of the Great Depression. How appropriate then, to bring the story to light today in the middle of some very tough times, too.

With a stellar familiar cast and a ripe pack of new talent, “12 Mighty Orphans” reminds me very much of the sleeper hit “Rudy” in 1993 which was a true story starring Sean Astin, who would later be Samwise Gamgee in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

The familiar cast includes Luke Wilson, who is widely underestimated in goofy comedies like “Idiocracy” and “Old School” or schmaltzy romances like “Legally Blonde.” He is far from the one-note acting of his more-famous older brother Owen Wilson.

Luke captures the Texan football coach Rusty Russell who took over coaching a boy’s football team at an orphanage in 1938 and captured the attention of the country by turning them into stellar players.

Wilson’s familiar cast is supported by Martin Sheen, playing the school doctor with an alcohol problem, Robert Duvall as a benefactor, and Wayne Knight (Neuman from “Seinfeld”) in a most dramatic role as an abusive school principal.

Wilson is brilliant in mastering the distinctive Texan accent of Russell, who has very specific vocal cadences. It’s a voice that is lilting, yet strong, tender, yet powerful. He was able to tap into the real-life man by talking to the family of Russell and studying footage and photos available of the time.

The more unfamiliar actors are the guys who play the orphans on the football team. A strapping, handsome cadre of guys, they all carry their own significant weight as incredible supporting players with a decent future ahead in their acting careers. Most notably, Jake Austin Walker, previously a pop music singer, is Hardy Brown, a troubled youth who becomes a key player in making the team successful.

Other notable players include Lane Garrison as Luther Scarborough, Scott Haze as Rodney Kidd, Levi Dylan as Fairbanks, Jacob Lofland as Snoggs, Michael Gohlke as Crazy, and Rooster McConaughey who looks a lot like his brother Matthew.

Realistic and nostalgic, this movie doesn’t have the unnecessary crass grittiness or foul language of movies depicting youth of today. There’s a properness and yet authenticity to their clean-cut bad boy behavior.

“The orphans will steal your hat and then help you look for it,” warns the principal, when Russell (Wilson) and his wife (played by Vinessa Shaw) come to join the faculty at the orphanage.

When taking over the team, the boys had no field, no uniforms, no football, and they played in their bare feet. From that, the coach whips them into a fighting football team in one season and makes a run for the state championship.

There’s some trauma in the coach, as he faces flashbacks of the war that’s just ended, and the struggles of his young team reminds him of the horrors of WWI. 

One delightful reunion of movie magic is reuniting Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall for the first time since they co-starred in “Apocalypse Now,” and apparently the director (and co-screenwriter) Ty Roberts just let the two masters ad-lib most of their scene together.

Duvall, in real life a big football fan who knew about Russell’s story, jumped at the chance to play a scene with Sheen as the financier deals with the team doctor.

The team and their story even gets the attention of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who intervened at one point to help the team overcome jealous competing teams who tried to knock the orphans out of the league.

Russell is credited with creating some innovative football strategies that are common in the game today. He knew his team didn’t have the brawn or muscle to out-tackle the opposition, so he developed what’s now called “the spread offense” which took some of the traditional players by surprise.

Roberts noted that: “He really was a remarkable man, Rusty, and his wife, Juanita.” He was inspired after reading about Russell in the book: Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football, which was a  2008 bestseller by Jim Dent, a veteran sportswriter. “I’m just really glad that the book brought their story back into the forefront of what it means to serve and give back. Rusty was an educator, but it just so happened that he was a crack at football and the offense.” 

The cast and crew knew what they were accomplishing could send a positive message to the world today. 

Cinematographer David McFarland noted, “There’s a lot of darkness in the world right now. There’s also a lot of beauty.”

McFarland said, “I feel like we’re going to get this pandemic figured out and hopefully, we can come together as a world and a country and a nation. But we’ve got a lot of work to do. Feature films like this one, they have a role in that process.”

(This family-friendly inspirational film is already out in theaters in Texas and debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year. The Sony Classics film is 118 minutes long and rated PG-13.)

Fort Worth Film Commission, Panel discussion about 12 Mighty Orphans with Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw and Director Ty Roberts moderated by Mayor Betsy Price