During the Great Depression in a cow pasture behind the Fort Worth Masonic Home boy’s orphanage, Harvey Nual “Rusty” Russell (played by Luke Wilson), the new Texas-born football coach — an orphan himself — was about to change the sport and these young men’s lives forever. “12 Mighty Orphans” tells the true story of the inexperienced Mighty Mites football team that went from playing without shoes and pads to competing against top-ranked high schools for a shot at the Texas State Championship. You’ll stand up and cheer as the inspirational film directed by Ty Roberts (“The Iron Orchard”) captures your heart with a story as big as the Lone Star State.
12 MIGHTY ORPHANS (2021)
Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Martin Sheen, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Robert Duvall, Mason Hawk, Lane Garrison, Scott Haze, Levi Dylan
Directed by Ty Roberts
Can you imagine football being played today without the spread offense? What Rusty Russell implemented during his tenure in Fort Worth, has become the default college and pro football offense. But don’t worry about getting bogged down with football jargon, the heart of this story comes from the young, orphaned men who made significant contributions to society.
Narrated by Martin Sheen, who, since “Apocalypse Now” has become cinema’s definitive storyteller (I could listen to him read the weather forecast all day), the film opens with stock footage of the dustbowl combined with the depression which made life in the Texas panhandle extremely grueling leaving many children orphaned. Hope arrived, not in the form of rain but in a stadium, where in 1938, the Mighty Mites bloodied and bruised football team captured not only the attention of Fort Worth or Texas but the entire nation including President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Larry Pine) as they played in the Texas High School Championship. The underdog story inspired the nation at a time when we needed it most.
Based on the 2007 novel “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football” written by former Fort Worth and Dallas sportswriter Jim Dent, the film features a bespectacled Luke Wilson delivering a solid performance as Coach Russell who not only put together a competitive team, but he was also a smart educator who taught the boys basic math and values. Watching the cool and calm Wilson portray Rusty it feels like the Dallas-born and raised actor was inspired by another legend, Tom Landry who coached the Dallas Cowboys for an amazing 29 seasons.
Martin Sheen delivers plenty of levity as Rusty’s assistant coach Doc Hall who never took a salary for working as the Masonic Home’s physician. Pulling double duty as the film’s narrator, Sheen is the Sancho Panza to Wilson’s Don Quixote. The two make a great team as Doc becomes Rusty’s rock while he helps Doc conquer his drinking problem. Look for a great cameo by Robert Duval as Mason Hawk, a freemason financer and orphan who gives the team its nickname “The Mighty Mites.” For the first time since 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” Sheen and Duvall share a brief but heartfelt scene that unfortunately doesn’t contain the word “hairy” as in Duvall exclaiming “This game is getting pretty hairy” which could have been followed by Sheen’s “What do you mean “hairy” sir?” While Duvall may be known for his work with Francis Ford Coppola, the iconic actor has a special place in many Texan’s hearts for his portrayal of Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae in the 1989 miniseries “Lonesome Dove” based on Larry McMurtry’s novel.
Vinessa Shaw is cast as Rusty’s wife Juanita who almost needs her own film as she was much more than a supportive wife. She inspired the young women at the home to pursue a higher education, many of whom went on to earn a college degree. Wilson and Shaw almost worked together on a film 10 years ago but after a recent chance encounter the two decided they still wanted to collaborate, so he became instrumental in bringing her onboard.
You can’t have an underdog stand-up-and-cheer film without a villain and Roberts gives us two. Wayne Knight, best known for playing Newman on “Seinfeld” is fun to hate as the sadistic Frank Wynn who profited from the orphans’ slave labor and Dallas native Lane Garrison — who co-wrote the screenplay — does a fine job as the seedy football coach of a rival school.
The orphans, many of who we see as broken individuals at the film’s start, learned more than just playing football under Rusty Russell. Scrawny Leonard “Snoggs” Roach (Jacob Lofland) eventually became a detective for the Houston Police Department, while Leon Pickett (Woodrow Luttrell) worked for the Gulf Oil Company for over forty years, and Miller Moseley (Bailey Roberts) was recruited to work on The Manhattan Project, later using his math skills to teach at Texas Christian University. And then there’s the tough Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) who played for 12 seasons in the NFL often knocking out many of his opponents. Make sure you stay for the end credits to see what became of many of the real individuals the film is based on.
Director-writer Ty Roberts who grew up playing football in Midland, “Friday Night Lights” territory, follows up his 2018 Texas oil drama “The Iron Orchard” with another look into the state’s past this time focusing on rushers, not gushers as in the Mighty Mites football team. While “12 Mighty Orphans” is basically a sports film, it’s also an important part of Fort Worth’s history as the Masonic Home cared for thousands of boys and girls until it closed in 2005. Luke Wilson and Vinessa Shaw do a wonderful job of bringing Rusty and Juanita Russell to life, the two left behind a strong legacy after 16 years of service. Martin Sheen steals the spotlight several times as the always positive Doc Hall who became a father figure to many of the boys. In fact, 47 orphans went on to pursue careers as a doctor.
Filmed in Fort Worth with many extras from the area and in Weatherford at an orphanage that substitutes for the Masonic Home — the real home underwent renovations after a private developer bought the property — the film has an authentic look and feel with gorgeous cinematography by David McFarland. Everything is big in Texas, that’s true, but at the center of “12 Mighty Orphans” you’ll find a heart bigger than the Lone Star State.
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday, June 11 in Texas and June 18 in theaters nationwide