12 Mighty Orphans is one of those inspiring underdog sports movies inspired by real events subject to Hollywood tinkering to condense time, amalgamate characters, and boost tension – as with the recent Blue Miracle on Netflix. That one’s about a group of orphans in Mexico and their devoted guardian who entered and won a prestigious fishing competition. This one’s about a group of scrappy orphans in wartime and depression-era Texas who – with the help of a devoted coach – defy the odds to compete with the big boys in High School football. Think “Friday Night Lights” – with orphans- in the 1930s.
The movie is based on a 2008 book by sportswriter Jim Dent. It tells the story of the Mighty Mites from the Fort Worth Masonic Home and School who, under the tutelage of a legendary coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), went from shoeless teens bonded by hardship and grief to an uplifting band of brothers competing in the state championships.
As legend has it, Russell took what was widely considered to be a ‘charity post’ because he wanted to make a difference – and he truly believed that the game of football could be instrumental in building opportunities beyond manual labor. In the film, he gives the grudging boys a choice: they can ‘work the field’ or ‘play the field’. Those who chose the latter learned skills they could take with them in all aspects of life.
12 Mighty Orphans concludes with a ‘where are they now’ montage – or ‘whatever happened to…’ since most of the folks portrayed would be into their 80s and beyond. I always appreciate those extra nuggets and archival photos. Helps ground the story you just saw in reality, even if some of the details got manipulated or stretched.
Fun fact: Martin Sheen co-stars as “Doc Hall,” the orphanage physician and Russell’s right-hand man. He also serves as the narrator of the film. Veteran actor Robert Duvall plays a composite character representing the school’s donors. This marks the first time Sheen and Duvall have appeared together onscreen since 1979’s Apocalypse Now.
12 Mighty Orphans is in theaters now.