“Life’s difficult. Hard work leads to great beginnings, knowledge is power and education … well, boys, that’s the key.”
Coach Rusty Russell speaks these words to the orphans living at the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas just moments after pulling them out of a sweat shop.
Rusty came to the home with his wife to teach and coach football. An orphan himself, he believes that by teaching the kids there how to play football, he can inspire them to respect themselves and to hope for a better future.
“You can work the field or play the field,” he says.
It won’t be easy. Most of the boys are stubborn and haven’t had much reason for hope before. Not to mention the fact that a lot of people don’t want the orphans to play. They see the boys as “inmates”—derelicts who will only cause trouble if they’re allowed to mix with other children.
But if Rusty can go from being an orphan to being a war hero to being a respected football coach, then who’s to say that they can’t too? He tells the boys that they are valuable, they are worthy, and they are mighty warriors. And soon, the whole nation cheers for these 12 mighty orphans: the Mighty Mites.
Rusty and Doc (the Masonic home’s doctor) know that they are father figures not just to the boys on the team, but to every child living there, and they strive to live up to the name. Doc quits drinking to set a good example. Rusty refuses to let fear and anger control him despite his PTSD. And whenever one of the boys on the team messes up—whether it be on the field or off—Doc and Rusty teach him to learn from his mistakes, to be better next time.
Though it takes some boys a bit longer to come around than others, they all learn what it means to be part of a family. They build each other up, support one another and love their newfound brothers. They learn what it means to have hope, to never give up and to choose to do the right thing in spite of impossible circumstances.
Rusty’s wife, Juanita, is upset when they first move to the orphanage because he made the decision to move without her. However, as time passes and as she sees the good that she and Rusty are able to do in the lives of nearly 150 children, Juanita puts her reservations aside. Through every trial the home and the team face, she supports Rusty and reminds him of that good influence, demonstrating their strong marriage in the process.
Rusty is an attentive father to his own biological daughter, always making time for her even with his busy teaching and coaching schedule. He also defends his boys, stopping Frank (another teacher at the home) from punishing them. Rusty offers to be suspended himself when the team faces expulsion from the state football championship.
The Russells work hard to teach the boys math, science, history, reading and writing so they can all pass the state’s scholastic exams. A football player from a rival team shows good sportsmanship when he congratulates the Mites on a good game. We learn that Doc never accepted money for his decades of service as a doctor to the Masonic home.
The Mighty Mites ultimately inspire not just themselves and the other children living in the Masonic home, but the entire nation. Because of the Great Depression, the story of a war-hero orphan coach who overcame blindness to coach a team of 12 orphans to the state championship gives people hope.
Someone compares the orphans playing football against bigger teams to the story of David and Goliath from the Bible. Someone says, “Speak of the devil.”
We see teenage boys in their underwear and covered by towels. One boy accidentally drops his towel, and we see his exposed rear end. We see one boy in the shower from the shoulders up. A few couples smooch and dance together.
There are several verbal allusions to masturbation, and at one point, Doc advises one of the boys to stop after he contracts “jock itch.” The boys often talk about seducing women, sometimes crudely. We hear references to the male and female anatomy. There is a crude joke about incest.
One boy is punished after he gets caught spying on the girls in the home, though Rusty says the behavior is normal for a 16-year-old. The boys see a poster about a gentlemen’s club, and they also look at an adult magazine.
Men and boys are called “ladies” twice. A man jokes that another man’s shoes are meant for a little girl.
Frank, one of the teachers at the Masonic home, is a cruel and violent man. He beats the boys with a wooden paddle both for serious offenses (such as spying on the girls) and for minor ones (such as accidentally spilling ink on his shoes). He also drags them around by their ears and shoves them. It’s clear that Frank enjoys inflicting pain. He beats Snoggs (one of the boys) so badly that the boy can’t walk on his own, and Doc has to stitch him up.
In retaliation for Frank’s actions toward Snoggs, Hardy (the team’s toughest player) goes to Frank’s office and beats him with the wooden paddle until it breaks, leaving Frank bleeding and weeping in self-pity.
There is violence on the football field too, of course, which results in plenty of blood, bruises and broken bones. We see one person reset a broken nose, and a boy snaps his own finger back into place. One player, Hardy Brown, clocks several others, rendering them unconscious. [Spoiler Warning] In his ensuing career as a football player, he actually became known for knocking at least 50 men unconscious while playing.
During one game, a rival football coach instructs his player to take Hardy out of the game. Though the boy protests, he eventually obeys, breaking one of the Mites’ legs so badly that we see bone and the injured player never plays football again. (The boy who caused the injury regrets his actions after, and he apologizes profusely.)
We see flashbacks to WWI, where Rusty’s brother, George, was killed. We learn that Rusty was injured and went blind during the war but that he eventually healed. However, he occasionally has panic attacks due to his post-traumatic stress disorder. Hardy also experiences some episodes of PTSD, since he watched his own father get shot and killed right before his eyes. (When the sheriff first brings Hardy to the Masonic home, he is covered in his dad’s blood from sleeping next to the corpse.)
When the mother of a player named Wheatie (the team’s quarterback) shows up after abandoning him at the home 10 years prior, she slaps him while trying to convince him to come with her. She also flinches when her boyfriend shouts at her to hurry, indicating that there might be some domestic abuse there, as well. Wheatie throws a football at their car as they leave and then wrecks his bed in sadness and frustration after they’re gone.
The boys get into scuffles both on and off the field, sometimes with each other and sometimes with other teams. Doc throws a bottle of alcohol at a bus in anger. A man’s leg is set on fire and burned. A man stomps on another man’s foot. People threaten each other. One man sarcastically says he’s thinking about shooting the parents of his players to inspire them like the orphans. A man with a missing arm stands on the side of the road.
We hear nine uses of the s-word, and it appears that one man starts to say the f-word. There are about 30 uses of “d–n,” 20 of “h—,” 10 each of “a–” and “b–ch,” four of “b–tard,” three of “d–mit” and two of “p-ss.” God’s name is taken in vain six or seven times, sometimes paired with “dang.” Christ’s name is also abused once.
There are a few instances of adults telling children not to swear. Someone makes a crude hand gesture. The boys call Frank “Fat A–” behind his back.
Doc is an alcoholic, and someone calls him a “drunk.” Rusty counsels him to quit drinking several times, telling him that the boys will mimic his behavior if they see it. Rusty even pours Doc’s flask out one time. And sure enough, the boys sneak out one night with a jar of moonshine—though their hangovers the next day are punishment enough for this infraction, it’s suggested. However, by the end of the film, Doc empties his own flask and gets sober.
People drink alcohol and smoke cigars and cigarettes. Rusty says his father was a drunkard.
Many of the orphans staying at the Masonic home were brought there by their own parents. Some parents were unable to afford to keep their children due to the Great Depression. (A flashback reveals that Rusty’s own mother promised to return when she left him and his brother at the orphanage.) Some were single mothers who simply didn’t want their children after their husbands left or died. But none of the parents ever return for their children—though we do see a few younger children getting adopted, much to the disappointment of the older kids.
The orphans are stigmatized as misfits and outcasts. People like Frank believe they’ll never amount to anything more than factory workers. They mock the kids for not having parents and treat them like second-class citizens.
Frank, especially, takes advantage, using the orphans to run his own personal sweat shop, violating child labor laws and purposely stopping them from getting an education. He also tries to get Rusty’s football program shut down, since it causes him to lose workers. He encourages the rumors that Hardy is too old to play on the team (and provides false evidence stating such), lies that Rusty is over-practicing the players and gloats whenever the kids are prevented from playing.
We see a man using a urinal. One boy vomits from nerves before each game. When someone accidentally spits a cigar butt onto a boy, the boy vomits.
Someone says letting orphans play football is “as dumb as letting women vote.” We see several homeless people living in a camp. Someone embezzles money from the orphanage. People bet on football games. We learn that a man lost his wife and baby during childbirth.
The most inspiring message that Rusty teaches the Mighty Mights is that they aren’t worthless. Instead, he counters, they are valuable. They are loved. They are mighty warriors. And the boys carry this message their whole lives, going on to successful careers in various fields and proving that orphans aren’t second-class citizens.
This true story is often heart-wrenching. We learn the various reasons the boys have become orphans—often because they weren’t wanted—but Rusty never gives up on them. And in turn, they learn not to give up on themselves.
Perhaps it’s to be expected in such a rough-and-tumble story, but we also have to point out that the film is filled with foul language. There are a few crude sexual references, and one boy is severely punished after he gets caught spying on girls living in the home. And while discipline in that case was certainly warranted, the method was not. The boy is beaten by Frank until he can’t walk. And sadly, Frank gets away with these cruel beatings throughout the film until the home’s director finally turns him over to the sheriff for child abuse, embezzlement and running an illegal sweat shop.
Because of those concerns, 12 Mighty Orphans certainly isn’t a film for younger children. And even families with teens should be cautious about its more violent moments.
Despite some shortcomings, however, this film still delivers a strong and powerful message about fatherhood. Because Rusty didn’t just bring football or academics to the Masonic home but a feeling of what it means to finally be part of a family.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.