On a black, rainy, windy November night in 1970, near Ceredo, West Virginia's Tri-State Airport, a chartered DC-9 slammed into the mountains surrounding the airport, killing all 75 passengers and crew onboard. As word quickly spread to neighboring Huntington, the town soon realized that the downed jet had carried 37 players of the Marshall University's Thundering Herd football squad, most of its coaching staff, and 25 prominent Huntington citizens traveling along with the team as boosters. The team had been returning from a loss at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. That night, students and townspeople gathered on the mountainside, in the rain, to helplessly watch the burning wreckage.
Director Deborah Novak's Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, produced in 2000, tells the story of the beginnings of that 1970 team, and the aftermath of the tragedy that claimed their lives -- in particular, the town's and university's decision not to scrap the football program and field a team of relatively inexperienced players for the 1971 season. At the start of the documentary, executive producer and co-writer John Witek's and Novak's screenplay concentrates quite a bit on the Marshall University history, as well as the evolution of the school's football team. There are also numerous scenes discussing the various trials and tribulations of the 1970 team, including their various games, and their wins and losses. This section of the doc does give a compelling look at some of the players and coaches involved in the crash, setting up the viewer with an emotional stake in the coming tragedy.
Where Marshall University: Ashes to Glory stumbles (and it stumbles quite often), is in director Novak's totally unimaginative direction. This is the worst kind of "talking heads" documentary style that was a visual cliche decades ago. Endless interviews, all shot invariably from the neck up, tell the story of the Marshall Thundering Herd, while stock footage, newspaper clippings, and scanned photographs try desperately to break up the visual monotony. Not only not helping, but emphatically hindering the film, is a gloppy, syrupy mess of a musical score that insists on playing in the background at every possible second. It's so determinedly innocuous and middling, and employed by director Novak in such a ham-handed fashion, that after about the sixth or seventh interview, you feel like screaming, "Shut that damn music off so I can hear the person talk!"
More troubling (if that's possible) are one or two visual gimmicks that director Novak employs, that, by their very inclusion in Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, are questionable in taste. There's a moment where Novak includes several shots of Huntington buildings, shot at night from a moving vehicle, that have archival crash site images superimposed on them. Why she chose to do this is beyond me. Thematically it makes no sense, and certainly from a taste standpoint, it's iffy at best; using footage of police picking through the charred debris of the plane for an "interesting" visual trick is a cheap tactic that shows little respect for those victims. As well, there's a truly laughable moment at the end of the film - a moment the director no doubt intended to be her finest. When discussing the first victory the 1971 Young Thundering Herd had, against the Xavier Musketeers, director Novak, at the crucial climax of the game, inserts a ridiculously cheap special effect of a spinning football, coming straight from the sky (presumably by way of Heaven). While in no way questioning her beliefs, I've always found it extremely distasteful to suggest that a higher power would have the time (or indeed the inclination) to affect the outcome of a sporting event. But regardless of that, why ever would Novak think a visual cue reminiscent of something out of The Purple Heart would work today? As well, just before the angelic ball is thrown, we get a current clip of a Marshall quarterback throwing a ball, as well. Unexplained, and out of the blue, one can only surmise from this shot that Novak intended to illustrate some kind of divine providence that links current Marshall football dynasties with yesterday's tragic 1970 team. Again, if that's her belief, fine. But quite honestly, what the heck is it doing in a straight documentary?
What could have gone into Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, making it infinitely better, would be more in-depth explorations of themes brought up by Novak, only to be unceremoniously dropped. Particularly interesting would have been a look at how the devastated community coped with the tragedy, but this is given short shrift in favor of showing how the football team rebuilt itself. Perhaps the new feature film, We Are Marshall, starring Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox, will examine those fascinating aspects of the story more thoroughly.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.