In one of the greatest and most inspiring comeback stories of all time, MARSHALL UNIVERSITY: ASHES TO GLORY chronicles how a grief-stricken football team rose from unfathomable ruin and despair to achieve one of the most remarkable and triumphant victories in the history of sports. It was the fall of 1970 when a chartered plane carrying Marshall University's Thundering Herd football team, coaches, and leading supporters across West Virginia crashed, leaving no survivors. In the face of crushing heartbreak, a young coach named Jack Lengyel took over the devastated program. Honoring the memories of those who died, Lengyel and the five players who were not on the doomed flight found the strength and courage to patch together a ragtag team that would overcome the odds and triumph despite catastrophe. Featuring recently found footage of the era and exclusive interviews with those close to the tragedy, ASHES TO GLORY captures the gut-wrenching emotion that afflicted an entire nation, and heralds the heroic comeback that brought Marshall back to life.
Stitched together and released as a none-too-subtle tie-in to Hollywood's inspirational football drama and Matthew McConaughey star vehicle We Are Marshall, this documentary is a fitting complement that gives a more real treatment of one of the most devastating tragedies in college sports history. In the fall of 1970 a chartered plane carrying almost all of the Thundering Herd football team from West Virginia's Marshall University crashed, killing all on board including most of Marshall's athletic department staff as well as several prominent townsfolk and other supporters. Only a few team members that had remained home were left to carry collective grief as well as their own personal tumult. Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, which was produced for the local public TV station to commemorate the catastrophe's 30th anniversary in 2000 was broadcast on a number of other PBS stations and won a regional Emmy. While the documentary in no way breaks new stlylistic ground, it really doesn't need to, considering what a powerful emotional wallop the material packs on its own (even though the overly syrupy background score lays on the poignancy a bit thick). The film is mostly a pastiche of contemporary talking-head interviews of people who had close ties to the town and the team (including one prominent surviving Thundering Herd member) cut together with recently discovered archival footage from the 1970 and 1971 team history, along with lots of artfully, even manipulative scanned-and-scrolled still photographs. There's near equal emphasis on the pre-disaster team, the post-disaster effort at getting back to a sense of normalcy (the school and the town almost shut the football program down), and the long slog to recovery piloted by the new coach, Jack Lengyel, who was recruited in part to lead the healing process. The bonus features consist mostly of extra archive and interview footage, as well as an extraneous "making-of" featurette. Those with knowledge or memory of the tragic event may be interested in Marshall University: Ashes to Glory on its own. But fans of the Hollywood-izedbWe Are Marshall will find it a unique companion testament to something that brought real inspiration to many who were made stronger for their collective heartbreak. --Ted Fry