Long after the Viet Cong was gone, Gidget and the Fonz got it on!
By Paul Mavis
Our good friends at Mill Creek Entertainment have just released on Blu-ray Universal’s 1977 romantic dramedy, Heroes, starring Henry Winkler, Sally Field, Harrison Ford, Val Avery, Olivia Cole, Dennis Burkley, and Stuart Margolin. A solid box office hit (but a critical misfire), Heroes‘ main claim to fame in the Year of Their Lord, George Lucas, was not its Vietnam vet context, but rather its distinction as Winkler’s first big-screen headlining role, released during the zenith of his Happy Days TV fame. As an episodic “road picture,” Heroes is diverting-enough fare (just…), aided largely by two solid performances from Sally Field and particularly Harrison Ford. But any claims to meaningful drama are zapped by Heroes‘ spotty, thin script, fluctuating tone, and a decidedly lacking central turn from Mr. Fonzerelli. Mill Creek’s Heroes‘ Blu-ray is bare-bones, but it looks quite dishy (and yes: Kansas’ Carry On Wayward Son has been restored to the movie’s end credits).
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This time, Vietnam veteran “Jungle” Jack Dunne (Henry Winkler) is really going to split…for good. His last escape—he was busted harassing the soldiers at the Times Square recruiting station—was doomed to fail, with his psychiatric doctors at the NYC Veterans Administration hospital insisting he doesn’t really want to leave. However, with the financial backing of his fellow patients, he’s finally going to cross the country, hooking up with his three combat buddies, to all start a worm farm in Eureka, California (yes…you the viewer but not Jack are immediately aware that worms are a heavy-handed symbol for death).
Boarding a crowded bus headed west, Jack, being one of those mercurial, wackily-entertaining mental patients you only find in the movies, immediately latches onto Carol Bell (Sally Field), a runaway bride whose impending nuptials are being put on hold while she gets her head together. And just like those movie heroines only found in romantic comedies, Carol can’t help but feel drawn to the unstable Jack…no matter how many times he embarrasses and humiliates her with his “cute” irrational behavior. First stop is rural Missouri, where Ken Boyd (Harrison Ford) is supposed to be raising rabbits for Jack because worms love rabbit s*ht (yes…you the viewer but not Ken are immediately aware that…oh forget it).
Unfortunately, Ken is having just as difficult a time as Jack is, adjusting to domestic life after experiencing the horrors of war, so he won’t be making this trip. But he will lend Jack his souped-up 455cc Camaro with the Jimmy blower and the 620 horse. Of course, no road trip would be complete without various calamities, like bar fights, stolen money, car wrecks, and plenty of hitchhiking, until Jack reaches the end of journey. Or is it the beginning?…
I haven’t seen Heroes since 1978, when it aired (seemingly endlessly) on Showtime. Watching it back then on an old-school tube monitor, with its cropped pan-and-scan framing (and its two television-friendly leads), Heroes really did come off like what many of its critics deemed it: a made-for-TV movie. A safe, middle-of-the road comedy/drama, with some PG-rated romance thrown in to soften the “social message” context. Seen now on this sparklingly clear, widescreen Blu-ray…Heroes really does come off like what a lot of its critics deemed it: a made-for-TV movie. A safe, middle-of-the road comedy/drama, with some PG-rated romance thrown in to soften the “social message” context (Ernie Anderson’s voice: “Toniiiiiight, on The ABC Sunday Night Movie…Happy Days‘ Henry Winkler and that Smokey and the Bandit gal as you’ve never seen them before!”).
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I remember quite a bit of media anticipation for Heroes prior to its debut on November 4th, 1977. It’s not hyperbole to state that at that time, Henry Winkler was one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet, considering the worldwide success of Happy Days, and the iconic, emblematic status that was rapidly conferred on his character, that highly-sanitized embodiment of the leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding 1950s American punk/greaser/hipster/thug: Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzerelli. So when Heroes came out and solidly scored with the public, earning $33 million (over $135 million today) against a relatively tiny budget, the reaction from Hollywood was…measured satisfaction with Winkler’s drawing power.
Hollywood may have scratched its collective head at yet another “thespian” who wanted to buck his established on-screen persona to do “something different,” but Heroes earned over eight times its budget. That’s going to register with the studios, particularly since the subject matter—Vietnam—was considered quite dangerous, at least in terms of ticket sales (Universal reportedly hired four outside promotion firms to try and figure out how to sell Heroes, settling on that touchy-feely poster art that looks more like the summer of love rather than the DMZ). Hollywood had in the production/releasing pipeline several big-budget movies dealing with the war and its effects on veterans (such as The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now), but their fate with audiences was still a big question mark. John Wayne may have pulled off a coup, earning beaucoup bucks for his pro-war The Green Berets in 1968, but hypocritical liberal Hollywood wasn’t going to make that “mistake” again in the mid-1970s (indeed, chicken-hearted 20th Century-Fox pulled out of releasing the brilliant 1977 Vietnam actioner, Rolling Thunder, for fear of offending audiences. It debuted a month before Heroes, through American International Pictures…and made them a tidy profit on a small pick-up outlay).
The reason I wrote “measured satisfaction” with Winkler’s b.o. pull, was because a few weeks after Heroes‘ bow, Paramount released a far-grittier slice of life drama called Saturday Night Fever, catapulting a newer, younger TV sensation, Welcome Back, Kotter‘s John Travolta, into the celebrity stratosphere. Now, SNF was R-rated, but Travolta’s character didn’t stray too terribly far from his TV incarnation, unlike Winkler’s mentally-unbalanced Jack Dunne. Buoyed by a smash soundtrack album, SNF grossed more than four times what Heroes did. That’s the kind of success the studios expected from Winkler…had he done something a little closer to the Fonz.
…and that would have been Grease, a project that Paramount begged Winkler to headline, and one that he had declined…because he didn’t want to keep playing Fonzi (indeed, the movie adaptation of the successful off-Broadway musical was only green-lighted because of the enormous 50s nostalgia kick Winkler’s Happy Days had helped foster). Big mistake…and one that Winkler readily acknowledges was his biggest career goof. Travolta scored Grease‘s lead, and had another blockbuster in 1978, securing a decades-long movie career largely from that one-two punch reputation…while Winkler limped into 1978 with The One and Only, another movie aimed squarely away from his still-enthusiastic teen fans (a comedy about 1950s wrestling, with Winkler doing a Gorgeous George take-off). It made less-than-half what Heroes did (what kid knew from Gorgeous George?), and that’s when Winkler and Hollywood decided he’d probably be better off staying on the small-screen, and directing and producing for the big one.
It’s a guess, but it’s likely the majority of Heroes‘ solid grosses came from curious Happy Days fans, but understanding why it didn’t “break out” is relatively easy: Heroes has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. Sally Field, who was aware of the script’s serious problems when she signed on, put it plainly: “the people in charge just couldn’t get their heads together about what kind of picture they were making,” (she replaced Talia Shire, who bolted at the last minute). Credited screenwriter James Carabatsos’ (Hamburger Hill, Heartbreak Ridge) original script was far more serious in tone, but it was reworked by David Freeman to more humorous effect (perhaps the producers worried that Winkler fans would expect some sitcom laughs). It’s the norm for scripts to be rewritten and rejiggered up to (and during, often) actual production, but Heroes plays as if three entirely different scripts were cut up with scissors and pasted together, with no effort to meld the disparate elements.
Simply put: Heroes isn’t funny enough to be a comedy, nor emotional enough to be a romance, nor consequential enough to be a straight drama. A serious scene is immediately followed by a slapstick scene, followed by a would-be romantic one, with little more than the excuse of the movie’s episodic road journey structure to validate the jumble. And since we have lead characters whose backgrounds and motivations are, at best, shallowly explored, these scenes—and indeed the entire movie—comes over as fractured and unconvincing.
A good example is an early exchange that should lead somewhere: during one of their many stilted conversations, Field says, “I was against the war. I protested it,” to which Winkler responds, “…and I fought it.” Okay…but nowhere in the rest of Heroes do we get any exploration of why either one of these people took their position. It’s an exchange that’s supposed to delineate their differences while giving weight to the story’s after-war context, but ultimately it proves to be one of many meaningless moments that are shorthand for…nothing.
If Heroes was nothing more than a romantic physical comedy, we wouldn’t care if Winkler’s and Field’s characters were sketchy. The fun in that subgenre is the mechanics, the funny jigsaw pieces of the storyline that put the lovers together (and pull them apart), as well as the performances—the charm and on-screen chemistry of the lead actors. However, when those mechanics involve depressing stops along the way to see the shattered lives of veterans and their families, all anchored with a decidedly unlikeable, mentally unstable main character who alternately embarrasses and humiliates the object of his affections, well…this ain’t It Happened One Night.
Any actor is going to be in the boonies trying to make a deeply disturbed Vietnam vet a successful romantic comedy character, but Winkler is rather hopeless here. Coming off as entirely too “actorly,” his concentration isn’t intense, it’s academic and standoffish. He’s always “doing a scene,” rather than creating a believable moment. On the big screen, he comes off as Dustin Hoffman-Lite. You can feel he’s trying too hard, neither getting laughs for his allegedly eccentric behavior (I see “normal” people act weirder on the bus every day), nor scoring any emotional weight for his big dramatic scenes (that final breakdown is rather embarrassing, with his shrill, weak voice and the too-emphatic, uncontrolled gesticulating). Worst of all, the Fonz fails to generate any chemistry with Field. In this kind of double act, that’s fatal.
I’ve never been a particular fan of Harrison Ford (he always seems to be suffering from gastroenteritis and a low I.Q.), but there’s no doubt he’s meant for the big screen. Here in Heroes (filmed before Star Wars was released), he shows that innate “X” factor—along with a canny decision to underplay against Winkler’s amateur-hour histrionics—that makes a viewer focus on a star when they’re on the screen. His character’s internal pain is organic, and his subtle line readings and quiet moments suggest far more to the viewer of what his character continues to endure, rather than Winkler’s yelping and hopping around. A testament to Ford’s portrayal: long after Winkler and Field leave in his Camaro, we’re left wondering what his fate will be, while wishing Heroes was centered on him (the terrific Olivia Cole, in a beautifully observant, quiet five minute cameo as a veteran’s forgotten wife, achieves the same effect. But then “poof,” she’s gone).
Although she probably wouldn’t agree (as stated above, she didn’t think much of Heroes), Sally Field does the best she can, considering what little is offered to her. After settling down and ditching her familiar klutz/double take bit, she still manages a few of those temper tantrum displays that are amusing and endearing (but beneath her talent), before occasionally shining for a moment or two. She has an effective one-sided telephone call scene, dumping her fiance—effective enough that it makes us wonder why more of the movie wasn’t about her and why, exactly, she isn’t getting married.
What could have been one of the best moments in Heroes—her love scene with Winkler—is inexplicably chopped up with Winkler getting into a bar fight, before it’s aborted altogether with some Smokey and the Bandit-type pay-off (she drives a car through the bar wall, for some unknown reason). Blow-drying her hair in the motel room, and then getting turned on by Winkler’s vulnerability and nervousness at the prospect of being with a woman, Field is far more confident and sexy here than she ever was with Burt onscreen—probably because she’s the one who’s taking the lead in the scene (old Burt would never allow that to happen…). It seems inexplicable to me for the makers of a romantic comedy—no matter what the context is—to skip the love scene.
As for Heroes‘ finale, if you can stop laughing at the ham-fisted “is it real or not?” inserts of combat on the streets of Petaluma, California, you do get to Field going full-on melodrama, and succeeding. She’s reduced to being the supportive female to mewling, screeching Winkler, but at least her sincerity makes us feel she’s fighting for him, that she truly loves him. Unfortunately, that believability only highlights Heroes‘ overall phoniness.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.