‘Eddie Macon’s Run’ (1983): Kirk Douglas & a Duke boy star in uneven action meller

Mill Creek Entertainment has released on Blu-ray Eddie Macon’s Run, the 1983 PG-rated thriller from Universal starring Kirk Douglas and The Dukes of Hazzard‘s John Schneider.

By Paul Mavis

Yet another “wronged man on the run” outing, Eddie Macon’s Run didn’t impress anyone back in ’83…but I suppose fans nostalgic for 80s action fare, as well as anything in any way associated with The Dukes, will enjoy this decidedly uneven meller.

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Huntsville’s famed prison rodeo, at the Texas State Penitentiary. 3rd year inmate Eddie Macon (John Schneider) takes a nasty fall off a bull, and limps out of the arena. When no one’s looking, he boards a steer car and manages to hide from the guard inspecting the truck. He’s free and clear, and on his way to Mexico, where he hopes to meet his wife, Chris (Leah Ayres) and young son. You see, Eddie’s facing 2 dimes in the joint.

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He originally had just a nickel for assault (he punched boss John Goodman) and other charges (drinking and driving, “resisting arrest”), but he skipped out on the prison transport bus and went home…where ex-New Jersey cop and now “Inmate Transfer” officer Marzack (Kirk Douglas) waited. Eddie, thinking Marzack hurt his son (the little boy first punched Marzach), nails Marzack with his cuffs, scarring his eyebrow—a humiliation Marzack never forget.

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This time, Eddie’s gonna bust out right. He’s read tons of books on desert survival, and he’s been running every day to get in shape. His escape plan? His wife has stashed clothes and a gun (at a pre-arranged spot where he jumps off that cattle truck), and all he has to do is run 27 miles, at night, for 4 nights straight, and he should hit the Mexico border. Unfortunately, all sorts of things get in his way, including psychotic ranchers, water moccasins, hot, bored snatch like the Governor’s niece, Jilly Buck (Lee Purcell), and worst of all, Marzek, who makes it his personal vendetta to chase down rabbit Macon, and put him back behind bars.

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I remember clearly when Eddie Macon’s Run came out in late March of 1983. I remember it, because I took one look at that stupid poster (why is Douglas wearing his costume from 1951’s Detective Story? Why is Schneider flexing?), and after seeing the desultory trailer, the first impression I had was: “familiar Hollywood story of a TV star trying to make the leap to movies in a cheap action programmer.” Faced with the full ticket price, I went to Spring Break instead; Eddie Macon’s Run could wait for Showtime (which is where I eventually saw it, because it played for exactly two weeks in my market, and disappeared for good).

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Released at the wrong time of the year (it’s a summer drive-in movie, not a pre-Easter flick), Eddie Macon’s Run was a resounding flop at the box office, making just a little bit over a million dollars against a $5 million budget (I’ll bet it was eventually successful, though, through VHS rentals and cable sales, where it played all the time). Anticipation-wise, there just seemed to be no “heat” for the title when it came out. Did people assume as I did that it was just a gussied-up TV movie? Did it look too similar to countless other Les Miserables knockoffs that had come and gone by that point? Maybe it was Douglas’ name above the title. After all, by 1983, Douglas hadn’t been putting asses in the seats for over 20 years (the highest he ever got in the Quigley Poll of top moneymakers was 15th…and that was in 1960).

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Schneider’s fans may have assumed he was essentially supporting Douglas, instead of starring (Schneider’s managers made a serious miscalculation there, not getting top billing for their client’s big-screen debut; in Hollywood, that spells weakness). Maybe it was the old “TV actor to movie actor” curse, where audiences won’t pay to see someone they can see for free on the tube (by ’83, there was even a cartoon of The Dukes on Saturday mornings)? Perhaps all those factors played a part in Eddie Macon’s Run‘s dismal b.o. returns.

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Or…maybe the “Farrah effect” hobbled Eddie Macon’s Run. Remember back when Farrah, in her first and only season, quit Charlie’s Angels for more money and the chance at a big screen movie career? She failed spectacularly at the latter, in part because the fad-quality of her celebrity was extinguished just as quickly as it had been lit…but also because the public felt that somehow she was being ungrateful towards the vehicle that had catapulted her from anonymity into superstardom. Right before Eddie Macon’s Run was to start shooting in April, 1982, John Schneider, along with co-star Tom Wopat, were fired from their own Top Ten Nielsen smash, CBS’s The Dukes of Hazzard. Both had been involved in an increasingly contentious fight with the series’ producers over salaries and owed merchandising monies. To make a long story short: everyone was making millions off The Dukes of Hazzard…except the Dukes themselves, and they weren’t going to put up with it anymore.

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Now, that’s a different situation than Farrah’s (she quit, they were fired), but you can’t argue with the fact that once The Dukes‘ production company and the CBS network saw the error of their ways—hiring lookalike actors to fill Wopat’s and Schneider’s shoes helped drive it from being the sixth most popular TV show in the nation to the 34th—bringing Schneider and Wopat back to the series did nothing to stem the series’ ratings’ nosedive. Was it because of the crappy scripts that everyone now uses as an excuse? How about those toy cars they threw over model houses and water towers instead of real “General Lees”?

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Maybe…but once the “magic” is broken between a series and its fans, that’s it; you can’t patch it back together. And having the original Duke boys just…disappear from the show broke that gossamer illusion that fans have, way in the back of their minds, that what they’re watching is—maybe just for a moment or two in their fantasies—real. Fans wanted Schneider and Wopat to straighten’ the curves and flatten’ the hills…not sit down with a bunch of lawyers and argue about pennies-on-the-dollars royalties for dress-up dolls. After all, the mountain was supposed to get them, not the law…and 15 patent attorneys.

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So Schneider returning to The Dukes of Hazzard in the early part of 1983 to little ratings effect, in turn generated little if any publicity “push” for Eddie Macon’s Run. If a significant portion of the original Dukes fans couldn’t be bothered to tune into Schneider’s TV return, then why would they—let alone anyone new to the actor—bother to come out and pay to see Eddie Macon’s Run? Now a Dukes movie would have been an entirely different story….

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Let’s not discount the most obvious factor: that Eddie Macon’s Run isn’t that great of a picture. Tone is a huge problem here. In short: where’s the fun? I haven’t read the original source novel by James McLendon, but I do know that if the moviemakers wanted to capitalize on Schneider’s TV persona, Eddie Macon’s Run should have been a romp. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a serious undertone to it, but The Dukes of Hazzard‘ appeal was centered around young viewers and families getting together for some outsized yoks. Combine that audience expectation with Eddie Macon’s Run‘s PG rating, and I would expect most ticket buyers came to it looking for a good time, nothing more or less, an unpretentious exploiter that moves, with plenty of laughs and excitement…not this surprisingly glum, clunky, exposition-heavy, wildly fluctuating piece where we’re given scant reason to root for anyone.

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I suspected trouble right from the start, when Eddie makes it onto that steer truck a might too easily: there’s not one guard watching those cons walking around back behind the rodeo stands? Screenwriter and director Jeff Kanew couldn’t have blocked out a more realistic jailbreak—a bit of ducking and dodging, a bit of misdirection and diversion—to show Eddie’s ingenuity and courage (I’ll bet it took courage, though, for Schneider to get in that truck with those steers—he looks worried)? Then…the flashbacks start, filling in his story, but they’re so blandly rendered and flat-footed, they seriously impede the whole point of the movie: Eddie’s run. Eddie’s backstory could have been handled in the first five minutes, with the escape then relentlessly depicted, instead of the constant herky-jerky starts and stops as Eddie remembers why he’s running, filling in blanks that we’re already anticipating.

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And how about that run? Why make a big point about Eddie’s 3 year-long desert survival study program (there’s even a scene where Kirk goes to the prison library to see what books Eddie took out), if you then…don’t show him surviving in the desert? Running 27 miles in dark, unfamiliar desert and scrub territory sounds difficult even for an expert (let alone doing it four nights in a row), but what natural obstacles does Eddie encounter? A water snake that bites his clothing bag (he tosses the snake away with little difficulty), and some rivers he has to swim across (the obligatory near-nude shot of buff Schneider). That’s it? That’s all you have to do? It seems…ridiculously easy.

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Much more of his survival run, and a lot less flashbacks, would have considerably juiced-up Eddie Macon’s Run. Unfortunately, the movie goes from “shaky” to “off-the-rails” when Eddie is captured on his second night by a couple of sadistic, murderous ranchers (Jay O. Sanders, Tom Noonan), who suspect him of being a rustler (although later, the cops say they just kill people for fun). What in the world is going on with this ugly, oddly-played scene? Sanders “pets” the terrified Schneider several times (suggesting a Deliverance vibe), before Eddie is hauled off to their gaudy, expensive ranch and, for kicks, is strung up over a beam and hung by his neck, to the amusement of Noonan and wife Lisa Dunsheath (in a truly grotesque performance). Can you imagine the looks on the parent’s faces, the ones who took their little Hazzard County-lovin’ youngins to see Bo Duke’s first movie, when the close-up of Schneider strangling to death came on? That’s Straw Dogs territory, not Smokey and the Bandit. Sometimes, all it takes is for one ill-conceived, out-of-context scene to throw a movie completely off, to leave a bad taste in the audience’s collective mouth, that doesn’t go away…and that’s just what happens here (later, we get an isolated shot of Schneider crying somewhere, presumably from the after-shock of his hanging ordeal; the effect achieved is not further empathy for his character, but rather further queasiness).

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Kirk Douglas’ angry, mean, ill-defined character only adds to Eddie Macon’s Run‘s decidedly unpleasant, anti-fun feel. All we’re told about him is that he’s a former New Jersey cop who “killed some kid,” (he justifies this vaguely by saying the kid put 7 women in the hospital), and was then kicked off the force. Now, he wants to prove he’s still a cop by bringing in the kid who humiliated him 3 years ago. Regrettably, Douglas, by this later point in his career, had forgotten how to soften with humor his own over-the-top, intense screen persona. There’s nothing remotely compelling or sympathetic about Douglas’ nasty portrayal, no shading to his turn, so we have absolutely no stake in whether or not he bags Eddie. We couldn’t care less either way, because Douglas the actor—not Marzack the character—comes off as a dated cartoon. If anything, a point made by another cop (that Eddie isn’t exactly “public enemy number one”) just makes Douglas’ forced performance all the more unpalatable.

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Thank god for sexy, sly Lee Purcell, the only bright spot in Eddie Macon’s Run. She’s a late hail mary in the movie, coming on like a vampy, bored Bonnie to Schneider’s innocent, too-true-blue Clyde. Their sexual tension is interesting: she wants him because he’s impossibly decent (and handsome); he would take her, because who could resist that offer…but he’s impossibly decent and in love with his wife. It’s a pity she wasn’t his partner right from the start of the movie. She finds all kinds of shadings and layers to her line readings, no small feat considering how pedestrian is the dialogue (something Douglas missed, or couldn’t do).

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Still, director Kanew can’t figure out how to have his cake and eat it, too: if you want the tension because Eddie loves his wife and can’t sleep with Purcell, fine. That’s valid. But then don’t have him take a shower with her, as she sensually soaps him down, and then try to explain it away that he was so tired, he didn’t remember a thing about it. Yes. The old, “I was so tired I don’t remember taking a shower with a gorgeous, nude p.o.a. who soaped me up one side and down the other,” excuse. Right (I’ve tried that one—it doesn’t work).

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By the final car chase (a rather tepid one that wouldn’t have passed muster on Barnaby Jones), we have Purcell behind the wheel for some reason (another anti-Duke miscalculation), while Douglas and Schneider exchange wide-missing gunshots. None of it is plausible for a second—nor, more critically, thrilling—before both are making illogical, character-twisting decisions we anticipated a half-hour into the movie. If the moviemakers and/or Schneider wanted something “different” than The Dukes for his big-screen debut, they got it in Eddie Macon’s Run: it’s not very exciting, it’s not very entertaining…and it’s certainly not any fun.

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.

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