“Because it is part of the tradition and heritage of this country that the words ‘fear’ and ‘impossible’ do not exist.”
The Fourth was just…missing something this year, you know? It didn’t feel right at all. It’s still bothering me. I was told I should just shut my mouth and be happy I was temporarily given back one of my freedoms—to peaceably assemble with my fellow citizens and eat hot dogs and get drunk and shoot off fireworks—but who’s kidding whom, right? What with the coup firmly in place now, and the virtual gulags being assembled as we speak, it was all a vast, sick joke, this year’s celebration of our national independence. Even watching Evel Knievel didn’t help.
By Paul Mavis
1971’s Fanfare Films indie hit, Evel Knievel, written by John Milius, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky, and starring George Hamilton, Sue Lyon, Bert Freed, Rod Cameron, Dub Taylor, Ron Masak and Hal Baylor, now looks like it comes from a completely different universe (let alone decade), with its strangely beguiling mix of romantic comedy, action exploiter, and character examination of its brave, patriotic, hilarious, vainglorious—and perversely suicidal—self-invented hero. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek at the exact same moment it’s serious about its message—a message completely lost on too much of America today—Evel Knievel used to be a celebratory experience for me to watch…but now it comes over like an inescapably sad elegy for an idea of America that is, to coin a phrase, gone with the wind.
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February, 1971, at California’s state-of-the-art Ontario Motor Speedway. Ensconced high above the racetrack in the speedway’s luxurious VIP lounge, an increasingly anxious, paranoid (and tipsy) Evel Knievel (George Hamilton), “King of the Stuntmen,” worries about his fate as he contemplates his latest motorcycle jump over 19 cars. With Evel still nursing a badly-infected broken leg from his last jump, his contemptuous personal physician, “Doc” Kincaid (Bert Freed), predicts further grievous bodily harm…or even death.
Evel’s gorgeous blonde wife, Linda (Sue Lyon), can’t help but tease the insecure star, who fears mayhem from some deranged fan as much as he does getting splattered all over the speedway. While Evel and Linda wait for the planned jump, Evel reminisces back over his life, from his youthful days as a Robin Hood thief in wild and woolly Butte, Montana, to his early daredevil beginnings at races and rodeos, to the later televised jumps that made him an international superstar.
One of the all-time holy grail “lost” titles out there, for all I know Evel Knievel only exists now in the countless public domain bootlegs of that same battered 16mm 4×3 TV print you still see in bargain DVD bins (it’s currently streaming now on Paramount+). No one, apparently, seems to know where a 35mm widescreen print might be, let alone Evel Knievel’s negative, because if someone did know…it would no doubt be restored on DVD, such is the ongoing appeal of this big box office indie hit.
I wish a bigger part of the demand for a spruced-up, intact Evel Knievel was generated by people’s desire to see George Hamilton’s wonderfully funny turn here, but I suspect most potential buyers would be focused on 70s nostalgia for daredevil Knievel and his stunts. True, over the years Hamilton hasn’t helped his critical reputation by constantly spoofing his already disposable, self-parodying celebrity persona.
However, as Evel Knievel scribe John Milius correctly observed at the time, Hamilton was “totally underrated,” as an actor. I’m not sure anyone could have done better here in this entirely fictional representation of the actual “Prince of Daredevilry,” with Hamilton combining his impossible good looks and gum-snapping cockiness, with a real flair for straight-faced irony and slapstick, even absurdist, comedy.
When the low-budget Evel Knievel hit paydirt at the box office in the fall of 1971, Hamilton (who was disappointed with the finished movie) credited the national craze for Knievel as the main driver behind his production’s sizeable profit. No doubt this is true…but an “exploitation” number capitalizing on a current fad or headline (or celebrity) isn’t ever a guaranteed success with ticket buyers just because it’s in the right place at the right time. It has to be an entertaining movie first, to keep the turnstiles spinning.
And while Hamilton is correct in wishing Marvin J. Chomsky hadn’t been quite so literal in his direction (or so sedate—a little mania to reflect the level of Knievel’s real fame at this time would have helped), the helmer did manage to cobble together enough nicely-timed vignettes and set pieces here to approximate the cinematic equivalent of that long-lost (and unfortunately no longer lamented) art form: the picaresque American “tall tale.”
The pre-credit sequence makes it plain that Evel Knievel is keyed directly to the audience as an exaggerated, openly declarative fairy tale. As we hear those Patton-ish horn flourishes, against the imposing shots of the Brutalist Ontario Motor Speedway, an extreme zoom shot of zigzagging motorcycle cops gives way to Hamilton’s limo entrance on the track. Dazzling in his white leathers and “Stars and Bars,” his cane lending an air of celebrity royalty, Hamilton delivers an earnest (with just the perfect measure of flourish in his voice), straight-faced monologue directly into the camera, a declaration of this fictional Knievel’s raison d’etre:
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have no idea how good it makes me feel to be here today. It is truly an honor to risk my life for you. An honor. Before I jump this motorcycle over these 19 cars—and I want you to know there’s not a Volkswagen or a Datsun in the row—before I sail cleanly over that last truck, I want to tell you that last night a kid came up to me and he said, ‘Mr Knievel, are you crazy? That jump you’re going to make is impossible, but I already have my tickets because I want to see you splatter.’ That’s right, that’s what he said. And I told that boy last night that nothing is impossible. Now they told Columbus to sail across the ocean was impossible. They told the settlers to live in a wild land was impossible. They told the Wright Brothers to fly was impossible. And they probably told Neil Armstrong a walk on the moon was impossible. They tell Evel Knievel to jump a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon is impossible, and they say that every day. A Roman General in the time of Caesar had the motto: ‘If it is possible, it is done. If it is impossible, it will be done.’ And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I live by.”
Back in ‘71 there were some (“film reviewers”…blech) who took those words as cynical irony. After all, the Vietnam War was still raging, and domestic protests and riots were still a popular pastime for some. Defeatism was the name of the game in America at the time—at least to the media and the politicians (Watergate would seal the deal on the media permanently hating America).
However, a solid majority of Americans—regardless of their own specific political beliefs—still believed in the spirit of those words, even if they knew they didn’t always pan out in reality. Most Americans did believe we could, as a country, do anything we set our minds to (just two years before, we put a man on the moon). And just as importantly, they believed “fear” was a dirty word. Americans saw themselves as scrappers, not whiners. Fear was to be distrusted in others, avoided if seen, and pushed down if felt. If possible, of course….
In his autobiography, Hamilton stated John Milius’ screenplay was satirizing the notion of celebrity in American culture (how delicious, then, when the real Evel Knievel later adopted the screen version of himself for himself, as noted by Hamilton). However, if you’ve seen any of his movies, you know Milius means those words about America, regardless of a script’s mocking context. It’s a shame newcomer Milius wasn’t considered for the job of director here; Chomsky, while competent at staging his scenes (both dramatic and humorous), is only just that. He gets the laughs across, but nothing deeper is built either in the scenes themselves or through their connections in the editing.
Luckily, Evel Knievel’s jokes are strong, and the players amusing enough, that we only mind later that a “bigger picture” opportunity was missed. Milius’ penchant for violent, cartoony, sick humor is on full display. As soon as grown Evel delivers his credo, a flashback to Evel as a boy highlights one of the movie’s best (and most horrifying) Looney Tunes gags: a car suddenly plunging down a hidden mine shaft, its driver insanely sounding the horn all the way down (young Evel tops the joke by nonchalantly tossing a rock down after the car).
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In a strangely effective zigzaggy structure, funny/sick moments like that are alternated with more seriously-keyed scenes, giving Evel Knievel an unexpectedly “off” feel that’s welcome from the more conventional exploitation flicks usually found at the drive-in. A key moment in young Evel’s life—a somber, horrified Evel sees (we don’t) a daredevil blow himself up with dynamite, to the hysterically-laughing delight of his grandmother and a blood-thirsty crowd (“I found it a very moving sight,” Hamilton deadpans on the soundtrack), is followed by a delightful Frank Capra Meets Cool Hand Luke scene of Evel getting a whole barroom full of friends to witness him robbing a downtown Butte store. When an old codger in the group wistfully—and insanely—intones, “I wish my old coon hound was here to see this…I never forgot that old dog,” the effect is marvelously funny for old movie lovers who grew up on Capra and other similar corn (even better is a jailhouse scene where a scared, cowardly, Bob Hope-like Evel implores his jailers not to lock him up with murderers and thieves…to which the bored prisoners, instead of hurling the expected threats of bodily harm, merely boo Evel…with very little enthusiasm).
And this light/not-so-light pattern repeats itself throughout Evel Knievel. Milius shows us his love of Westerns by having old pros Rod Cameron and Dub Taylor show up in Evel’s memories of his first cycle jump. A scene that cries out for a better director (there’s so much to contrast here, including the phasing out of the old rodeo stars in favor of flashy, rich celebs like Evel; the notion that death will haunt Evel from his very first jump), Cameron effortlessly gets across the weary, past-it, knowing rodeo star who can’t help but shake his head (nicely) at Evel, while Taylor does his usual cackling, cynical hustler routine to perfection. It’s a wonderfully mournful, sad set piece, one you don’t expect at all to come out of this kind of movie.
As per the alternating structure, it’s immediately followed by a particularly amusing slapstick sequence where Evel jumps the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. If any piece of footage “made” Evel, it was that film, shown endlessly on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, showing Knievel bouncing around like a rag doll in slow motion (shot, believe it or not, by none other than Dynasty’s Linda Evans, for a proposed Evel biopic by her husband, John Derek). Milius has a busted-up Evel diagnosing his own injuries to the hospital staff, before screeching like a frightened baby at the notion of what X-rays will do to his sex life. Surprisingly for a Joe Solomon co-production—who specialized in adult drive-in fare—the real Evel’s known philandering is only hinted at here, with two statuesque “nurses” brought in for whenever the grievously-injured, very married Evel feels ready for sex…it’s implied (co-producer Hamilton, who called Evel a “psychopath,” makes sure Evel’s real-life violent behavior is absent from this family movie, too).
I can’t imagine what the feminists would make of this fictional Evel’s courting and “kidnapping” of his eventual wife (of course he doesn’t really kidnap her…but in this age of “interest equals rape,” everything is a criminal offense), but I was surprised at how effective Hamilton and Sue Lyon were together. A nuanced performer who was rarely utilized properly, Lyon gets across quite well her simultaneous fear of and attraction to the charming, confident—and literally dangerous—Evel (check out the genuinely frightened Lyon on the back of that bike, when Hamilton keeps going faster and faster around those street corners).
Evel Knievel ends as it began, with Hamilton directly addressing the audience, but this time it’s a voiceover, as we see a smiling, cocky Hamilton speeding out into the desert:
“Important people in this country, celebrities like myself, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. We have a responsibility. There are millions of people who look at our lives and gives theirs some meaning. People come out from their jobs, most of which are meaningless to them; they watch me jump 20 cars, and maybe get splattered. It means something to them. They jump right alongside me. They take the bars in their hands and for one split second…we’re all daredevils.”
You can rightfully snicker along with Milius’ mocking assertion that celebrities like Frank Sinatra “give people meaning to their lives,” that is, until you allow that of course the works of artists who become celebrities do indeed give meaning to people’s lives (I can be moved by Sinatra’s singing while at the same time understand he was a deeply disturbed person whom I wouldn’t want to emulate in any way). And Milius’ credo for Knievel makes sense, at least in terms of a celebrity’s “hero substitute” role with the public. Milius may as well be talking about how movies affected him and all of us, as we sit in the dark and pretend—even for a moment—to be the glamorous people we see up on the screen.
Of course it could be a goof, as well, but the rest of Hamilton’s soliloquy is grandiose and heroic (in the original sense of that word)…as well as being conspicuously nihilistic and dark:
“I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and I compete against destruction and I win. And next week I go out there and do it again. And this time, civilization being what it is and all, we have very little choice about our life. The only thing really left us is a choice about our death. And mine will be…glorious.”
And on that final word, the camera zooms over the Grand Canyon, indicating a metaphorical splattering of Hamilton, all over the north wall. It’s such a weirdly upbeat downer of an ending, a sentiment put forth by our hero that says, in effect, society today is meaningless and personal salvation lies, ultimately, in honorific suicide. Nihilism is always a seller (Vanishing Point was another big b.o. winner at the drive-ins that year), but it’s exceedingly strange to see it brought out at the tail end of a family-friendly action/comedy. Maybe that’s why so many people remember Milius’ and Hamilton’s Evel Knievel as something more than the usual ozoner.