by Madeline Tress
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 3-4
If WHITE LINE FEVER cult following, it will be surprising. Its three week run in St. Louis was in the B picture graveyard—drive-ins and local neighborhood theaters. For a week prior to its release, St. Louis newspaper ads for the film depicted Jan-Michael Vincent standing with clenched fist in front of his semi-tractor trailer. The ad told its potential audience:
The advertising campaign leads us to believe that he is a disgruntled, oppressed worker who has been consistently ripped off by powerful and corrupt organizations for most of his working life. Certainly not an ad that would entice the suburban middle and upper middle classes to run and see this film (the distributors no doubt knew this, which is why it went immediately into the film graveyard.) Columbia Pictures itself writes in the promotional material:
By contrast, though, the ad in August 31st New York Times went: “They had a dream, each other and a fight to the finish,” showing Jerri (Kay Lenz) and Carroll Jo Hummer hugging each other with a rig in the background.
The specific sociology of WHITE LINE FEVER may be questionable: e.g., is an owner-operator or independent trucker a petty-bourgeois rather than a worker? But the film’s intent is not: Hummer is a worker prevented from practicing his trade by both corporate capital and the state. In this sense, WHITE LINE FEVER is both anti-corporate and anti-authoritarian. In ways that will become clear from an actual discussion of the plot, Hummer is something more than either the classic loner rebel so popular in the bourgeois-dream-gone-sour motif or the standard populist demagogue. Elements from both traditions are present in the film, but the characterizations of Hummer and his wife, and their relations with other truckers that emerges in the film, defy such easy categorization.
The film opens with Hummer returning from the war—unnamed, but Indochina of course—somewhat a hero and ready to actualize his dream of being an owner-operator of a diesel cab. Although Hummer’s war credentials don't figure prominently in the film after the first few frames, they were surely deemed necessary by the producers for a very clichéd reason—to establish Hummer’s loyalty as a U.S. citizen, root him right in the heart of the U.S. experience and above all, legitimate his later rebelliousness. The war experience also provides an easy explanation of Hummer’s accuracy with a carbine rifle, which does figure prominently in later parts of the film.
The film moves briskly from the beginning. Hummer mortgages his next few years to buy his beloved $30,000 “Blue Mule” and looks forward to mile after mile of white line fever, trucking songs, and a stable marriage with his childhood sweetheart turned wife. He has no ambition other than to do his work with the greatest skill and efficiency possible. The only success myth he buys is his own. Trucking is a decent, honorable profession. Hummer has little knowledge or regard for an alleged capitalist hierarchy of financial rewards and prestige. He doesn't understand a concept like “making it”—his world is circumscribed by a love for his work and his wife. Soon, however, his plans are destroyed by the large trucking firm with which he contracts for his initial haul.
Contacting a shipping company in Tucson which is managed by Duane Haller, an old family friend, Carroll Jo is informed that his initial load will include a few “extra items” not specified on the delivery sheet: contraband cigarettes and liquor. When Hummer protests out of naiveté and simple honesty, Haller informs him that it is not his own decision. The friend claims that this is the only way that the company can realize a high level of profits. Haller, we will later find out, is a patsy for the Glass House organization which is owned by a young, hip businessman who does nothing all day except drink and try to seduce his secretaries. (These young women, in non-middle class USA, are still teasing their hair, wearing 1/4 inch of make-up, incessantly chewing gum, and wear the shortest of mini-skirts.) Hummer will also be murdered during the course of the film by this corrupt organization.
Hummer refuses to compromise his integrity and finds himself involved in a fight with the guys on the loading dock. After the first fight occurs, Hailer lets him do the job without the cigarettes. However, his troubles are merely beginning at this point—already he has been blackballed throughout the state and labeled a trouble-maker by the Glass House to both other companies and to the police. Once on the road he is arrested by the deputy sheriff, who handcuffs him to his cab and lets the dock workers finish him off. The message is clear: work on the company’s terms or don't work at all.
Gradually, by refusing to abandon his dreams, Hummer earns the companionship and respect of other truckers and dock workers at the company. An embryonic caucus of both black and white workers forms with Carroll Jo as the nominal leader. His actions have been a catalyst for the other workers who, by implication, shared Hummer’s feelings of anger but necessity of maintaining their jobs. By now, WHITE LINE FEVER has moved quite naturally out of the internal-combustion-engine formula picture (with chase scenes starring semi-tractor trailers rather than motorcycles or automobiles) and the individualist model of one worker’s life and desires into an essentially collective drama—the workers see the need for social action to oppose the company-police alliance and realize that it must be done collectively.
WHITE LINE FEVER, unlike most of the recent films which portray working people and lower middle class people as their main characters, does it without the disdain implicit in NASHVILLE or explicit in JAWS. Kaplan, unlike Altman and Spielberg, does not dismiss his non-bourgeois protagonists as either neurotic hillbillies who want to make it in the country music world even if it means total humiliation or as “goddamn working class heroes” using the social tactics of reverse snobbism. We see a young worker who is urged on by everyone—his wife, his friends, his co-workers. We see racism within the working class destroyed when a young militant black finally—decides to ally with Hummer after an older black trucker gets involved in the rebellion and convinces the younger man that he is not being a Tom in his actions.
We do not see a benign depiction of any of the organization bosses. Perhaps they were intentionally construed to be evil and corrupt stereotypes for the largely working class audience. These corporate goons are interested in one thing only—making huge profits by convincing their truckers that by transporting contraband goods they will not only not get busted but will also get some monetary compensation for their efforts. Anyone who refuses to benefit from this scheme will no doubt pay for it.
The remainder of the film is largely action cum violence. There are chase scenes, shoot outs with the company thugs and police and repeated physical and psychological assaults on Hummer—his house is firebombed, his black allies are murdered, his wife is beaten up. He is arrested for murdering Duane Haller (but is acquitted on his wife’s testimony—a mostly working class jury realizes that he has been framed by the corporation). In form, the action and violence doesn't differ from a number of other films where one has taken the law into his own hands.
But there is an important difference—WHITE LINE FEVER’s violence is neither abstract or unjustified. It is an older form of violence, one which the audience would think to be more respectable and humane since it is the violence of social protest. It is a necessary part of a social movement in process and the structure of the film constantly reminds the audience that this is the case. Yet these scenes never manage to achieve a life of their own. There is no cult of violence at work here for the action is not a tool of escape or indulgence, for either the characters or the audience. Rather, its a necessary recognition of what must be done under intolerable pressure when there is no other redress.
By the film’s conclusion, the economic analysis has deepened somewhat. We are made to understand that there is probably one holding company for all the state’s trucking lines. The audience is so incensed against the ruling class that during the climatic scene, when Hummer drives the Blue Mule through the Glass House at more than 70 mph roaring up a 45-foot ramp and then soars 60 feet through the air, that we jeer and clap, for at least the villain has been symbolically destroyed. Yet, despite this feat (which cost the studio $130,000 to stage) and Hummer’s survival of it which lands him in the hospital but in dubious physical condition, we are quickly returned to reality. The film really does not have a happy ending in bourgeois terms.
The average U.S. worker goes $20,000 in debt in an attempt to seem middle class. Much of her/his net income is used to pay off that debt. Workers don't have stocks and bonds to sell begrudgingly when things start looking bad; a working class family has no savings for a rainy day. Hummer became a trucker to make enough money to seem middle class in an honorable, individualistic way. He didn't go to college; he went to the Air Force. He didn't meet and marry an independent woman; he wedded a woman who went from one parental situation right into another one. Hummer exemplifies the worker’s dilemma: debt to the capitalist system, both literally ($30,000 for The Blue Mule plus the mortgage on his new house) and figuratively, aspiring to be middle class.
Jerri Hummer also has middle class hopes and aspirations; she doesn't want a trucker for a husband, but someone who will geographically be there as part of a nuclear family. She wants a child, but doesn't want to raise it with an absentee father. Her alienation by doing mechanical and boring work in a bottling plant registers in her relationship with Carroll Jo at home. She doesn't want to be told to hurry up all day long. She wants to know if Carroll Jo really thinks that a day care center would check out her nonexistent college credentials so that she can get out of the factory into more fulfilling work.
They try very hard to seem middle class. But neither Carroll Jo nor Jerri view their lives with any thought of a distant future. Trucking will not make them rich. They'll probably save nothing for real vacations, for their retirement, for a child’s higher education, for medical bills. The film seems to have an upbeat ending—Hummer survives and his following has rallied to his support outside of the hospital. However, we also see Jerri Hummer staring from another hospital window, weary and bleary-eyed, suggesting that there is no ending in sight to their struggle. Added to the sheer mental exhaustion of Carroll Jo and Jerri Hummer are also the following factors. We know that he has totaled his rig, he can possibly be a paraplegic, the house has been burned, Jerri’s first pregnancy has resulted in miscarriage, friends have been murdered. The trucking industry has no doubt blackballed him permanently. And they probably neither have major medical insurance nor money to pay any of the medical bills. At best Carroll Jo could have died and his wife could have married into the middle class and forgotten about all of this as part of a distant past.
But the way things turn out show that the corporations still exist, and the police force is still in conspiracy with the employers. The Hummers are unskilled, uneducated and possibly physically disabled and might have to spend the rest of their lives in factories or on welfare, forfeiting their aspirations of becoming middle class Americans. They certainly will not think of going underground—skipping town and assuming aliases is something workers rarely do. Of course, one could also be optimistic and assume that the situation has changed. The owner-operators now have their own organization, they will present their own demands to the companies and will do whatever is necessary to perform their jobs in the ways they see fit. There is no good reason why a genuinely collective, worker-run industry could not emerge from this group in time.
WHITE LINE FEVER will not be the sleeper of 1975. Columbia’s means of distributing the film have destroyed any hope of that. But by placing it in the genre of the southern drive-in film which is aimed at a white working class audience, the only people who can relate to it will because they go to drive-ins and neighborhood theaters. The audience is not the slick and sophisticated, the elitist-intellectual filmgoer who spends an hour and a half waiting to see a film at Ghirardelli Square or on Third Avenue and 59th Street. This audience is the working class family who can dress the kids up in pajamas and let them sleep in the back seat of the car while they watch a film. The economics of the situation clarifies this point. Workers usually go to drive-ins where they pay per car rather than per person and don't have to worry about hiring a babysitter. Workers don't see films like Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER because they are mystified into believing that they won't be able to relate to the film, and because they can't afford $3.50 a head to see it at a first-run theater and also pay a babysitter. First-run moviegoers won't see WHITE LINE FEVER because it’s showing at a drive-in, doesn't star any well-known actors, and utilizes a very action/ violence and pro-working class advertising campaign. One of the few pro-working class films to have a moderate middle class following was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and that probably had more to do with Goldie Hawn’s appearance than anything else.
The middle class, for the most part, would subscribe to the attitude that Carroll Jo Hummer should ship the goddamn cigarettes and take whatever kickback he'll get from the corporations. They don't understand that they too are just as oppressed by a system that convinces them if they don't buy and consume there isn't much else to do. A bourgeois white collar worker views the working class as her/his enemy. If independent operators strike because of fuel price increases, the elite sees it as an inconvenience and makes absolutely no attempt to understand how people who have to work for a living behave. Why are they striking, he/she'll think, they're losing salary. But a worker knows that another $50 isn't going to make him/her rich—at best it would probably help pay another overdue bill. This is something that the average elitist filmgoer refuses to understand, simply because he can easily afford $3.50 a ticket. Such a viewer rationalizes that poor people remain poor because they blow their salaries in bars and basically don't know how to handle money. The business executive forgets that a larger proportion of working people’s salaries are used for survival alone, plus they get to pay exorbitant 18% interest rates on commodities purchased, all in the myth of seeming middle class.
WHITE LINE FEVER manages to take several formula plots and merge them into something more significant and better. Real people with real problems constantly transcend the limits the formulae should impose on them. Even the tendency to fetishize the internal combustion engine and marksmanship is kept in subordination to the larger concerns of the film. It is making a political statement, but it is by no means revolutionary. It is simply a film about people deeply committed to their lives and their work. In Hummer’s case, that commitment extends beyond just being a good driver. It also shows how the large corporation will do everything that it can to undermine any efforts on the parts of their workers to avoid alienating job situations. Even if the workers don't ally with each other, the corporations certainly see them linked into a cooperative network as evidenced by the Glass House’s constant abuse of Hummer, their murder of his employer Haller, and the murders of the black operators involved in the truckers’ rebellion. The film shows that all workers are oppressed and that the myths that blacks will take jobs from whites or women will steal jobs from men are perpetuated by the ruling class to keep the masses divided. It involves a conception of how work should be organized and what morality should govern work. Finally, it shows that once an oppressed class is aware of its oppressor (in this case the independent operators versus the holding corporations), it will cease to perpetuate intra-class violence and hostility and start using its collective energy to destroy its oppressor. (That is a point argued by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, using colonial Algeria as a case in point.)
WHITE LINE FEVER is progressive in much the same way that BATTLE OF ALGIERS and SUGARLAND EXPRESS are progressive films, but it is not revolutionary. It has no aura of elitism—it is no worker’s film directed by a celebrated European artist as in the case of Vittorio de Sica’s A BRIEF VACATION. Bourgeois critics praise films like HEARTS AND MINDS and BATTLE OF ALGIERS because of each film’s ability to provoke guilt around past issues of imperialism, i.e., the horrors after the fact. They fail to see these are oppressive situations which must be changed.
WHITE LINE FEVER shows us everyone’s oppression by ruling class America in America (as opposed to Indochina). It does so without being elitist, pretentious or esoteric. It posits no utopia but is an affirmation of people and their humanity which is revolutionary enough these days. It’s too bad that the majority of film critics saw fit to give it nothing but mostly unfavorable reviews and completely discounted any political implications because of the formulae used in the film. WHITE LINE FEVER was set up for unfavorable reviews to begin with since it was dumped immediately into drive-ins and neighborhood movie theaters, hardly the place that the high brow critic and filmgoer would look for a masterpiece. It’s too bad, because the majority of middle class filmgoers avoided it because it didn't start out in one first run movie house. As a result, critics perceived it as nothing but trash (which it is not), thereby making its own fate all too analogous to the working class which it represents.