Danger and skill

To find excitement in physical danger is a common enough component of our culture. In The Last American Hero and Evel Knievel the hero’s approach to danger is directly related to his nerve, courage, and above all, to his skill. Working within the narrow tolerances of daredevil motorcycle jumping or high speed stock car racing, Junior and Evel must have skill to avoid injury or death. The two biographical films have little need to belabor the point, for their audiences already know it. For both characters survival is a genuine accomplishment at the end of the jump or race. In Evel Knievel the point is made principally through the episode of Knievel’s jump in Las Vegas where he crashes on descent, a scene vividly shown in slow motion documentary footage of his body as it agonizingly jolts and twists. In The Last American Hero the film presents danger by shots of high speed accidents during various races.

According to both films, adolescence is the crucial time in which to teach oneself the technical skills needed for later survival and success. Junior learns high speed driving by running moonshine whiskey past federal tax agents on back roads at night, and Evel’s daredevil motorcycle skills come from his considerable teenage experience escaping traffic cops. At this formative stage of the hero’s development the central villains are the police, who are portrayed in both films as stupid buffoons. In Evel Knievel an early sequence finds Evel in a Butte, Montana, bar where he has a local reputation for creating excitement. Even as a teenager Evel knows how to build crowd expectation, a skill he later uses to good effect in his daredevil performances. After tantalizing his “audience” he proceeds to break into a hardware store across the street. Finding the money locked in a safe, he has the police notified of a burglary in progress. When the cop arrives, Evel volunteers to go in, if given a gun. He re-enters, shoots open the safe, sends the gullible cop off after the “burglar” and, in a Robin Hood gesture, distributes the cash to his audience. In a similar episode, undaunted when he dynamites a wall inside city hall (the wrong wall—he has opened the men’s washroom) and fails to find money, Evel picks up more explosives at a mining company warehouse. He returns to finish the job as the police leave, believing someone tried to suicide in the washroom. Evel then blows open the safe he initially sought.

The first sequence in The Last American Hero delivers the same message of police incompetence. Almost trapped by the feds, Junior escapes through a combination of daring and skill by executing a “bootleg turn”—a high speed 180 degree turn on a one lane road. Another time Junior is warned of a roadblock ahead on his police band radio. He sounds a siren and shows a red flasher, which the police take for one of their own. To the embarrassment of the agents, with the roadblock opened, Junior’s whiskey-running Mustang roars through. However his glory is short-lived since the feds proceed to find the family still and smash it and jail Junior’s father.

Living with danger through skill and “drive” is important for both heroes because the alternative is deadening work. Earning a living in routine ways is portrayed as mechanical and alienating. Evel promises his future wife adventure and travel—both impossible if they stay in their Montana home town. In The Last American Hero Junior maintains his father’s prime value—independence. During a crucial home scene, Junior and his brother talk. Wayne says that a neighbor is willing to take Junior on as an apprentice garage mechanic at $2.10 an hour. Junior scorns the idea: apprenticeship is absurd for him, for he has already built his own racer, and besides, he argues, no garage mechanic will ever have his name in the newspaper except for his obituary.

Following this scene Junior visits his jailed father, who counsels that merely for the money, racing is too dangerous. The son confesses that it is more than that, and paternal wisdom confirms the young man’s decision to race.

Father: “Your mother is always after me to get out of the whiskey business. You was too young to remember, but after my first time in the pen, to please her I hired on at the sawmill. (Soundtrack unclear) ... permission to go to the can. Pretty much like here. It didn't seem to worry most of the boys. They put in their time, lookin’ ahead to payday, but not me. That paycheck wasn't money, it was a bill of sale. Three months of that ... back to whiskey. It’s hard on your ma. But damn foolishness to one person is breath of life to another.”

The Last American Hero and Evel Knievel depict living with danger through skill as an emblem of independence in a society that demands acquiescence to authority and which offers alienating and deadening work. In terms of the films’ audiences this is appealing because it offers a daydream response to the real problem of the nature of work in advanced industrial capitalism. It is neither a realistic nor a desirable solution to problems in the audience’s life but a fantasy displacement. Obviously this produces a strong element of ambiguity within the films. They recognize a genuine working class problem, but they postulate only a defensive individual escape, rather than a direct social and political solution.

Authority and the system

The attitude to authority and the social system in both films follows a similar pattern: acknowledging a genuine problem, but proposing an ambiguous solution. In both films the protagonists come to knowledge as they learn how to bargain with and outwit authority figures so as to establish themselves in the best possible position within the system. They learn to what degree authority can be challenged. For Evel Knievel, although the police embody authority and their antagonism to him is a long-established fact, they are basically good-natured stupid buffoons, not truly malicious villains. Similarly, in Evel’s successful “present,” his doctor also serves as a buffoon villain. Evel sees the MD’s insistence that he rest to repair his broken bones as a conspiracy to keep him from jumping. In The Last American Hero we see police idiocy in a farcical episode in which Junior is using a small fuel oil truck to transport whiskey. Pursued by a trooper, he finally has to slow down and he opens a valve that dumps the load onto the highway. The policeman, a visual stereotype of the fat Southern state trooper, demonstrates the alcoholic content of Junior’s load by lighting a match to the liquid which stains a mile of highway. Looking back at the burning trail, Junior can smugly point out that the evidence is now destroyed.

More seriously, in The Last American Hero Junior learns that he has to fight the system with money when he faces the fact that the criminal justice system is essentially corrupt. After the jailing of his father, Junior brings a lawyer to the jail. Here Junior learns about the justice system when the lawyer explains that the sentence will only be six months if the father is contrite and promises to renounce illegal whiskey making. When the prisoner objects, the following dialogue takes place.

Lawyer: “Elroy, Elroy, now I drink your whiskey....boys in the courthouse drink it. Wouldn't be surprised if His Honor had a jar or two tucked away somewhere, but that has no bearing...”
Father: “The hell it don't! City Hall’s so full of crooks they're falling out of the windows! Country club boys with their payoffs and kickbacks... Where do you go to find a little justice?”
Lawyer: “Depends on what you can afford.”

The lawyer explains his fee and “extras” (that is, bribes) which guarantee better prison treatment, and advises Junior, “It’s kind of like justice, son. You get what you pay for.” The need for ready cash to pay for the “extras” motivates Junior’s first attempts at racing.

Junior and Evel both have crucial formative experiences through confrontations with entrepreneurs. In both cases the lesson learned is never accept the boss’s terms but bargain for your own. Evel’s first jump for pay comes at a small rodeo show run by a red-nosed, bumptious promoter who recounts his distinguished past which includes running the largest reptile garden in the Southwest. Evel’s native wit gets him his job—jumping two pickup trucks placed end to end—and he successfully haggles from $50 if he’s successful and $25 if he’s not, to $50 win or lose. Just before Evel’s stunt, the promoter’s callousness is revealed when a veteran cowboy who befriended Evel is killed in the Brahma bull riding event. When the promoter covers up the death, Evel completes his jump and leaves in anger, aware that his own potential death or injury would be treated in exactly the same way by the rodeo boss. The rest of the picture implies that Evel operates as a free professional since the financial arrangements and bookings are never mentioned. (Actually, Evel Knievel was sponsored by Harley Davidson, the motorcycle company, and Olympia Beer, and was promoted by a sports PR firm.)

Junior’s first encounter with a businessman is similar to Evel’s. In the face of Junior’s persistence, the owner-operator of a small dirt track relents and allows Junior to enter a demolition derby. After the event, Junior insists on moving up to racing, and is successful through persistence, but finally his independence gets to be too much for the track operator and Junior is barred from further racing there. The young man’s response is to move up to the true professional circuit. Here he is aided by Marge, who gives him a rule book which proves his eligibility and a track pass which lets him see the owner of the large track at Hickory, N. C. Again Junior has to talk his way into starting. To this point the young racer is shown as an expert self-promoter. But Junior soon comes into a conflict that his cockiness cannot overcome. Junior instinctively dislikes racing team owner Burton Colt when he sees how Colt constantly harasses his drivers. Forced to drop out of the race because of car trouble, Junior is approached by Colt, who is looking for a new driver. Colt says to Junior, “You got the talent, but I got the bankroll.”

Junior scorns the offer, saying he will make it on his talent, but Colt is unruffled, “Dream on, boy, dream on.” Junior’s dreams are ended when he is finally faced with the economic reality that he can no longer subsidize his racing through whiskey making. He returns to Colt and strikes a bargain, becoming the “hired jockey” he had previously scorned. Junior’s talent gives him his only edge, his chance to throw away the one-way radio Colt uses to direct his drivers and to bargain with Colt for a bigger share of the winnings and his own pit crew. The tenuousness of the arrangement, its distastefulness to Junior, and its inevitability is made clear in the film.

In both the cases of Junior and Evel, skill and achievement are portrayed as one’s only bargaining tool for more money and better working conditions. For employees it is the only source of leverage and freedom within the situation. Thus while the system, the police, and entrepreneurs are all pictured as corrupt, foolish, or exploitative, the only way out posited is individual chutzpa and skill.

Role of women

The Last American Hero and Evel Knievel both devote considerable time to their heroes’ pursuit of their heroines. But the role of women in both is much more than a simple “love interest.” Evel’s courtship of Linda (Sue Lyon) expresses themes of his general character development: his persistence, aggressiveness, and victory over institutions. The sequences of their courtship are set in the context of school. Evel motorcycles past Linda on her way to school, makes her drop her books and then dares her to ride with him on the cycle, despite her suspicion of him as a “hood.” While with her, Evel’s show-off ways quickly lead to a police chase. In the next courtship sequence Evel stands outside a high school dance looking in. As a dropout he is excluded, and his cycle, like the cowboy’s faithful horse, provides his consolation. Later, as Linda is ice-skating with school girlfriends, Evel arrives. Ever showing off, Evel does some fancy skating turns, and then tricks Linda into his car by giving her the keys (so nothing can happen). He then hotwires the car and drives off with her. The sequence ends with a long shot of the car parked in snowy woods and the implication that they have further physical romance. Later Linda finds Evel in the high school gym, practicing basketball. Evel carries on with his typical bravado—“I don't need a stinkin’ letterman sweater to know I'm a hero.” Linda informs him, “I'm going to college. I want an education. I don't want to be a waitress at the Mountain Inn and spend the rest of my life here.”

Evel’s subsequent abduction of Linda from her college residence is visually one of the film’s better moments. Denied entrance by the housemother because it is late, he drives his cycle up the long front steps, knocking down the door, and roars up a spiral staircase to Linda’s room. The film implies that Evel’s successful wresting of Linda from education as an institution and into his vagabond life satisfies her urge not to be a waitress in a small Rocky Mountain town. Yet Linda’s only role as Mrs. Knievel is to encourage her husband, to worry about his health and safety, reassure him, and keep his scrapbook up to date. The message, though certainly stereotyped, fits the frequent pattern of working class women moving directly from parental family (extended in this case to college as an in loco parentis institution) to marriage. Linda realistically assesses her future in Butte, and her uncomplaining acceptance of a traditional marital role is clearly shown as her alternative to waitressing or school.

While Linda is defined throughout in terms of her relation to Evel, Marge Denison (Valerie Perrine) in The Last American Hero is her own person. When we and Junior first meet her she is considerably more experienced than the young man. Marge functions in the film as Junior’s double. She has gone from rural/small town Southern upbringing to urban life. Along the way she has learned that the price of success is compromise, a lesson she tries to tell Junior, who of course must learn it himself. Her initial stance toward Junior is to help him in a rather sisterly way: providing the rule book and track pass to enter big time racing. As secretary to the track manager she also gets Junior a special rate at the drivers’ motel and informs him of a free “boo-fay” dinner. Junior reciprocates by inviting Marge, but she has a date, so he sends her flowers. When Marge finds she’s been stood up she aggressively seeks out Junior and goes to the buffet with him. There Junior finds Marge is both popular and well-known among the drivers. Since she says she has “tons of work to do” he takes her home early, and later phones her ... but a sleepy Kyle Kingman answers the phone.

The next sequence with Marge begins with her escorted by Kyle, the race’s winner. However Kyle’s wife unexpectedly arrives. Sending her husband off to get her a drink (“What good’s a husband who can't service his wife?”), she puts Marge down as a racing circuit groupie and gives some gratuitous advice: “Take a tip from me, Sugar: if you can't sell it, sit on it.” Junior takes Marge home and in the process of consoling each other’s loss, physically and emotionally, Marge relates her past. She was a fat teenager and her mother sent her to business school in Atlanta. There she was once invited to a college fraternity party (“Now nobody on the face of God’s green earth thinks he’s smarter than those fraternity boys”), which turned out to be a “pig party.” Her date received a prize for bringing the second ugliest woman. Marge goes on, “Oh, I cried for a couple of weeks and I got comical calls in the middle of the night—there’s a lot of jokers in Atlanta—and I left about a month later.” Junior’s response is to affirm that Marge is the most beautiful woman he’s ever known. But the relationship, though sealed physically, remains undefined. When Junior wins his first big race, Marge is off with another racer, explaining that she has many friends and Junior still is one of them.

Marge has found the independence within her situation that Junior seeks too. He attains it through his exceptional driving skill, while she uses her secretarial skills at the tracks on the seasonal circuit and her sexual and personal attractiveness. And from her actions it is clear that the future relation of the two must be on terms of equality. Both Junior and Marge have made the best of the situation in which they find themselves.

The portraits of these two women have a certain general class accuracy. For neither woman is the emotional quality of the relationship the primary factor in their actions. This attitude, formed both from working class realities and the socialization of adolescent women, differs markedly from the general attitude of middle class women, who place emotional quality first in priorities. (See Mirra Komarovsky, Blue-Collar Marriage, and Lee Rainwater, et. al., Workingman’s Wife, which are virtually the only two lengthy studies of working class women’s attitudes.)

Class portrayal

Neither Evel Knievel nor Junior move distinctly into the middle class, except as measured by income. Junior maintains his Appalachian roots and is distinguished from other drivers by his more conservative dress and demeanor. Before the big race which concludes the film, Junior joins in a pre-race prayer while other drivers are seen ignoring the spiritual message booming over the track p.a. system. Junior’s authenticity is virtually swallowed up in the racing world, just as during the national anthem the U.S. flag is almost squeezed out by product flags for Champion spark plugs, Coke, etc. Although the final shots of the film indicate that Junior cannot go back home, the film also indicates approvingly that he will not join the fast-living crowd of the other drivers. In Evel Knievel the hero who attained his position by scorning the institutions of law and education is glorified as the man who will never rest on his past achievements or play it safe, but who will always continue his allegiance to his inner code of daring and his respect for “his” audiences, who are clearly Middle Americans.

Both pictures, however, distort their real life subjects in significant ways. The Last American Hero is loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s essay of the same name, reprinted in Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The journalist describes Junior Johnson as a hero to the Southern white working class. But Wolfe adds some background which the film’s scriptwriters have discarded. Junior Johnson grossed $100, 000 in the 1963 racing season and is the owner of his own chicken farm (42,000 birds) and a road grading enterprise in his home county, and Junior had actually served time in a Federal prison for his whiskey activities. More significantly, Wolfe puts Junior in a more distinct class position by describing the moonshining of whiskey as having an economic basis that goes back to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion of western Pennsylvania farmers against the encroachment of federal authority representing urban and eastern seaboard interests. Wolfe also clearly outlines the domination of racing by Detroit automakers; the Burton Colts do not even exist in the real world of stock car racing. Wolfe puts Junior’s reputation into a distinct class and regional framework: Junior, man and myth, is rooted in the values of the rural Southern white working class. In the film, in contrast to the essay, Junior’s appeal is more generalized.

While the real Junior Johnson is actually more generalized as Junior Jackson (film name), the screen Evel Knievel is narrower than the image of the public performer. The live Evel in the mid 1970s was given to moralistic platitudes which match his patriotic suit and cycle. His official publicity described him as a high school sports star, a family man (children are not mentioned in the film), a rugged individual, and downplays his early scrapes with the police. In public Evel sometimes scorned the film (though a 16mm print was usually shown at the motor sports shows where he performed). And the picture is not entirely complimentary: it indicates he is abnormally neurotic, an egomaniac at least, fearful of his audience, and his personal integrity is challenged—none of which, presumably, the real Evel would appreciate being said. In his subsequent career Evel became a popular icon, even gaining a contract for toys bearing his name and likeness, until he physically assaulted a fellow in public using a baseball bat. (Details of his early career and subsequent fall are found on his Wikipedia entry.)

Whatever the truth about the real figures, within both films the two antagonists are portrayed as heroic representatives of their class. Junior’s personal integrity is unchallenged and in Evel Knievel the point is made following Evel’s spectacularly photographed four-and-one-half minute slow motion jump over 19 cars. In a shot from a plane forward and above we see him riding in open Western country and hear a voice over monologue. Though phrased with some of the consistent self-mocking we have seen throughout, by camera attention on Evel and its placement at the end of the film, this monologue has to be seen as a significant statement of the film’s theme.

“....Celebrities like myself, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne... we have a responsibility. There are many good people who look at our lives and it gives theirs some meaning. They come out from their jobs—most of which are meaningless to them—and they watch me jump 20 cars and maybe get splattered. It means something to them. They jump right alongside of me. They take the handlebars in their hands and for one split second they're all daredevils. I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and compete against destruction and I win. And next week I go out there and I 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!”

(Visual: cut to camera over handlebars looking down the road. Cut: camera moving down road, then out over the Grand Canyon. Freeze with credit roll.)