by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I picked a 1971 movie called Evel Knievel which I’d downloaded earlier from archive.org, and though Knievel mercifully didn’t play himself in it (George Hamilton did — and I couldn’t help but reflect on the absurdity of Hollywood casting the same actor as Hank Williams and Evel Knievel), it was this film that put Evel Knievel on the pop-culture map and changed him from a backwater stunt-man star into a full-fledged member of the celebriati. (Certainly I’d never heard of him before this movie came out.) It was a cheap-jack production, directed by Marvin Chomsky (any relation to Noam? Probably not, though in the 1970’s he did achieve a reputation for doing politically conscious TV-movies, including two about the Nazis and the Holocaust and one about the 1971 Attica prison riots) from a script by Alan Caillou and Hollywood’s Mr. Macho (at the time), John Milius, and as a movie it’s exactly what you’d expect a film about Evel Knievel to be.
The gimmick is that he’s about to do a major motorcycle jump over 19 cars — breaking his own record of 18 and doing something that’s supposed to be impossible — and as the film opens he’s walking down the empty Ontario (California, not Canada!) Motor Speedway (represented by a series of architectural shots, heard over big, “inspirational” orchestral music, that makes it look as if Chomsky had done an in-depth study of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, maybe in preparation for all those movies about Nazis and the Holocaust) rehearsing his spiel to the crowd before the jump (“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...”), and the experience launches him into a series of Proust-like recollections of his past, from his days as a child in Butte, Montana (his voice-over mentions that the entire town is honeycombed with mineshafts, and just as he’s telling us how this can happen, a car drops down into one as the ground gives way under it — we’re almost led to watch this as deserved comeuppance for the driver having been making fun of the boy Knievel just before the earth opened up and swallowed his car, and it’s a measure of the overall irreverence of this movie that we don’t really feel sorry for the driver but find the scene grimly funny instead) through his first sight of a daredevil show at 12, his realization that that’s what he wanted to do with his life, his apprenticeship at county fairs and carnivals, his tutelage from veteran daredevil Charlie Knesson (veteran Western star Rod Cameron, whose death provides the only real note of pathos in this film), his meet-cute with his wife-to-be Linda (Sue Lyon, whose film career started at the top — the title role in the 1962 Lolita, scripted by Vladimir Nabokov from his novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick — and therefore had nowhere to go but down) and his series of broken bones, all set by his regular physician, Doc Kincaid (Bert Freed), the closest thing this movie has to a deliberate comic-relief character: he’s always chewing out Our Hero for his devil-may-care attitude towards his own body. (Charles and I both thought of the same joke — a reference to Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle — when Evel boasted that he didn’t know the meaning of the word “fear,” and we said, “At least I didn’t until I had to walk through the wall of fire to get to my girlfriend … who, by the way, is also my aunt.”)
One thing that amused us is not only did director Chomsky use footage of the real Knievel’s stunts to represent them in his movie, but the early footage was pretty obviously derived from surviving home movies (“Who was the cinematographer, Abraham Zapruder?” Charles joked) and it was only as Knievel’s fame and prestige increased that we started seeing professionally shot stunt footage of the real one. The movie is as silly as one would expect given what it’s about, and yet in a weird way it works. George Hamilton’s severe limitations (to put it politely) as an actor are just right for this role; it doesn’t matter (as it did when he tried to play Hank Williams!) that Hamilton has no depth as a performer because Evel Knievel didn’t either. Working with a script that doesn’t even try to explain What Makes Evel Run — Caillou and Milius either didn’t give a damn about that themselves or knew their audience wouldn’t — Hamilton gets to play a man who lives entirely on the surface, and since he’s not obliged to plumb any depths in his characterization it not only doesn’t matter but in a way it’s an actual asset that he can’t. Sue Lyon does vapid bimbo quite well — complete with her character’s utter disinterest in even attempting to keep her husband to herself sexually; she knows it ain’t gonna happen and therefore she isn’t going to try.
There are some moments that offer bizarre cultural flashbacks — notably the God-awfully ugly early-1960’s cars of the people who drive to see Knievel’s early performances — and on the whole Evel Knievel is a nicely entertaining movie whose triviality is just right for its subject matter; certainly far more could have been done with Knievel’s life (it’s not surprising that imdb.com lists at least three other movies about him, TV-movies from 1974 and 2004 as well as a 1977 film, Viva Knievel!, in which he played himself), and one could readily imagine a Stunt Man-type treatment in which an aging Knievel deals with his body failing and his mind wondering whether it was all worth it. Knievel fans on imdb.com complained that the film offered a sanitized treatment of him that minimized his boozing and womanizing, but even as it stands the film makes Knievel seem like an almost pathologically self-absorbed creature, prone to fits of diva-itis and living his life as if he truly believes the entire world was put here just to be his playground, suggesting possibilities for a darker movie treatment of the Knievel legend. Still, in its devil-may-care own right the 1971 Evel Knievel is a really fun movie that gets off on the triviality of its subject matter and manages to be quite entertaining — and I was amused at the multiplicity of the musical styles tapped for the background score, including rock, country, classical and jazz.