Saturday, 17 December 2016

The human race… The Last American Hero (1973)



Why hero and why last? This film was adapted from a series of articles by Tom Wolfe on the NASCAR driver Junior Johnson and collected together in the spectacularly-titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. It’s sometimes referred to as Hard Driver but this tale of true grit and individual drive epitomized a vanishing native heroism at the turn of the decade of Vietnam. It’s a story of a man battling his way out of the backwoods through skill and determined bravery someone perhaps Wolfe lionized too much but… sportsmen are heroes too, right?

It’s also an early starring role for Jeff Bridges at a time when few thought he might match let alone eclipse his father Lloyd’s acting achievements… The Dude abides but first; he drives.

All the Young Dude
He doesn’t race at first well, only against the police, using his souped up Ford Mustang to evade their ponderous patrol cars. He’s distributing illicit hooch for his Pa Elroy Jackson, Sr (Art Lund) – part of a family business in the backwoods including his brother Wayne (Gary Busey) and his Ma (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Elroy Jackson, Jr is too fast to be caught but the Police discover the distillery and arrest his old man.

He’s sent down – the cost of business – leaving the boys with nothing to do. Junior decides to try his hand at stock car racing – he needs to provide for the family and also to raise the money to pay his father’s legal fees. His first race shows his talent as he comes out a winner, impressing local impresario Hackel (Ned Beatty). One race leads to another and all exceptionally well filmed by director Lamont Johnson along with cinematographer George Silano; convincing on the speed, unpredictability and danger.

Crash
As Junior progresses to racing the Mustang he meets Marge, a secretary played by the luminous Valerie Perrine – in this car-beat-car world of ultra-competition, Marge is a prize in herself and someone who seeks out winners…

Elroy calls her only for the leading driver, Kyle Kingman (William Smith II) to answer the phone – he’s married but he’s also top dog and playing the field… King-man indeed.

Valerie Perrine
Elroy keeps on winning though but his luck or rather budget runs out, as lack of funds and competitive vehicles, leaves him cursing at the trackside as Kingman wins again. He’s approached by a Burton Colt (Ed Lauter) the boss of a richer team and agrees to race for him as it means better cars even at the loss of some independence.

As he starts to challenge Kingman on the track he’s more competitive off as well, especially after Kyle’s wife shows up and tries to put Marge in her place. She can’t get the better of her but even so, Marge is led towards the younger driver and the two come together in her motel room only to get caught – after the fact – by Kyle…

King of the Road?
Things are warming up nicely now and yet Elroy needs to make up his mind what he wants in life if he is to avoid the mistakes his father made. Can his competitive edge win through and get him the prizes and the girl… it’s not quite as easy as you’d expect.

On the grid
Dusty Verdict: There’s a tremendous performance from Bridges which makes The Last American Hero worth watching on its own but add superb support from Perrine, Lund, Busey and Smith and you have an above average film.

Based on actuality the story is perhaps a little predictable and one paced – surprising given the speed of the races. Maybe it’s the lack of real dramatic tension: we kind of expect the races to be won and the girl to be got… but not everything pans out… sacrifices need to be made if Elroy is to win big. There’s no half-way house.


The film is available from Amazon and others on DVD and, whilst not essential, is compelling viewing for fans of Mr Bridges and Ms Perrine especially.

The Last American Hero was based on the true story of American NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. Only the names of the cars have been changed to protect their identity.

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