Friday, March 18, 2011

Evel Knievel (1971) & Viva Knievel! (1977)


          For most of the ’70s, real-life daredevil Evel Knievel was a ubiquitous figure in kiddie-oriented pop culture, thanks to death-defying TV appearances, a line of cool toys, and regular ads on the back covers of comic books. A classically American entrepreneur whose gift for hucksterism far exceeded the virtues of the product he sold, Knievel was a circus act writ large, making a small fortune off the public’s interest in whether he could survive doing things like flying a rocket across Snake Canyon. Cinematic tributes were inevitable, because Knievel did visually interesting things while wearing colorful costumes and issuing glib soundbites and outlandish boasts.
          Watched chronologically, the two features made about Knievel in the ’70s show the daredevil’s self-promotional hubris in ascension and decline.
          While not precisely an underappreciated gem, the 1971 release Evel Knievel is so cartoonishly enjoyable that it’s a shame the picture is only currently available via rotten public-domain prints. Co-written by John Milius, the right man for the job given his affection for larger-than-life macho heroes, the sprightly picture plays out like the origin story of a noble warrior whose motorcycle is his weapon for flouting the expectations of conventional society. George Hamilton, putting his superficial charms to great use by playing a character beloved for his superficial charms, portrays Knievel in a present-day wrap-around bit as Knievel prepares for a big stunt, and also in a series of jaunty flashbacks depicting the burgeoning stuntman’s discovery of his gifts. The Knievel in this movie is rebellious ’50s biker who never grew up, so by the time Hamilton dons Knievel’s signature red-white-and-blue jumpsuit for the climax, it’s as if we’ve watched a masked adventurer embrace his fate. Furthermore, Hamilton’s cheerful performance and Milius’ oversized dialogue create the pleasant illusion that Knievel’s odyssey is something inspirational instead of just the evolution of a crass gimmick. (Hamilton even dares to suggest that Knievel got nervous before jumps, giving the story a smidgen of humanity.) And if Evel Knievel is ultimately little more than the equivalent of a fluffy telefilm, it's exactly the right gee-whiz commercial for all that groovy swag Ideal Toys peddled throughout the ’70s.
          The bloom comes off the rose very quickly when one watches Viva Knievel!, however, and not just because the real-life Knievel is a dud playing himself. Paunchy, stilted, and a little bit nasty, Knievel seems less like an adventurer and more like an asshole, which by all reports is closer to the truth—though unquestionably brave and tough, Knievel was also a drinker and a hothead. The sense one gets of unseemly reality showing through a glossy façade is exacerbated by the ridiculous storyline of Viva Knievel!, which portrays the lead character as an international superhero. While traveling to Mexico for a stunt, Knievel defeats a gang of cocaine smugglers who are conspiring to kill him and use his 18-wheeler to transport drugs; inspires a group of orphans by secretly visiting them at night to deliver Evel Knievel action figures; and resolves the family tensions between his alcoholic mechanic and the mechanic’s estranged son. Model-turned-actress Lauren Hutton shows up as Knievel’s love interest, which means she spends a lot of time telling the hero how gosh-darn wonderful he is, and colorful figures including Red Buttons, Gene Kelly, Cameron Mitchell, and Leslie Nielsen round out the principal cast.

Evel Knievel: FUNKY
Viva Knievel! LAME

2 comments:

Tommy Ross said...

You gotta hand it to George Hamilton, who poured his heart and soul into the 1971 Knievel movie. It's clearly his baby and his zeal, love and admiration for the legend he's portraying shines through. I love the lengthy "nothing's impossible" opening monologue and the closing monologue claiming "I am the last gladiator in the new Rome" Legend has it that the real Evel Knievel hated this movie and held a grudge against Hamilton for not portraying him correctly, but it would be fair to say he probably doesn't understand production and development and what makes a good picture. Hats off to Mr Hamilton for his passion.

Ace Hall said...

I remember seeing "Evel Knievel," the movie, when it first came out. I was living in Port Hueneme, CA, on the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB, or "SeaBee," as in "John Wayne and The Fighting SeaBees," for short) base where my dad was stationed. The navy theater was something like .35 cents or so in those days--in any case I am certain that it was between 2 and 4 bits (.25 cents and .50 cents)--so I could actually afford to go after mowing just one lawn (as a paid, "for-profit" job!). And given my choice, it HAD to be "Evel Knievel!" or else!

He was a SUPERHERO to my ten-year-old eyes! I thought I would die or something if I was not able to see the movie. But see it I did. And not knowing who George Hamilton was helped to sell it to me. Without any knowledge of how a movie was made, I just assumed that George Hamilton WAS Evel Knievel, and that the movie makers just followed him around with movie cameras to film his life story.

He had such a great tan! He must have gotten that tan while spending all of his days outdoors, practicing jumping things. At least, that's what I thought at the time. What a dummy I was! But it certainly did make the movie more enjoyable for me back then.

In any case, and needless to say, I loved the movie, and went to see it as many times as I could possibly afford. Yes, next to my dad Evel Knievel was the greatest superhero in the world! What's more, back then he did not disappoint.

And even after I was an adult, I did not want to believe the stories circulating about what a truly evil man was Evel Knievel. I just chalked up those stories to jealousy or some similar motive, such as making loads of money by writing a "tell-all" book. I even thought that the poor man whose arms Evel Knievel broke with a baseball bat after he wrote a "tell-all" book probably deserved it. Hell, Evel Knievel said he did, so it must be true, right?! Haha!

Well, story after story piled up until, eventually, I was kind of forced to believe that there must be some element of truth to all of those terrible stories, or else so many people would not be telling them and repeating them. And I don't believe that I ever heard a single story on the other side of the coin defending him. What a terrible downfall. "Childhood heroes," and all that nonsense, eh? *sigh!*