Call this one The Secret Life of Walter Shitty. Featuring buttoned-down Richard Benjamin as a self-involved New York City college professor who uses the frightening circumstances of the Cuban Missile Crisis to travel the country and score with women by assuming various fake and glamorous identities, The Steagle is very much about the imaginary life of the typical American male. Yet while James Thurber’s classic short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” depicts an innately good person who dreams of having heroic qualities that he doesn’t possess in real life, The Steagle depicts an intellectual who realizes that if he lies without conscience to people who are below his mental level, he can get away with nearly anything. There’s a relevant nugget buried inside the story—something about how the Cuban Missile Crisis forces the lead character to acknowledge that his comfortable lifestyle is built upon humiliating compromises—but it’s impossible to root for a prick who exploits tragedy in order to cheat on his long-suffering wife.
That said, The Steagle has some passages of dry humor, Benjamin is a stone-cold pro at playing repressed urbanites, and the travelogue storyline ensures that the picture is filled with ’70s flavor, albeit mostly of the squaresville variety. So even though The Steagle is maddening in terms of ethics and morality, it’s more or less watchable as brisk escapism. Based on a novel by Irvin Faust, The Steagle is the only Hollywood feature directed by the acclaimed production designer Paul Sylbert, the twin brother of another acclaimed production designer, Richard Sylbert. Both men earned reputations as pithy sophisticates, so it’s possible to see how Paul Sylbert might have envisioned The Steagle as a send-up of American values. Whatever larger vision he had for the piece, unfortunately, didn’t reach the screen. As presented, The Steagle is chilly, episodic, mannered, and occasionally pretentious; in some scenes, it’s even difficult to separate flights of fancy from what’s really happening.
With all of these major problems compounding the inherent flaw of an unsympathetic protagonist, it’s a wonder The Steagle isn’t an outright disaster. Perhaps Benjamin’s everyman relatability provides the necessary glue, and perhaps Sylbert’s storytelling is slyer than it appears to be at first glance. In any event, The Steagle—the title of which stems from an arcane bit of sports trivia—is part of a long tradition of narratives presenting the heterosexual American male as an embattled creature who needs to fly free every so often in order to retain his sanity. Happily, the caveman mentality that informs The Steagle drifts further into memory with each passing year, which means that movies like The Steagle now serve as a reminder of how ugly the Bad Old Days of sexism actually were.
The Steagle: FUNKY