Wednesday, December 20, 2017
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Great Smokey Roadblock
When Kirk Douglas starred in David Miller’s classic contemporary western ‘Lonely Are the Brave’, he remarked that it should have been called ‘The Last Cowboy’. One of the alternative titles that John Leone’s ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ goes under is ‘The Last of the Cowboys’. There are other parallels between the two films … and some significant differences, not least in the approach to the material and the overall tone of the piece.
There’s also a touch of Kurosawa’s ‘Ikuru’. Its other alternative title is ‘The Goodbye Run’: the plot centres on a terminally ill truck driver, “Elegant” John (Henry Fonda) stealing back his repossessed Kenworth and setting out to find a load. He’s been a trucker all his life, a gentleman of the road, never made a late delivery or got so much as a single speeding ticket (how these two feats reconcile is something the script, perhaps wisely, opts not to explain), and damned if he won’t be a trucker to the very end.
The load he ends up with – more traditional freight being denied him when load bosses twig that he’s driving what is in effect a stolen vehicle ergo he’s a major insurance risk – is human cargo. To whit, brothel madame Penelope (Eileen Brennan) and her girls, including the pragmatic Ginny (Susan Sarandon, who also co-produced the film). Penelope and co. have found themselves undomiciled and on the run following a vice bust.
But even before “Elegant” John offers the remarkably spacious square-meterage of his tautliner as a mobile knocking shop, he picks up devout hitchhiker Bilbo (Robert Englund). I’m not sure if the script means to portray him as Amish or Quaker, but he’s sure as hell, ahem, I mean sure as heaven big on the love/fear of God and pious self-denial. The scene in which Bilbo bags a lift is basically the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ but with a frickin’ great Kenworth. It was at this point that it struck me just how odd a movie ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ is.
I’d had an inkling of its oddness during the dream-sequence opening credits wherein “Elegant” John, all frail and distraught in a hospital gown, claws at some chainlink fencing then flits around a pitch black interior calling “Eleanor … Eleanor … I’m coming for you, Eleanor”. Eleanor turns out to be his truck, named for Eleanor Roosevelt. “Elegant” John has a monologue about the First Lady that gifts Fonda with his most poignant – and beautifully underplayed – moment in the film. But I digress: the credits scene plays out like some weird art film, only with a title that suggests adherence to the ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of drive-in aesthetics.
(Interestingly, although it was released in 1977, the year that Hal Needham’s ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, Don Hulette’s ‘Breaker! Breaker!’ and William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ made their debut, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ was actually shot three years earlier. It essentially predates the late 70s/early 80s slew of trucking movies which proceeded from the massive box office kerrr-chiiing of ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, which raked in $300million from a $4.3million budget. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Convoy’ and Norman’s Jewison’s ‘F.I.S.T.’ followed in 1978. It’s tempting to evaluate ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ as the film ‘Convoy’ could have been if Peckinpah had been in ‘Junior Bonner’ mode and not coked up to the gills.)
Now, after six paragraphs and 560 words, you might be thinking to yourself: Well, all that’s fine and dandy, Mr Agitation, and you’m sho’ is the film historian, but ain’t ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ a little, uh, vanilla for inclusion in the Winter of Discontent? Sho’, it’s got big rigs and hookers but there ain’t none of kit-offery that you get in them Claudia Jennings films, and there ain’t a hint of violence, and the most graphic thing that happens is some cop cars get bashed up on account of a Kenworth failin’ to stop for the roadblock of the title. An’ why don’tcha admit it, Mr Fancy Pants Movie Critic: for a movie that’s called ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’, the roadblock itself is kinda pitiful?
And if you were thinking thoughts that were travelling along those kind of lines, I’d avow that, yes indeed, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ doesn’t tick a whole lot of Winter of Discontent boxes. Hardly any, in fact. And yes, the eponymous roadblock is about as effective as an ice sculpture of a shovel employed on the footplate of a steam locomotive. And yes, I am aware that constitutes the transportation equivalent of a mixed metaphor.
I’ll also admit that I watched ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ on a whim, figuring if nothing else that the title chimed with ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’. Half an hour in, I was acutely aware of two things: (i) content-wise, there was little Winter of Discontent’ material on offer; (ii) considered within even the sketchiest critical perameters, it was bonkers enough to demand Winter of Discontent privileges.
So how off-the-wall is it? Well, it’s a comedy road movie that provides a treatise on age, death and morality. The only x-meets-y comparison scenario it invites relies on movies it predates (it’s basically ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ meets ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ with the heart and soul of ‘The Straight Story’ only with a fuckton more horsepower). Its intellectual antecedents are Steinbeck and Kurosawa. Its cast includes one of yesteryear’s greatest square-jawed tough guys, one the 70's smartest and sultriest sirens on the cusp of stardom, and the future Freddie Kruger playing a man of God. Not to mention Peckinpah regular Dub Taylor playing a corrupt cop named Harley Davidson (“like the motorsickle”).
It is, by turns, emotionally devastating and cringingly amateurish, perfectly pitched and appallingly misjudged, finely nuanced and thuddingly heavy-handed. It’s a mass of aesthetic contradictions, a total mishmash, and there’s no way on God’s green but highway-riddled earth that it has any right to hang together, let alone lay claim to the status of a one-off little gem, but by some miracle of the truck stop, whorehouse or two-lane blacktop it coheres into a piece of work that doesn’t so much equal the sum of its parts as tear up the delivery note and throw the pieces out of the window and breathe a sigh of relief that you’ll never know how close it came to being an abject disaster.