All-American race car mania is alive and well in this excellent Jeff Bridges movie, a true biographical story researched by Tom Wolfe. Junior Johnson needs a future beyond running moonshine for his father, and finds it climbing the rungs of success in the stock car racing game. This may be the most satisfying saga of its kind, and it helped prove that Bridges was a star.
The Last American Hero
1973 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date March 28, 2019 / Der letzte Held Amerikas / Available at Amazon.de
11.92 Euros Starring: Jeff Bridges, Valerie Perrine, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Gary Busey, Art Lund, Ed Lauter.
Cinematography: George Silano
Art Director: Lawrence G. Paull
Film Editors: Robbe Roberts, Tom Rolfe
Original Music: Charles Fox
Written by William Roberts from stories by Tom Wolfe
Produced by John Cutts, William Roberts
Directed by Lamont Johnson
Catching up with older Jeff Bridges movies is never a bad idea, and this self-assured action show from 1973 makes the son of Lloyd look like surefire top star material. The show is also the first feature work ascribed to the write Tom Wolfe — it was adapted from his series of magazine articles, based on the real NASCAR champion Junior Johnson, who was also a notorious moonshine runner.
Unpretentious and uncluttered, Lamont Johnson’s mini-epic about moonshining and stock car racing in the rural south accomplishes an impressive feat: it’s intelligent enough to make viewers forget the idiocy of Good Ole’ Boy action comedies like Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard. The Last American Hero was Jeff Bridges’ ninth or tenth film in three years and he was just getting on the map after acclaimed flops like Bad Company and Fat City; this more plebian role won the actor a broad following. Jim Croce’s hit song I Got a Name behind the titles didn’t hurt either.
Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) runs moonshine for his family but goes into stock car racing when the feds put his father Elroy (Art Lund) in prison for a year. His mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) disapproves, but Junior has his mind made up. Starting with the local demolition derby, Junior runs smack into cheapskate promoters like Hackel (Ned Beatty) who doesn’t respect a man on his way up. After success driving his own Mustang, Junior moves up to serious stock car racing in a Chevy and breaks into the highly organized big time as an independent. He goes nose-to-nose with Burton Colt, a pro racing owner (Ed Lauter) who insists on telling Junior how to race and won’t let him use his own crew, which includes Junior’s brother Wayne (Gary Busey). Adding to Junior’s confusion is track secretary Marge (Valerie Perrine), a cutie who thinks Junior the best thing she ever met — when she’s not sleeping with Kyle Kingman (William Smith), Junior’s top competition.
The car racing film has been one of the least rewarding genres, as screenplays have traditionally dragged in every cliché possible to enliven the monotonous exercise of autos going in circles on a race course. Drivers are alcoholics, or obsessed with women, revenge or competition. The sport is frequently saddled with existential concerns: “Why do you do this?” the female always asks, and the male stares at her like she just doesn’t get it. Actors James Cagney, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas and Mickey Rooney made race car pictures, none of which figure high on their resumés. In the 1960s Howard Hawks fell on his face with the racing saga Red Line 7000, although we can recommend a modest film by Jack Hill, called Pit Stop. Finally, the road show epic Grand Prix killed the genre off for a few years, combining hot camera technology with a frankly terrible multi-hankie soap opera story that left audiences cold.
The genre came back in a big way in the early ’70s as moviemakers went for what it presumed to be less sophisticated audiences: people interested in cars for their own sake. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman both indulged in interesting racing pictures that were fairly realistic, before fantasy took over in moonshine comedies with Burt Reynolds. In the middle 1970s the reality of stock car racing was seldom touched. Even James Bond became a clown behind the wheel of trick cars that did loop-the-loops in mid-air.
The Last American Hero follows the breaking-in period of a backwoods punk as he forges into the world of pro stock-car racing, a familiar tale made fresh with good casting and straightforward storytelling. Elroy Jackson distills quality moonshine and knows that the judges and juries that send him to prison drink his product. He lets his older boy Junior help in the trade by running the liquor down from the hills in a souped-up Mustang. Necessity and determination gives Junior a refuse-to-be-caught attitude that pays off later when he goes pro.
The pro-racing life turns out to be a Pilgrim’s Progress, even though Junior is too smart to fall into the most obvious traps. His in-your-face challenge to cheapskate promoters pays off because he’s always ready to jump to the next level of combat, whether it be against a stubborn track official (Gregory Walcott) or a take-no-prisoners pro racing organizer (Ed Lauter). Incensed at the stupid rules for a demolition derby, Junior rigs a hydraulic ram with a section of railroad rail (!) that wipes out the competition.
Jeff Bridges shows innate star sense, carrying the role with ease and keeping us firmly on Junior Jackson’s side. Junior is loyal to his family and matures in his relationship to his mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald, in a rare appearance) and the home-town pals who help him with his cars. It’s especially gratifying to see Junior re-connect with his father in prison. The hopefulness of Junior’s track wins gives pop the strength to eventually quit his moonshining for the sake of a better future.
Junior also learns that people in the world of racing aren’t as loyal as he might expect. Other racers have bad attitudes (Lane Smith is an amusingly disgruntled driver) but Junior is able to keep his eye on winning, even if it means constant warfare with his domineering sponsor. Junior also learns to get over a girl who catches his eye. Valerie Perrine’s Madge seems just too good to be true, and she is. The Last American Hero stops short of setting up the usual grudge match between racers fighting over the same woman. Junior saves his anger for his boss and keeps his eye on the finish line.
Savant can usually tolerate standard racing scenes for about ten-minutes, but my interest in The Last American Heronever flagged. The races are exciting without being hyped with wild camera angles or showoff car wrecks; the typical end to a race comes when one’s homemade engine just can’t take the RPMs and burns out. There are no tricks on the race course, and the atmosphere of the venues and motels on the circuit always seems accurate. We find ourselves caring for Junior because he’s on his own trying to make it fair and square. We want him to win.
Director Lamont Johnson has been a hot TV name since 1955. He broke out into film work many times but failed to score the big hits that would have kept him there, even though his pictures are nothing to sniff at: Kona Coast, The McKenzie Break, Lipstick, Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The Last American Hero is possibly his most satisfying theatrical film. His actors make their mark without a lot of fuss, and we believe in each and every one of them. The Jacksons seem like a fairly flaky clan when the movie begins but we can feel the family connections grow, without a single round of kisses or hugs. That’s not the typical arrangement in Southern dramas with exaggerated down-home attitudes. I can imagine a Southern rural audience watching this picture and feeling flattered.
Explosive Media’s Blu-ray of The Last American Hero is a sparkling encoding of this handsomely shot show. Cinematographer George Silano imparts a You Are There sensibility to every scene, whether Junior Jackson is rumbling along in his Mustang, being lectured by his father or competing in enormous arenas and racetracks. The widescreen images look great, and the Jim Croce theme song is a good fit. Croce perished in an airplane crash not long after the film was released, aged thirty years.
Explosive’s Blu-ray is Region A- compatible, and plays well on ordinary domestic players. The original English audio and subtitles are present, but one has to choose them in the menu for the film defaults to Deutsch.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Last American Hero
Sound: Excellent (English, German)
Supplements: trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, German
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 7, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson