For the past few editions of this long-running monthly column, we have taken a look at some automotive films produced and released in recent years. While there is no doubt Hollywood still knows its way around a car movie, as evidenced by such watchable fare as Need for Speed and Gone in 60 Seconds, I’d venture to argue that the Golden Era of films that center around automobiles was undoubtedly the 1970s.
The reason for this phenomenon likely has to do with the overarching winds of change that blew through the decade, which carried with them sentiments of personal freedom and anti-establishment fervor. Hollywood, well aware of these societal trends, sought to tap into this and found the car-movie genre a perfect place to instill the devices of hitting the open road with what was often an anti-heroic lead protagonist. Perfect examples of this are films like Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, and Smokey and the Bandit.
Another such film fitting this modus operandi precisely is an often forgotten little gem of 1970s filmmaking, The Last American Hero, the subject of this month’s Rob’s Car Movie Review.
The Last American Hero was produced by Rojo Productions and was distributed in the United States by Twentieth Century Fox in 1973. The film was written by William Roberts, based on an Esquire Magazine article penned by the renowned author Tom Wolfe. This article was ultimately included in his collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Helming the film was seasoned television director, Lamont Johnson.
The movie has an unabashedly sublime cast, starring a young Jeff Bridges along with Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, and Ed Lauter.
The Last American Hero is an unofficial biography of NASCAR legend, Junior Johnson. Bridges plays Junior Jackson, a wild and carefree runner of his father’s moonshine. He delights in outrunning the police in high-speed pursuits as he delivers the illicit booze to clientele all across the South.
When his father’s still is dismantled by authorities, his father is convicted of bootlegging and given a prison sentence. Junior sets out to earn a living as a stock car driver so as to support his elderly mother and somewhat dimwitted younger brother.
Fortune smiles broadly upon him as he graduates from the bottom rungs of the professional driver ladder in demolition derbies, up through increasingly more professional levels of stock car racing. Throughout this journey, he is met with challenges and setbacks, meets friends and foes, as well as a woman, Marge (Perrine), who continually vacillates between being his love interest and a femme fatale.
The Last American Hero is the kind of film that rarely gets made these days. It’s a character study that travels at its own pace, devoid of quick cause and effect loops and quicker shots and cuts. The story takes its time profiling Junior and his relationships with his family, friends, and love interest.
No doubt, this slow boil would be antithetical to the attention span of today’s average movie goer, but as I am not, I relished in all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the film and its protagonists.
Bridges is wonderful, bringing to life the duality of Junior’s personality which alternates between family-oriented young man and untethered hellraiser. Also putting in superlative performances are Gary Busey as Junior’s brother Wayne, and Ed Lauter as Burton Colt, a combative NASCAR team owner.
Perfectly mirroring the film’s laconic pace is low-key, earthy cinematography that is purposefully devoid of flash and dazzle, and a folky score which includes the classic Jim Croce track “I’ve Got a Name.”
The car lover has plenty to love and ogle over here. There are numerous chase sequences throughout the first half of the movie, which are mirrored by some exceptional racing sequences in the latter.
The viewer knows this is a car movie from the very first frame of the film, which depicts Junior tearing through an old Civil War graveyard in his steed, a magnificent 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback in Acapulco Blue with black interior.
The exterior of the car features aftermarket mag wheels, and much like the iconic Mustang in Bullitt, Junior’s car sports no pony or fog lights in the grille.
Junior isn’t gentle on his car, as evidenced in many chase sequences down unpaved roads. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)
We get many looks at the interior of the car, which features an aftermarket floor shifter and a police scanner to aid Junior in escaping the clutches of his pursuers while running his father’s moonshine.
Sadly, we only get one quick glimpse under the hood at what looked to me to be a 390-cubic-inch V-8, but I could be wrong. From the sound of the car, it clearly has custom headers and cutouts on the exhaust of some sort as the thing is seriously loud.
Also unfortunate is how the Mustang is treated during the film, as it is driven roughshod along less than easy roads, and is later raced and demolished.
The film also features a host of great muscle cars aside from the Mustang, many in race trim. I spied Plymouth Roadrunners, Chevy Chevelles, and Camaros amongst others.
The Last American Hero is a film I’ve watched several times and enjoy with the same fullness on every viewing. It is an excellent film, with superb performances and a collection of some pretty cool muscle to boot.
As such, I wholeheartedly recommend the film to the automotive cinephile, and give it seven and a half out of ten pistons.
See you next month!