Rob’s Car Movie Review: King of the Mountain (1981)

It seems like a lifetime ago, but before I embarked on this immensely enjoyable vocation as an automotive journalist, I was intently focused on a career as a feature screenwriter.

I co-authored several action/adventure style scripts along with a long-standing writing partner and was constantly on the prowl for ideas that could be manifested into future screenplays.

At one point, I came across the true-life story of a bunch of amateur street racers who terrorized the denizens of the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles in the late-’60s and early-‘70s. The more research I did on the subject, the more I became convinced that it could make for an enthralling period-piece street racing movie.

The script never got past the outlining stage due to several factors – something that disappointed me greatly at the time. Subsequent to the project stalling, though, I discovered I was beaten to the punch. A little known, low-budget film from 1981 focused on the very same group of automotive hooligans.

King Of The Mountain:

For this month’s installment of “Rob’s Car Movie Review,” I thought we’d have a look at that movie. So, here’s my take on King of the Mountain!

The theatrical movie poster for King of the Mountain. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

King of the Mountain was a production of Polygram Pictures and was distributed in the United States by Universal Pictures. Noel Nosseck directed it, based on a screenplay by a pair of writers, Leigh Chapman and H.R. Christian. They used a magazine article, “Thunder Road” in New West Magazine, as their inspiration.

The movie features an illustrious cast, including Harry Hamlin, Joseph Bottoms, Dennis Hopper, Dan Haggerty, Seymour Cassel, Richard Cox, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh.

Stars Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Harry Hamlin. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

Plot:

King of the Mountain relates the story of Steve (Hamlin), a Porsche mechanic by day, and the premier driver amongst a group that races for money and bragging rights on a treacherous stretch of Mulholland Drive by night.

Mentored by Cal (Hopper), the former king of the Mulholland racers, Steve continually hones his skills to stay at the peak of his power. Steve falls for Tina (Van Valkenburgh), a beautiful, young singer who isn’t as enamored with the danger of racing in the Hills. He face the choice of relinquishing his crown as the top dog on Mulholland, lest he lose her.

A behind-the-scenes still of Dennis Hopper as Cal. (Photo courtesy of de.todocoleccion.net.)

Running the risk of sounding biased, I’m nonetheless going to say that the creators of King of the Mountain did a thoroughly awful job executing the film. I give the filmmakers credit for seeing the same possibilities inherent in the real-life story as I did. But, just about every narrative, creative, and technical facet of the movie is sub-par.

The movie has a pointless subplot about trying to make it in the music business. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

How sub-par? The film has virtually no coherent narrative to speak of. It has a horrendous ongoing subplot involving Steve’s friend’s effort to make it big in the music business. This narrative is exceedingly dull and superfluous to what little story there is. Hamlin and Van Valkenburg have literally no on-screen chemistry whatsoever. The acting is universally over-the-top, especially when it comes to Hopper, who I suspect was out of his mind on drugs during filming.

The characters are vapid, crudely defined, and experience no arc or development. They routinely spout dialogue so cheesy it makes you feel embarrassed for the actors. The cinematographer should have thought about legally changing his name to The Prince of Darkness (no offense Ozzy) since all of the night scenes are so underexposed you often cannot tell what is happening.

Add to that bisque of shame an overabundance of bad early-’80s perms, mustaches, and upturned collars, and it’s nearly too painful to sit through the film.

Thrilling racing sequences, performed practically, and at high speed are the saving grace of the film. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

I did sit through its entirety, however, and believe it or not, so should you. For King of the Mountain has two saving graces: an abundance of awesome muscle and sports cars, and some thrilling racing sequences.

The Cars:

The night sequences that are properly exposed, as well as the daylight ones, are simply masterful. They were all filmed entirely on-location at the classic section of Mulholland that the real-life drivers called “The Racetrack.” I know that stretch of Mulholland like the back of my hand, having lived nearby for 15 years.

I can assure you that the action realistically depicts the milieu, down to the correct sequence of corners and straights. No Hollywood cut and pastes here to reorder or jumble locations for convenience sake. The racing was also clearly performed at high speeds, with no evidence of the film being slowed down to make things look faster, which was a common trick at the time.

The movie’s prime vehicle, Steve’s Porsche Speedster, was actually a kit car based on a VW Beetle. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

The titular car in the film is Steve’s German Racing Silver Porsche 356 Speedster, replete with rollbar, flared fenders, and meaty tires wrapped around racing wheels. The picture car was a kit car based on a heavily modified Volkswagen Beetle. This was likely done because real Speedsters were rare, even in 1981, and considered too dear to trash for a movie.

Believe it or not, in the inky darkness of this shot lurks my favorite car in the film, a 1969 Ford Mustang Fastback, possibly of Mach I variety. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

My favorite car in the movie is an Acapulco Blue 1969 Ford Mustang Fastback. It’s hard to discern details owing to the previously mentioned poor cinematographic exposures, but the car appears to be a Mach I. It certainly sounds like one too! The Mustang falls prey to Hollywood’s awful habit of crashing and burning vehicles that we’d all kill for today, much to my dismay.

Cal’s Rat-Rod 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray doing its thing on Mulholland. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

Other awesome cars in the film include Cal’s monster Rat-Rod 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, a 1971 De Tomaso Pantera, and a gorgeous 1970 Dodge Super Bee. There was also a canary yellow 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, an equally yellow 1978 Ferrari 308 GTS, and a sundry of Porsche 911s, 914/6s, and 356s. Quite a collection of vintage automobiles.

On the Sunset Strip, Steve is challenged by some guys in a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am to a race up on Mulholland. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

Rob’s Take:

In the end, King of the Mountain is a mediocre film by anyone’s measure. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, were it not for the racing sequences and the cars therein. If I were still in the screenwriting racket, though, I’d maintain that a worthwhile story could be had from the basic premise and strive to craft it. As far as this version of it is concerned, however, I give King of the Mountain four-and-a-half out of ten pistons.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
Read My Articles

Hot Rods and Muscle Cars in your inbox.

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from Street Muscle, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes
Street Muscle NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

We'll send you the most interesting Street Muscle articles, news, car features, and videos every week.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Street Muscle NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...



Classic Ford Performance

Street Rods

Classic Chevy Magazine

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...

  • Classic Ford Performance
  • Street Rods
  • Classic Chevy Magazine

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Loading