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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.