Contemporary working class
film heroes in Evel Knievel and
The Last American Hero
Originally published in Jump Cut, no. 2, (July-Aug. 1974), pp. 11-14.
When I first published this essay in the second issue of JUMP CUT in 1974, it helped mark out the editors’ answer to “what is to be done?” in left film studies. First, it directly addressed the representation of the working class and the working class audience for film in the United States at the time. These were the kind of films that other publications and other intellectuals usually ignored, or sometimes recognized only to dismiss. At that point intellectual liberals could, at best, make a “working class hero” out to be someone like the Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces (d. Bob Rafelson, 1970), introduced as an oil field worker who has dropped out of his privileged upper class family and never fulfilled his promise as a child prodigy pianist. That film remains famous for the “chicken salad sandwich” scene where Nicholson’s character humiliates a waitress who is required to follow a rule to provide only what is printed on the menu. [Interestingly enough, the location is a Denny’s chain restaurant in my now hometown of Eugene, Oregon, right off of I-5.]
Those of us starting up JUMP CUT were critical of Hollywood’s production of films that served ideological conformity, but we also recognized that mainstream cinema spoke to the fantasies, desires, and needs of ordinary people. To simply offer a negative critique of the ideological message (the predominant mode of liberal and left film reviewing at the time) could never answer the question of “why are these films so popular?” The stereotypical liberal and left answer was that the mass audience were dupes, easily swayed by bright shiny things, and incapable of reflective thought: end of story.
We had a different approach. In this case, both of these films present the positive American story of the success myth: the Horatio Alger myth that clean living and hard working will eventually be rewarded with economic and status advancement. (The seldom-noticed flaw in the Alger myth is that while the hero is diligent, it turns out that his reward almost always comes by accident, a fortunate coincidence, not through the direct application of his own efforts. It arrives as if by divine intervention, not self-propelled action.) The appeal to white working class men is clear. Given a certain advantage through white skin privilege and male position in the social hierarchy, they expect to succeed, to rise into a higher class strata and advance economically over their own parents. Taking for granted the existing social order, they tend to think that they should, be paid more and have more of shot at success than women, minorities, and immigrants.
But even back in the 1970s, mainstream sociological and economic studies showed that actually most aspirant white working class guys failed. The most common pattern was someone accumulating a small amount of capital, and having acquired some trade or craft skills, starting a small business. A gas station was common for someone with auto mechanic abilities, for example. But this same person was often undercapitalized, didn’t have the small business skills, couldn’t afford new tools as technologies evolved, and couldn’t compete with marketplace changes. Losing it all, the chastened worker returned to his previous level, or even fell below it.
A recent celebrity example is provided by “Joe the Plumber,” who in a meeting in the 2008 election campaigns asked candidate Barack Obama about small business tax issues. Joe (Samuel Joseph Wurtzelbacher) claimed he was a plumber and wanted to open his own shop. Obama’s response, proposing lower taxes for “middle income” earners but higher rates for successful and somewhat larger small businesses, was taken by conservative media as calling for redistribution of wealth and the Republican ticket, John McCain and Sarah Palin, claimed Obama was a socialist. Joe was incorporated into various Republican campaign events, and frequently mentioned as an ordinary aspiring white working class guy in the Midwest who was dismissed by the African American politician and law professor candidate. On further investigation, it turned out that Wurtzelbacher, had a modest income, was in considerable debt and couldn’t possibly come up with the capital to start a small plumbing shop. Even more damning, he was not a certified plumber, and he had never been admitted to even a plumbing apprentice program, and he was not qualified to hold a plumbing license in the state of Ohio. In 2014, after failing in the political realm as a candidate for Congress and as a conservative media pundit, Joe began working at a Chrysler Jeep plant, one that had been rescued by Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, and joined the United Auto Workers union.
The narrative of the hero’s journey always involves trials, tests, and tribulation. But in these two films the protagonist isn’t a person of rank, an established leader, an experienced veteran, an accomplished warrior. Rather the film charts the young man of humble origins and limited means who must face a hard-scrabble road to achievement. Relentless determination, hard work, and a certain cocky self-confidence serve to climb the barriers to success. It’s easy to see why these heroes appeal to white working class men: they act rather than react, they are not burdened by doubt or self-reflection, and they make do with what they have at hand. Nothing has been given to them: no prestige, no power, no advantages. They make their own futures (or so it seems to them as long as they imagine themselves without any reference to the structural advantages of their race and gender). And there’s nothing in these films to raise those questions. Both films are devoid of anyone except white people. And the women who appear in no way compete with the men, but accept their subordinate social and economic status.
Yet the films are not set in a fantasy world in which all will automatically turn out well. The obstacles are built into the real world and have to do with class. Race car driver Junior Jackson has skills with autos, but no capital. Others, race car owners and race track owners, control the means of production. Junior can only sell his labor power and put forward his special skill set to try to get a better deal. Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel learns at his first jump that no one in charge will ever look out for him. Thus his skill at self-promotion and entertainment, first learned on the streets in a mining town, is his bulwark. But that skill also constantly spills over into self-aggrandizement, some paranoia, and dreams of defying gravity and physics, as well as challenging the possibilities of surgical medicine.
Both of these heroes are tied to where they come from: for Junior his immediate family, and for Evel his roughneck mining town buddies, but both of the characters separate themselves from the normative expectations of their place of origin. Junior knows he must leave to become a champion racer, a “star,” as he describes his future. High school dropout Evel scorns the local sports figures, knowing his destiny will transcend the local horizon. And these are individual paths. Any notion of a collective hero, rising as a group, is absent. You make it on your own. Thus the films’ double edge message: the obstacles for working class men are clear and present, but overcoming them is a matter of individual effort.
Contemporary working class film heroes in
Evel Knievel and The Last American Hero
by Chuck Kleinhans
- Originally published in Jump Cut, no. 2, (July-Aug. 1974), pp. 11-14.
- Reprinted as "Working-Class Film Heroes: Junior Johnson, Evel Knievel and the Film Audience," in Peter Steven, ed., Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics, and Counter-Cinema (Toronto: Between the Lines Press; NY: Praeger; London: British Film Institute, 1985), pp. 64-82.
- [This version lightly edited and updated.]
“There’s room at the top they are telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
A working class hero is something to be.”
Hollywood’s typical presentation of the U.S. success myth has centered on the hero’s trials and triumph, considering his class origins only to establish the initial “rags” of the “rags to riches” theme. For example, in The Benny Goodman Story, Benny, child of the immigrant slums, receives his first musical instrument and training at Chicago’s Hull House, but the remainder of the film resolutely ignores matters of class. Aspiring racial and ethnic minority members of the working class have generally had two career paths held out to them in success-myth films: the entertainment business (e.g., The Jazz Singer and Yankee Doodle Dandy) and sports (The Babe Ruth Story and Gentleman Jim). Such films treat the hero’s class and racial/ethnic background perfunctorily, unless the topic is inescapable, as with Jim Thorpe—All American, which gives a liberal nod recognizing the racism confronting the Native American athlete, and Your Cheatin’ Heart, which sentimentally traces Hank Williams’ career as a country music singer.
Two recent Hollywood success-myth bio films, Evel Knievel and The Last American Hero, diverge from the traditional direction by presenting heroes whose working class origins are central to the narrative. Doubtless Hollywood’s new cultural pluralism—the shift from conceiving of a homogeneous public to making films for well defined audiences (youths, blacks, etc.)—is an economically motivated adjustment to market realities. Significantly, both real-life subjects of these two films attained, and still retain, their celebrity status among a specific audience—the white working class. Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel and champion stock car racer Junior Johnson remain little known in the U.S. middle class. These two films depict working class heroes—working class heroes both in the sense that their class origins are not ignored or hidden, and that they are heroes to the working class. For their intended audience these films are “closer to real life” than films depicting middle class protagonists with middle class problems. Yet both films remain within the limits of bourgeois ideology, particularly in dealing with the success myth, for they affirm that individual success is both possible and worth pursuing.
Their distribution indicates that these films are directed at the white working class audience. The Last American Hero was released by Fox initially in the summer of 1973 on the drive-in circuit, which is itself a class-distinguished phenomenon providing relatively inexpensive admissions and back-of-the-car free child care. After remarkable success, The Last American Hero finally opened in New York City houses without ever having had a critics’ screening. Evel Knievel achieved a popular initial success and has been a steady second half of double bills at drive-ins for several years. Additionally, it was chosen as a trump card by a major television network to win the prime time ratings battle in the first week of the 73-74 season because of its appeal to Middle America—the majority of TV viewers.
My discussion of Evel Knievel and The Last American Hero will describe the films in terms of their presentation of ironic, and sometimes ambiguous, biographies. By specifically looking at several themes in the films—danger and skill, the relation of hero to authority, the role of women, the depiction of class differences, and the action solution to problems—we can better understand the films’ appeal.
Success: myth and reality
The media convey information both through form and content. The information conveyed and the way it is presented shape audience sensibility: the question, then, is one of ideology. Modern discussions of ideology begin with Marx’s well-known formulation in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”
Obviously Marx’s point about the relation between social existence and consciousness cannot be taken in a mechanistic way. In contemporary life, mass culture mediates one’s consciousness of social reality, and film is such a mediation. The typical success image in cinema is presented in terms of (1) individuals, who (2) succeed or fail by their own individual activity and outlook. Film thus reinforces tendencies favorable to the status quo by implicitly denying even the possibility of group activity for life’s goals or measuring success in political terms.
The success myth is so pervasive in U.S. life that it needs little description: The United States is the land of opportunity, males can go from log cabin to White House, Horatio Alger virtues ensure success. The function of the myth in U.S. life is to encourage aspiration and a belief in individual opportunity. Because of its promise of reward for hard labor, it serves to distract the individual from seeing institutional obstacles to striving, and from considering the small number of wealthy and powerful at the top of the success pyramid in comparison with the massive base of “failures.” The myth promises to those who lack money, educational advantages, and influence—the vast majority of Americans—that a personality committed to ambition, determination, perseverance, temperance, and hard work will earn its appropriate reward.
The reality of success and failure in the United States, especially for the working class, is quite at variance with the myth. In one of the best studies of the reality and myth of success among industrial workers, Automobile Workers and the American Dream, Ely Chinoy points out that external conditions, not subjective factors determine success for the working class. Soon after beginning a career, the blue collar worker finds a ceiling on his or her upward mobility and level of achievement. Subjectively, when members of the working class find their aspirations impossible to achieve yet accept the prevailing ideology of individualism, the result is self-blame and an elaborate defensive rationalization of their position.
Evel Knievel and The Last American Hero are particularly interesting in this context because they do not simply present the standard success myth but deal with it in an ambiguous way by qualifying wholehearted admiration for their respective heroes. In short, they are accommodations of the myth to undeniable reality.
Both Evel Knievel and The Last American Hero are ironic romances. The traditional romance narrative pattern follows a protagonist through early adventures to a crucial test. The test proves he deserves the title of hero, as with Beowulf, Saint George, and other basic romance protagonists. While both films follow the romance scheme, they also introduce significant irony. Typically a romance clearly distinguishes the hero and heroine, who represent the desirable ideals, from the villains, who embody threats to virtue’s triumph. In these films, using an ironic mode, the hero and heroine are tarnished, and they do not simply oppose the villains, but join the villains in a symbiotic, if distasteful union. For these heroes and heroines, the route to success involves compromise. In The Last American Hero this issue of compromise forms a central theme. As a beginning driver, Junior (Jeff Bridges) scorns his rivals who are hired by wealthy patrons. But his pride in his self-made status is shattered when he totals his car, the sum of his assets, in a race. Without the cash or credit to buy a new racing machine, he must become an employee in order to drive, and he makes the distasteful decision to work for the owner he most hates, Burton Colt. Colt tightly controls his employees, treating his drivers callously by using a one-way radio to instruct them in precisely what to do during a race. Once Colt’s instructions become too obnoxious, Junior’s reaction is to tear the radio apart, but this defiance is permitted only because Junior wins the race.
In Evel Knievel the theme of compromise is subdued, for Evel (George Hamilton) constantly defies restrictions. Though he is forced to obey his doctor when immobilized by injuries, once patched up, he escapes to the hospital parking lot where he rides a motorcycle while still in several casts, celebrating his bravado until he comically falls off. Constant reference to his dream of jumping his cycle over the Grand Canyon emphasizes his ambition and his wish to defy the laws of the physical universe. For the most part, compromise is treated in terms of Evel’s extreme ambivalence. For example, he fears and scorns the crowds as a mass, who will find his potential or actual injury or death amusing. Yet he performs for them and tells them half-mockingly and half-seriously, “It is truly an honor to risk my life for you.” He acts similarly with the press and autograph seekers, first verbally rejecting them and then in fact submitting happily to their attentions. In the film this somewhat schizophrenic behavior seems to pass beyond a normal neurosis allowed a professional daredevil. While in some cases his nervousness is mildly comic (Evel’s fear that fans will crush him, tear his clothes off, injure him, as they did to Elvis Presley), Evel resolves everything through action and never exhibits fear in his stunts, while paying the price of never finding repose. When his wife suggests a Mexican vacation to find some quiet, he replies that the water makes you sick.
Evel’s retort to his wife indicates another ironic romance element. In the typical romance a temporal and/or spatial place outside of the common world—be that a utopian future following the hero’s recognition or an Edenic place in the past or encountered along the journey—allows the relaxed practice of life without threats. Both films, however, adopt an ironic stance and say there is no place or time of innocence. Once involved in the quest the hero cannot return to a simpler life nor attain it when he accomplishes his goal. For Junior and Marge in The Last American Hero not even a love tryst is safe, for Marge’s former lover and Junior’s arch-rival as a driver, Kyle Kingman, enters her place with his own key, which he then graciously leaves when he finds the couple in bed. Once he begins professional driving, Junior cannot go back to his former life in the Appalachian hollows. His father returns from a prison sentence for moonshining and emphatically tells his sons that there will be no more stills on his property, thereby ending Junior’s other employable skill. Nor can Junior return to his friends once a winner—a point made visually after he wins the big race. At that point as he climbs the stairs leading to the press room for his post-victory press conference, Junior looks down on the small figures of his old buddies in the darkening dusk. He has just told Colt that they will have to he hired as his pit crew, but the difference between Junior, above, and the friends below on the ground, the growing dark, and the buddies’ physical actions, their characteristic “goofing,” shows a quantitative and qualitative chasm between the hero and his old companions. As Junior enters the press room he disappears behind the door, but his shadow is silhouetted on the wall in freeze frame. The film ends not with the man, but a two dimensional media image of the winning hero.
Junior cannot go home again, nor can he rest: a season of racing and years of seasons lie ahead. Similarly with Evel Knievel: waiting for his big jump which concludes the film, he paces in a room with wide picture windows looking out on the race track—a constant reminder that there is always a jump coming up, that there is always a quantitative increase in the number of cars he might jump over. In the typical romance the hero’s achievement restores order and virtue. In these films achievement—winning the race or jumping over 19 cars—represents the attainment of hero status, but restores nothing. The film hero’s accomplishment proves only bravery and prowess and does not bestow autonomous power, great wealth, or physical well-being. This is a reversal of the traditional romance where winning the crucial battle ensures ascension to the throne or chief-advisor status, gifts of wealth, marriage to the heroine, and the establishment of a new social order promising peace, fertility, and plenitude.
In his book Blue-Collar Life, sociologist Arthur B. Shostak argues that the appeal of the typical romance pattern presenting a moral man against the forces of the “outside” fits the blue collar male’s disposition to posit a general “us/them” dichotomy in life, with “us” usually seen in terms of the extended family, ethnic group, or neighborhood (the three of which may have considerable overlap). For example, the pattern is prevalent in the western with the villain brought into a serene society, or an element that must be expunged, or the variation with the good guy in a corrupt environment. Some recent action films present the same pattern of a moral man hamstrung by institutions, by “them.” (For an excellent political analysis of Dirty Harry along these lines, see Anthony Chase’s “The Strange Romance of Dirty Harry...” in The Velvet Lighttrap, Jan. 72; reprinted in Radical America, 7:1.)
In the case of Evel Knievel and The Last American Hero, with their ironic romance pattern, we can see that although ironic, the pattern remains intact and is not inverted by the end. In the balance, both Evel and Junior remain “moral” though not pure in their encounters. The outside, “them,” is still suspect: Evel twice states his exaggerated fears that his wife will be “kidnapped, raped, or something” if she goes outside without him, but his obsessive protectiveness is motivated by virtuous concern. Similarly, Junior’s first big race on the professional circuit exhibits not only his backwoods ignorance of city ways but also his distance from his fellow drivers who “parade around like movie stars,” as he tells his family. In both films the hero faces the problem of maintaining his native qualities and virtues in a quest for success that involves facing the “outside” and its inherent corruption. The resultant ambiguities in the characters’ biographies are seen in several themes, such as that of danger.