Evel Knievel steps up to the mic and addresses his fans: “Before I make the jump, there’s something I’d like to say to you, that’s been bothering me for a long time.
I go to Indianapolis every year to see the Indy 500. I go there with friends to drive and race. Every year when they go there to qualify, they usually have to go as fast as they possibly can to get a front row position. They put nitro in their cars sometimes, instead of the fuel that is intended to be in the cars so that the cars will go faster … and they do, for five or ten laps. And then they blow all to hell.
And you people, you kids, if you put nitro in your bodies in the form of narcotics, so that you can do better, or so that maybe you think that you can do better, you will for about five or ten years, and then you’ll blow all to hell.”
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the alternative universe that was the 1970s, when Irwin Allen would produce a film all about Evel Knievel and his exploits, while neglecting to mention that Evel was married with three kids, all so that a subplot where a reporter (Lauren Hutton) can romance our daredevil in stars and stripes.
Let me tell you right now — this movie is everything that I love. It’s an earnest production that goes all out behind a cultural phenomena that is moments away from spectularly flaming out, bringing along a cast of Hollywood near A-listers. It’s one of those films that you’ll incredulously yell, “How the hell did they get him to be in this?”
Any movie that casts Marjoe Gortner as Evel Knievel’s stuntman rival is a movie that I’m going to write a few thousand words about, let me tell you that much.
This movie came out in June of 1977, just three months before Knievel and his associates violently assaulted promoter Shelly Saltman with an aluminum baseball bat. With Evel losing his sponsorship deals as the result, the film suffered, only opening in four foreign markets.
But that Evel — the one that would scream “I’m going to kill you!” while breaking defenseless men on Hollywood backlots — doesn’t appear here. Instead, Evel almost seems like a supernatural force of nature, randomly showing up in the middle of the night at orphanges bearing gifts for the children, inspiring a crippled boy to walk again and even charming Sister Charity, the toughest of the nuns (Allen’s wife Sheila).
When he’s not miraculously appearing to help the downtrodden children of America in a leisure suit, he’s travelling around the country jumping over mountain lions and fire to bring entertainment to the real people of the U.S. of A. His charity even continues on the people he surrounds him with, like promoter Ben Andrews (how did they get Red Buttons?) and alcoholic mechanic Will Atkins (how did they get Gene Kelly?).
Evel tells the press like it is, making quips at everything they ask him. And when he’s ambushed by photojournalist Kate Morgan (how did they get Lauren Hutton?), he snaps at her too. After all, if Evel dies trying this jump, it’ll make for a big story. Well, if you know anything about Evel, he totally bites it on this big jump, announces his retirement, flips out at the promoter and goes to the hospital.
While Evel is in the hospital, a bizarre plot against his life is hatched. His one-time protege Jessie (I know how they got Marjoe Gortner) is trying to convince him to do an incredibly daring jump that he’ll definitely die trying. Then, Stanley Millard (I kind of understand how they got a pre-Airplane! Leslie Nielsen) will hide $3.6 million worth of nose candy in the walls of Evel’s tour trailer. The border patrol will all be too sad that Evel is dead and not search his truck and then, they’ll all profit.
Meanwhile — as if this movie can grow any stranger — Will’s estranged son Tommy returns from boarding school. Will can’t deal with the kid, who reminds him of his dead wife, which is the reason he’s drinking. That leaves Evel to basically become Tommy’s new magical father.
Will learns of the plot against Evel and is sent to a mental hospital where the evil Dr. Ralph Thompson (how did they get Dabney Coleman?) keeps him under lock and key. And when Evel gets to Mexico — along with real-life pal Frank Gifford (how did…oh, you get the joke by now) — Jessie gets all zooted and kncoks out our hero, steals his bike and really does make the impossible jump before he dies thanks to the bike being sabotaged. His body is taken so that the drug deal can continue and everyone in the rest of Mexico now believes that Evel is muerto. Amazingly, this is real crash footage of Evel’s May 1975 Wembley Stadium jump.
For all of the other stunts, professional stuntman Gary Charles Davis was hired. His role was kept hush hush to avoid questions — and possibly insurance concerns — about Knievel himself performing his own motorcycle stunts.
Evel breaks Will out of the hospital and they discover that Tommy and Kate have been taken hostage. Of course, everything works out. The drug lords — which also count Cameron Mitchell, God bless him, amongst their number — are defeated, Leslie Neilsen drives off a cliff, Lauren Hutton falls for Evel and father and son are reunited. Then, Evel jumps a put of fire and the credits roll.
Silent partner Irwin Allen ended up directing eighty percent of this movie after origianl director Gordon Douglas (They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, In Like Flint) fell ill. I could make a joke about how he specialized in making disaster movies, but that joke is way too simple. Much like Evel, I only take on the most dangerous of writing stunts.
This movie is lterally everything that I love all at once. When I finally die jumping over a pit full of snakes, please play it on a loop at my funeral. Thank you.