Directed by Hal Needham (Megaforce, Smokey and the Bandit), this movie was based on the 1979 running of an actual cross-country outlaw road race — the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash — which began in Connecticut and ended in California. Or, you know, Cannonball, the 1976 Roger Corman produced film that tells the exact same story. Or The Gumball Rally.
That said, screenwriter Brock Yates came up with the actual race while writing for Car and Driver. The race had only one rule: “All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner.”
Yates’ team was the only participant in the original 1971 running, which was named after Ernest “Cannonball” Baker, who in 1927 drove across the country in just 60 hours.
This is pretty much my dream idea of what a movie should be.
A very simple premise: a cross-country race for lots of money.
Add in plenty of actors you love.
Let hijinks ensue.
The ambulance: JJ McClure (Burt Reynolds) and Victor Prinzi (Dom DeLuise) are driving a souped-up Dodge Tradesman ambulance, the very same vehicle Needham and Yates used in the 1979 race.
The Ferrari 308 GTS: Driven by drunken former race star Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and his gambler Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis Jr.), who are both dressed as Catholic priests.
The Lamborghini Countach: Driven by Jill Rivers (Tara Buckman) and Marcie Thatcher (Adrienne Barbeau), who are using their looks to get ahead. This is pretty much the horror genre car, as Buckman would go on to appear in Silent Night, Deadly Night, Xtro II: The Second Encounter and, of course, Night Killer. Barbeau would live on in our hearts thanks to appearances in Creepshow, The Fog and Escape from New York.
The Subaru GL 4WD: Producers Golden Harvest demanded some Asian stars in the film. They got Jackie Chan in his second American film — after The Big Brawl — and Michael Hui.
The Laguna/Monte Carlo: This Hawaiian Tropic NASCAR car somehow switches makes throughout the film. It keeps the same drivers: Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis.
The Aston Martin DB5: Driven by Roger Moore, who is really James Bond, who is really Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., the potentially crazy heir to the Goldfarb Girdles fortune.
The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow: Driven by rich old sheik Jamie Farr.
There’s so much more — DeLuise is also a superhero named Captain Chaos, Farrah Fawcett hooks up with Burt, Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam) wants to inject everyone with his medicine, Bert Convy gets into a fistfight with bikers led by Peter Fonda, Valerie Perrine shows up as a state trooper, stuntman Robert Tessler (Chief Thor from Starcrash, Verdugo from The Sword and the Sorcerer) fights Jackie Chan, all of the Bond girls are dubbed just like the real films and all manner of car stunts take up much of the running time.
Burt Reynolds did this movie for $5 million, a percentage of the profits and a promise he’d only work 14 days. He later said, “I did that film for all the wrong reasons. I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”
This movie is also the reason why seatbelts are required on all stunts now.
24-year-old German American stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz, who was a former championship skier and aspiring actor, was critically injured driving the Aston Martin car during a stunt. She had no previous stunt driving experience and was behind the wheel of a car with defective steering, clutch, and speedometer. Even worse, it had bald tires.
Her vehicle collided head-on with a van and made her a quadriplegic. Her personal injury lawsuit exceeded all available primary insurance coverage, so the production’s excess insurer, Interstate Fire sued von Beltz and her employer, Stuntman Inc., claiming that the lawsuit was not covered under its policy.
After years of court cases, she was eventually awarded $7 million although the judge later reduced that amount to $3.2 million or just enough to pay her medical and legal bills. She died in 2015.
Here’s something good out of this movie: It inspired Jackie Chan to always include bloopers at the end of his films. Hopefully that makes up for the fact that Needham didn’t know the difference between Asian races and cast Chan as a Japanese racer.