Prohibition bootlegging of the 1930s gave birth to NASCAR: that’s a fact. And one of those bootleggers — and the sport’s biggest success stories — was Junior Jackson, who got his start behind the wheel hauling illegal liquor through the North Carolina foothills.
The script by Williams Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, The Devil’s Brigade, one of Charles Bronson’s better post-Death Wish movies, 10 to Midnight) was based on Tom Wolfe’s (Bonfire of the Vanities) award-winning article, “The Last American Hero,” published in a 1965 issue of Esquire (which is how William Harrison’s “Roller Ball Murder,” aka Rollerball, got its start). It’s all directed by Lamont Johnson, who gave us the war drama (The McKenzie Break, the military-paranoia drama The Groundstar Conspiracy, and, wait for it . . . one of the better Star Wars clones: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone).
Jeff Bridges (on his way to an Academy Award “Best Supporting Actor” nod for next year’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with Clint Eastwood) stars as Junior Jackson, a moonshiner and amateur stock-car driver that stays one step ahead of the law — until he experiences an epiphany when his father is sent to prison for moonshining.
His new commitment to racing faces obstacles from Ned Beatty as a cheapskate promoter and Ed Lauter as a race-team owner who refuses to let Junior field his own pit crew led by his brother, played by Gary Busey. Romantic entanglements come in the form of Valarie Perrine who plays her affections against Junior and his main competitor on the track, played by William Smith (who jumps behind the wheel again in David Cronenberg’s Fast Company). In case you haven’t noticed: that’s all of the actors we care about at B&S About Movies.
This movie has it all: a great cast backed by a great script courtesy of Tom Wolfe and Williams Roberts, along with solid direction by Lamont Johnson. And . . . while the film didn’t exactly light up the box office for 20th Century Fox, it helped catapult Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” which served as the film’s theme song, up the charts (a process that was repeated when it was used in that same capacity in the Mark Walhberg’s 2006 football drama, Invincible).
Not everyone remembers this early entry in Jeff Bridges’s career, but it slides into the DVD racks nicely, right alongside fellow A-List race epics Red Line 7000 with James Caan, Grand Prix with James Garner, Le Mans with Steve McQueen, and Winning with Paul Newman. For me, it’s as good, even better, than Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise (no offense, Tom; it’s due to drive-in nostalgia with pops).
You can learn more about Junior Johnson with this eulogy published upon his December 2019 death at NASCAR.com. You can read a digitized version of Tom Wolfe’s article as part of the University of Virginia’s archives.
Rarely airing on ’70s UHF-TV and ’80s pay-cable, and poorly distributed as a hard-to-find Fox Home Video VHS, The Last American Hero finally made it into the digital marketplace as high-quality DVD in 2006 and is readily streamable on all the usual platforms — but we found a copy on You Tube. Watch the trailer, HERE.