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The Rivals
(a.k.a. Rivals & Stranger At Jefferson High)
(1981)
 

Director:Lyman Dayton                        
Cast:
Stewart Petersen, Philip Brown, Dona Kimmell


They don't make movies like this anymore. Seen today, The Rivals might be seen as naive, clichéd to the extreme, and dated. Certainly, it is guilty of those charges. But at the same time, after twenty years (the movie was made in 1979, but released two years later) it is in many ways a breath of fresh air, with its sweet tone and assurances that everything will work out in the end, that good will triumph over what is bad. It can be seen as one of the final films of this kind; just a few years later, the 1985 movie The New Kids took the same basic premise and made it into a horror/suspense exploitation movie. It's interesting to compare the two movies, though you'll first have to somehow find a copy of The Rivals - it was never released on video, and I only found it on late night television.

Interestingly, when I researched the movie after watching it, I discovered that it was done by the same production team as Seven Alone, which I reviewed last week. Also, the actor who played John Seger in that movie (Stewart Petersen) plays the central role in The Rivals - he had changed so much in just a few years, I didn't recognize him. In his late teens here, his performance has become bigger and weaker in the wrong areas - his accent is stronger, and his reading of lines sounds even more like he's reading from a script in front of him. He plays Adam Cummings, one of five children in a Wyoming sheep farm family, but the father has just passed away. The family packs up and heads to L.A. (with their pet lamb!), where the mother is to work at some undefined low income job. When they pull into their new home, it looks like a mess, as it always is when characters move from one place to L.A. in the opening credits.

Adam considers himself the man of the house, and struggles to bring in extra money for the family, finally managing to take a part-time job at a gas station. But his struggles aren't just in getting money. A regular California jock named Clyde (played by Brown, and first seen combing his hair while looking at one of the rearview mirrors of his - yes - van) has found the presence of this hick amusing, initially mocking him for his cowboy clothes and his being a sheep farmer. Later, he humiliates Adam by doing things like locking him overnight in an outhouse cemented on the school's parking lot. Not only that, Clyde has great interest in Adam's sister Alice, which Adam is horrified by, and tries in vain to scare his sister away from Clyde. Surprisingly, Adam doesn't take that other humiliation by Clyde lying down, and manages to humiliate Clyde in some other fashion shortly after each time Clyde does something to him. How will these rivals resolve their rivalry? Well, since Clyde is seen racing someone on the beach for money early on in the movie, I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone what happens in the final fifteen minutes or so.

I'll give credit to the filmmakers, however, on that climax. That's because they throw in an unexpected twist to that climatic race, and it's probably not what you think that twist might be. Also, the rivalry itself is not what you might expect. For one thing, the rivalry really doesn't get official until quite some time after the first meeting of Adam and Clyde, which I think is more realistic. It's refreshing to see an onscreen rivalry never getting too intense - no foul words are exchanged, and no fists fly (at least between Adam and Clyde.) Another more realistic take on the movie is the portrayal of Clyde. Another movie may have made him into a sadistic and stupid leather-coated creep of some kind. Clyde may be a thoughtless person who takes pleasure in the pranks he pulls, but he's not really a bad person. We see that he's simply forgotten - or never learned in the first place - about showing respect to others or considering the feelings of others. What's also interesting is when the movie looks at Adam's character, and we see that not everything about him is perfect. He's overprotective of his sister, and even before giving everyone at his new school a fair chance, he dismisses them all as "hippies" (!) and doesn't want himself and his sister to get to know them better.

The acting is pretty bad in this movie - it's not just Petersen who sounds like he's reading, instead of just acting his lines. The characters are mostly stereotypes as well; Benner (Joel P. Kenney), a friend Adam makes, is a glasses-wearing nerd, obsessed with frogs, getting a scholarship, and putts around on a moped. Adam's gas station boss Stone (Albert Lantieri), is a crusty man who initially refuses to hire Adam (Adam has to secretly clean up the garage to earn his trust,) but later turns out to have a heart of gold. Clyde has a girlfriend named Brook (Kimmell) who soon starts to fancy Adam (Considering the way Clyde treats her - like dirt, of course - its amazing she's still with Clyde at this point.) Despite this, there was something likable about these characters still. When Benner starts to get victimized by Clyde and is comforted by Adam, I found the scene surprisingly touching, despite the horrible acting. Even when the characters were force-fed actions and dialogue to show off wholesome, Christian values, it went down easier than I thought. Example: Adam wants to put a new engine in his truck (oooh, foreshadowing!) and Stone wonders if it is worth it, considering the beat-up look of his truck. "It's what's inside that counts," responds Adam. Corny, but....

I will admit, though, that sometimes - make that many times, there was just too much of that corn. It doesn't help that this movie is very dated. Characters wear very 70s haircuts, the teenagers at a party dance "The Hustle" (to music that's a cross between Pomp and Circumstance and Van McCoy's The Hustle), and people are nice enough to utter several times during the course of the movie, "...shove it down your throat," instead of suggesting another bodily opening, away from gravity. In fact, the movie is a little too nice, ever for its time period. And it is almost completely, totally, and utterly predictable. You'll know just about everything that will happen a long, long, long time before it happens. A funny thing though; when I first finished watching this movie, I firmly thought it was sweet, but too corny and clichéd. But after some time has passed between watching this movie and writing a review on it, I've found myself more and more fondly looking back upon the good stuff in the movie than the negative stuff. As corny and dated as this movie may be, there was something reassuring about it, how it suggested that hard work will be rewarded, and that "what's inside counts" is really apt. I'm not really saying it's good enough for a definite recommendation, but I no longer think it's as bad as I initially thought. My feeling on this movie isn't one way or another, but at the same time, my conscious is tsk-tsking me for not giving a clear positive review, and reflecting on how shameful it is that movies like this aren't made any more.
 


UPDATE: Jason Atwood of The Wide World Of Movies updated me on the status of Rivals:

"I've been in the progress of adding title links to my pages, until coming across Rivals (found it on TV). It appears it just got released on video. Movies Unlimited (my site's affiliation) has a listing in the online catalog for a pretty good price. The actors, the story, it all fits the description."

I took a look for myself, and Jason was indeed correct. Curious, I took a wander over to Amazon.com, where they also sell the video. Their listing also shows a picture of the front of the box, which I though amusing, for it not being quite appropriate for what really happens in the movie. To see it, click here.

Also, I got a note the other day from reader William Olsen (who really knows his stuff) telling me that Rivals was given a video release in the early '80s in one of those big clam shell boxes. Somehow, all my reference materials didn't point this out. Thanks, William!


UPDATE 2: Dave Eisenstark (http://www.smartindiefilms.com) sent along his memories of working on the film:

"It was a bittersweet experience--the only job I've ever been fired from.  In fact, the entire crew was fired in one fell swoop, in fear of labor action is one guess--an unfounded fear, I can now reveal, though there was some disgruntlement amongst the crew.  The DP was actually more of a production manager, who believed in some wacky military model of filmmaking.  The caterer slipped us decaf during all-night shoots (a capital offense, or oughtta be).

"What else?  Oh, we were all gathered around on the first day, before a single shot, and told if we didn't hustle we'd be fired.  Nothing like being treated like a professional, huh?

"The actual production manager was a wonderful man by the name of Morrie Abrams, a real show-biz veteran.  Though I didn't see it, I heard that on the second day of shooting the owner of the location threatened Morrie with a shotgun.  Morrie walked right up to the man and talked him down before the rest of us arrived.

"It was only my second job on a feature film and I was a grip.  When the best boy grip (second-in-charge under the key grip) got into an argument with the key grip I got promoted, which meant a raise to $75 a day, which was big money to me in those days.  I did hustle and I loved the work, but none of us thought the film was worth anything.  Typical low-budget
filmmaking ala 1980--cynical as hell and quite a shock for me, just out of USC Film School with dreams of artistry.  We were all fired before the last week of filming, and since the film was finished with a skeleton crew, I always wondered if the whole thing wasn't orchestrated to get rid of us and save money. 

"Footnote: my wife worked on a film for the same producer-director many years later on a distant location.  My daughter and I went to visit and went to the set one day.  Sure enough, that very day there was a lot of acrimony, some angry words and once again, the whole production ground to a halt. This time, the producer-director got the ax and the crew stayed on, so I felt the sour joy of vindication.  (Insert cackle here.)

"Thanks to you I discovered a VHS could be had, so I ordered a used copy of Rivals (I've never seen it) from Amazon for $6.95 (too much, I'm sure) to relive those days."

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Against A Crooked Sky, Seven Alone, Legacy Of Rage

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