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Evel Knievel
(1972)
 

Director:Marvin Chomsky                         
Cast:
George Hamilton, Sue Lyon, Bert Freed


After a two year absence, George Hamilton returned to the screen in a vehicle quite different from his previous movies, Evel Knievel. He also produced it, leading one to suspect that maybe he was trying to build a different image for himself after starring in so many movies playing "pretty boy" types in the 60s. If Hamilton was indeed trying to break this image, then he certainly succeeded in doing so; I admit I didn't think once of his trademark tan or his playboy image while I was watching this movie. Unfortunately, Hamilton was also playing a character that is one of the most annoying I have seen in quite a while. As well, the movie is saddled with a poor script, disorganized, and failing to tell us what shaped the man into what he was.

As you've probably guessed, this movie is a biography of Evel Knievel, the famous stunt motorcyclist who captivated audiences around thirty years ago. You would then assume that the movie would carefully trace his history, showing how he gradually got into motorcycles and stunt work. That's what you'd think, but that's where the first major flaw of this movie comes in - we never find out exactly what inspired and drove Knievel to do what he did. Let's take a closer look; they say the child is the father of man, so you'd think there would be some major events in Knievel's childhood that would have driven him to become what he did become. Not according to this movie, showing only two events in his life when he was a kid growing up in Butte, Montana. The first scene shows young Bobby Knievel standing on a road in the outskirts of town, with a waiting car in front of him honking its horn. Suddenly, due to the mine shafts below, the ground under the car crumbles, and the car plunges hundreds of feet down, far enough that we don't hear the crash. Bobby walks to the hole, and drops a rock down. This scene is so bizarre, you'd swear David Lynch directed it. The second scene sounds promising at first - Bobby's first visit to a daredevil show when he was 12. Though we see Bobby looking at the show, we don't see it for ourselves (even when there's a major accident during the show), since each shot takes place in the grandstand. All we learn about how it affected Knievel is when Knievel narrates at the end, "A very amusing experience."

The fact that we don't get to see the accident Evil witnesses is one of several ways the movie has to get around its limited budget. While never looking really impoverished, the whole movie resembles a made-for-tv drama from the early 70s, and anachronisms sneak in on occasion. However, this doesn't really hurt the movie that much. Not long after those two childhood sequences, we suddenly jump in time to Knievel as a young man, doing motorcycle stunts at a traveling rodeo. How did he learn to ride a motorcycle? What made him do something so dangerous? We don't know; as I said before, we never learn what inspired and gave him the courage to do these things.

Going back to this sudden time jump, this is where another flaw of the movie comes in. The movie jumps around time like crazy, endlessly jumping back and forth from the present day (February 28, 1971 at the Ontario Motor Speedway, where a nervous Knievel is about to jump 19 cars) to earlier in his career, showing his climb into superstardom. This jumping around makes it hard for us to have any idea of time, so it's hard to feel any progress Knievel is making. Especially since his work in achieving fame is accomplished by a montage of real news footage of Knievel doing his stunts! Each newly filmed scene is given so little time before it ends, with then a sudden leap forward to a later part of Knievel's life, that the movie is unable to build any relationships between Knievel and other characters. For example, a reoccurring character is Dr. Kincaid (Freed), who patches up Knievel between shows. How did they meet? Are they friends, as well as doctor and patient? We are never sure. The worst part of the movie is when the movie seems to have run out of flashbacks, and we are now firmly in the present day - the movie then suddenly jumps back into time when Knievel was a teenager, hell on wheels, and romancing his future wife. Why didn't they edit this part of his life so it came after his childhood sequences?

In this lengthy part of the movie, showing Knievel as a teenager (and not bothering to explain how he became such a badass and troublemaker in several years), Hamilton thoroughly embarrasses himself. 33 years old when he made this movie, he was way too old to be playing a teenager. Worse, he plays teenage Knievel as a kind of pre-Happy Days Fonzie, complete with a black leather jacket. Elsewhere, Hamilton is clearly trying very hard, and as I said before, he manages to shake his pretty-boy image. However, he never seems to quite settle in the role, always seeming a bit too tense, and his enunciation a bit too practiced and calculated. Witness his anti-drug speech late in the movie, for one thing. And as I mentioned before, Knievel comes across here as a thoroughly obnoxious man, arrogant, a media hog, and affected by bouts of paranoia. Maybe that's how he was in this stage of his life (I honestly suspect the movie's portrayal of him to be close to the truth), but you don't want to be stuck in a room with a guy like this, so why would you want to watch a movie about such a guy? If we learned what drove the man, that might be a good reason, but I've already said we don't learn this. Other acting in the movie is adequate at best, though the short appearance by the always welcome Dub Taylor(*) brightens things up for a few minutes.

Looking back at the movie, I've just realized that although the movie doesn't tell us what drove Knievel, it does show that Knievel knew what an audience wanted, and how to milk something out he did for their pleasure. There's a cute sequence early in his adult life, where he goes to a bar and slowly but surely gets the people around him interested, by constantly making cryptic promises of something going to happen, then going out (with them following) and giving them a surprise, taking as long as he can without frustrating or boring the onlookers. He is also gracious to his audience, always telling them stuff like, "It's an honor to jump for you tonight" or "Nothing is impossible - they told Columbus that to sail across the ocean was impossible" before he does his act. Clearly this understanding of giving it all to an audience contributed a huge part to his success with the public, and at least this part of the movie is both insightful and well done. One interesting part of the movie has Knievel telling us, the audience, something a little boy once told him: "Mr. Knievel, I think you're crazy. That jump you're going to try is impossible. But I already have my tickets, for I want to see you splatter." I'm sure Knievel already knew that - after all, it's the reason you and I watched him in action.


* Dub Taylor, a character actor in many westerns, will be more familiar to Generation Xers as the guy in the old Hubba Bubba commercials who would exclaim, after the "Gumslinger" won another showdown, stuff like, "Stick it to 'im, Gumslinger! Ha-ha!"

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability of Knievel's autobiography "Evel Ways"

See also: Carnival Of Blood, An Enemy Of The People, Mountain Man

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