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The Great Smokey Roadblock
(a.k.a. The Last Of The Cowboys)
(1976)

Director: John Leone  
Cast:
Henry Fonda, Eileen Brennan, John Byner


When I was much younger than I am right now, I used to fantasize about certain kinds of jobs. There were some jobs that seemed to have a mystique about them, jobs that seemed to suggest that only the cream of the crop of the job field could both enter these jobs and stay with them. Jobs like that in my mind included such occupations as astronaut or scientist. Then there were jobs that may not have ever been so tantalizing in the first place, but thanks to my warped young mind I made them that way. I remember when I had my first computer, an Apple IIc, and I used to read countless books and magazines that had various game programs listed in BASIC for the Apple that I spent hours typing in so I could play them. One day I got a book that had among its many pages a gargantuan game program listed for a simulation where you played a trucker hauling various goods from one end of the United States to another, facing various challenges along the way ranging from road expenses to Smokey patrolling the highways. I read the program listing, and after reading it I thought while the game the way it was listed had some promise, I thought it was lacking a little bit of jazz. So as I typed it in, I made various changes along the way. First, there was the cargo you could haul in your truck. As originally listed, you could haul such things as oranges or mail. But that didn't seem that exotic. So I changed the option for "oranges" to "cocaine" (you still had to get the cargo to your destination before the cargo spoiled) and the "mail" option to "illegal aliens".

I remember working long and hard copying onto my computer that trucking program from the book, and coming up with various changes to make the program more entertaining to anyone who would play it. Finally I made the final change, changing the title of the game from what it was originally to my revised title, "Mother Trucker". I typed in "RUN", and hit the return key... and the program didn't work! I had made various typos along the way. That was expected, but after I went through the program correcting the typos, and I tried running the program again, it still didn't work properly. Evidently, the computer that the original program was written on used a variation of BASIC that was somewhat different than the one used on Apple computers. So I had to abandon my plans of seeing if I could successfully be a shipper of cargo, whatever the legitimacy of the cargo might be. Still, the experience trying to set up the game had got me interested in the trucking field - maybe one day I would be a trucker. There seemed to be some good things about being a trucker, like being out on the open road without a boss breathing down your neck. But as I got older, the supposed enticing life of a trucker started to lose its golden glow, as I started to learn just what it was really like on the road. You would be sitting down in one spot for hours, without a chance to stretch your legs or even to visit the bathroom. Plus, the various expenses you'd have to deal with (like big payments for your rig) would eat up any profits - I have never come across a rich trucker.

There are other things about the life of a trucker I have realized over the years that turn me off from that lifestyle, and that includes being cut off from television and movies for long periods, as well as the fact I would be away from the Internet. (I don't consider laptop computers and The Great Smokey Roadblockphones real Internet surfing.) I think that the biggest thing that turned me off from being a trucker was the fact that you would have to drive - a lot! I managed to get my driver's license, but I was so uneasy about my driving skills after facing various kinds of traffic that I stopped driving after getting my license and I haven't driven since. Still, when I see a movie that concerns truckers, there are usually high spirits coming from these cinematic truckers. These spirits get to me, and I almost wish I was a trucker. That's one reason why I picked up The Great Smokey Roadblock, because it promised to be a high-spirited movie concerning truckers and life on the road. Another reason why I picked it up was because it not only starred Henry Fonda, but at an unusual part of his career. Up to the 1970s, Fonda was getting A-list assignments, but when he entered the 1970s, these roles in major Hollywood productions had dried up for the most part. His advancing age was probably the reason for this. Whatever the reasons were, from that point on, most of his work boiled down to either cameos, made-for-television movies, and roles in foreign-made feature productions. The Great Smokey Roadblock was one of the few exceptions. It was a leading role for Fonda in an American theatrical movie, though done by an independent studio.

In the movie, Fonda plays "Elegant" John Howard, an aging trucker who has been on the road for years. Not long into the movie, we find out that things lately haven't been going well for him. He has become sick with some unidentified illness that has landed him in the hospital, and because he hasn't been able to work for some time because of his illness, his rig has been repossessed. In the hospital, John decides to screw the doctors, he's going out to do one last perfect run. He escapes from the hospital, swipes his trusty rig from the repo company, and sets out to look for a cargo for his last cross country trip. He eventually gets an unusual cargo - his old friend Penelope (Brennan) and her band of prostitutes, who have just been evicted by the police and are looking for a new home on the other side of the country. Based on this plot description, it is understandable that you think you have some idea of what happens in this movie. After all, when the protagonist is old and sick at the beginning of the movie, you know what usually happens at the end. But there's a lot about The Great Smokey Roadblock that is not predictable. Let's get back to that premise for an instant. You are probably thinking that with this being a drive-in movie and a bunch of the central characters being prostitutes, the movie will be extremely raunchy. But that's not the case. The movie stays firmly at a PG rating, getting almost all of that rating from just a few somewhat raw words. There's no nudity, as well as no real violence, and the bedroom scenes you could easily get away with on prime time television.

All of this may not make the movie appear to be promising, but trust me, this restraint is just part of the movie's charm. Instead of the usual exploitation feeling you usually sense in a movie like this, the movie's tone is very sweet, giving the audience a positive look at just about everything that happens during the entire running time. Take the time when John and his friends are caught by the police in a speed trap and are hauled off to jail. In another movie, you'd probably see that the speed trap operation is being run by a very mean-spirited sheriff who is determined to make things miserable for everyone. But here, the sheriff is played by veteran character actor Dub Taylor. Taylor plays the role with his trademark goofy tone that makes him endearing. Sure, he's putting the protagonists in jeopardy, but there's something loveable about his character that doesn't make us think he's really a mean guy. This is not the only instance where the moviemakers put effort into making its characters a bunch of likable and interesting people. Pre-Nightmare On Elm Street Robert Englund, playing hitchhiker "Beebo" that John picks up early on his journey, undergoes a transformation during the events of the movie that keep us interested. When he first appears, he is somewhat of a religious stuffed shirt who is somewhat disapproving of John's ways and John's "cargo". But as the movie progresses, he starts to warm up, becomes more friendly, and by the end of the movie he is a major player on John's team. Even the prostitutes are developed, getting a respectable amount of screen time to develop them into likable characters that we feel comfortable rooting for.

Not only are the characters in The Great Smokey Roadblock both interesting and likable, they interact with each other in compelling ways that make up for the fact that there's isn't much action or sleaze. It may take about half of the movie to get to the part where the prostitutes pack up and take off with John, but I was never bored beforehand or later in the movie. We get stuff like John and Beebo having several interesting conversations while on the road, Austin Pendleton and John Byner appearing before the end to give us more quirky character interaction, and a very memorable (worldless as well as touching) scene where Penelope comforts a very upset John at the bank of a river. All the people involved the movie seem to have been determined to give it their all despite the drive-in pedigree. This goes right to the Craig Safan music score, a great score which at times sounds like a full orchestra working for an epic major Hollywood movie. By now, you are probably thinking that I am trying to portray this movie as some kind of flawless gem. I'm not; I will freely admit that the movie has its share of flaws. There's a silly dream sequence at the movie's opening that should have been cut out. The nighttime and dimly lit room photography is pretty bad. And would there really be a nation wide manhunt by the police for one stolen truck and a handful of runaway prostitutes, which is what happens here? Yes, the movie is clearly not perfect. But when it's good, it's very good, and that's a lot more than what you can say about many movies, either made for the drive-in or major Hollywood studio stuff.



UPDATE
: Mike Mueller sent this in:

"According to Fred Olen Ray's swell but out-of-print book, The New Poverty Row (MacFarland), Smokey grossed $205,834 for its first 3-day weekend in (nearby) Charlotte, NC alone,  leading me to believe the flick may have been four-walled.  Dimension Pictures  premiered Smokey @ '78 Cannes, along with their other prestige releases, the Phillipino-lensed Night Creature and The Redeemer - Son Of Satan.

"Facing multiple lawsuits for the usual creative accounting, Dimension filed for bankruptcy in Feb of '81."

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See also: Mr. Billion, A Small Town In Texas, Special Delivery

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