The based-on-true story of Junior Johnson, bootlegger turned NASCAR champion.
Though overshadowed somewhat by the crime films and disaster spectacles that dominated the box office of the era, American cinema in the 1970s also celebrated the working class with a more or less unprecedented degree of realism. Using on-location sets and naturalist lighting, the films shot in the “real world” looked the part: full of dirt, drab colors, and no-frills cinematography meant to emphasize the believability of their settings. Just the same, they often attempted to construct heroism out of their subject matter, finding outsized but nevertheless actual people with which to center their stories.
1973′s The Last American Hero doggedly follows that blueprint, basing its heady events on the life of Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, Jr. The son of a North Carolina bootlegger who learned to drive by smuggling moonshine down from the Wilkes County hills, Johnson became one of NASCAR’s earliest champions in the 1950s and 60s, a time when stock car racing was still mainly an amusement of the hinterlands. Loosely based on a series of Esquire articles by Tom Wolfe (who gave Johnson’s story its grandiloquent name), the film moves the events to the present time of the early 70s, as the sport was just emerging as a lucrative business and the cars’ drivers began to enjoy a heady celebrity.
Jeff Bridges stars as the slightly-renamed Elroy ”Junior” Jackson, an almost unflappably cocky youth who smuggles the high-grade moonshine whiskey made by his father (Art Lund) and brother (Gary Busey). When Junior runs a police blockade by impersonating a patrol car, the local authorities are quick to arrest Elroy Sr. and destroy the family still. Meeting with his imprisoned father and their family lawyer, Junior hears the older men discuss how to get Elroy Sr. better amenities during his upcoming incarceration through bribery and kickbacks, and what such niceties will cost. Determined to help his father survive a jail stint that’s essentially his fault, Junior sets out to make the three thousand dollars the lawyer claims his father will need.
He starts on the demolition derby circuit but quickly moves up to stock car racing, bullying the local promoter (Ned Beatty) into prompt cash payouts and better starting positions. Moving up to the NASCAR circuit, he finds an easygoing romance with a racetrack receptionist (Valerie Perrine) while squaring off with the race circuit’s hard-partying alpha dogs (William Smith and Ernie F. Orsatti). Junior’s shell of confidence, even arrogance, remain at almost Ayn Randian levels even when his car cracks up or when Perrine’s good-time girl is revealed as the village bicycle. Alone in the world and in new surroudings, Junior fakes his way through the hard parts of his new surroundings while staying upbeat through force of will. Along the way he starts driving for former champion Burton Colt (Ed Lauter), whose repeated attempts to bring Junior under his control embody the tempation towards conformity constantly facing the young racer. (Colt fails, of course, as such characters always do in movies.)
The film works best not during the chase scenes, which are exciting enough (likely more so for their time), but rather during the quieter family moments when Junior interacts with his family, particularly his father. Bridges and Lund’s scenes together are muted, intense, yet effectively nuanced with equal parts affection, respect, and also distance. They’re completely believable, as is Junior’s testy, contentious relationship with brother Wayne. They’re the kind of siblings who show their affection through constant antagonism, and the actors capture that dynamic without resorting to shouting scenes or melodramatic posing. Also effective is Geraldine Fitzgerald as their mother, a woman worn down by making herself comfortable with choices made by others, usually men.
All of which should add up to something more than it does – and that you’ll want it to. Director Lamont Johnson understands the story as a whole but falls just short of making the film’s scenes come together and realize their collective potential. There’s a sense watching the film that you’re seeing something like a lost classic, steeped as it is in well-tuned performances and gripping action sequences. But that sense doesn’t last long after the film concludes, partly because of some problems in the plot but also from Johnson’s injudicious dramaturgy. Several scenes apparently intended to build character, such as a long monologue given by Perrine, never quite deliver the impact they should or reinforce the plot as much as possible thanks to slack pacing or odd rhtyhms. Bridges is excellent (has he ever given a bad performance?), oscillating between bravado and timidity, and the supporting cast is especially spot-on. Yet there’s overall a feeling of something missing, a larger idea or point that would bring everything into better focus.
Still, the film is enjoyable as much for its multiple levels of historic value. They don’t race cars like they used to, and they don’t make films like this anymore either. NASCAR fans will possibly enjoy seeing the sport go through some awkward growing pains, while fans of the era’s populist cinema can enjoy it for its poor-but-proud production values and cocky, gritty sense of place and tone. Not a classic film, but for those audiences it’s one not to be missed all the same.
- Michael Kabel