IF YOU’RE NOT KNIEVEL, YOU’RE NOT #1
It was the 1970s, and the bewildered youth of America needed a hero. Instead, we got Evel Knievel. Knievel, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest daredevil, roared out of Butte, Montana sometime in the 1960s with a unique flair for self-promotion, a collection of red, white and blue capes and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way by jumping over things on a motorcycle. Cars, Greyhound buses, a shark tank – Knievel revved up his motorcycle and flew over them. Sometimes he landed safely, sometimes he’d crash or careen out of control, his body thrown across the tarmac like an unwanted rag doll, leaving Wide World Of Sports announcers to ask each other “Will this be Evel’s final jump?”
In any era, a self-made celebrity like Knievel is bound to wind up on the silver screen. Knievel’s story was told in an eponymously titled 1971 film starring George Hamilton as Knievel, who famously described himself as “the last gladiator.” However, after his infamous Snake River Canyon jump, his line of toy cycles and dolls and another 5 years of jumps and crashes, the time was right to try to make a movie star out of Evel himself.
Thus, in 1977, movie audiences around the world were treated to Viva Knievel!, starring Evel Knievel as…Evel Knievel. Could he act? Would it matter? Not to kids like me, who could barely put down our Stunt Cycles or put away our Tour Vans long enough to sit through one of the greatest bad movies of all time.
As a film, Viva Knievel! is much like watching one of Knievel’s crashes. It’s an unholy mess, and yet we can’t look away, and it contains one of the strangest casts in movie history. Gordon Douglas directed the film, and one wonders if he got the job due to his rapport with Frank Sinatra. Douglas directed Sinatra in five films in the 1960s and was known as one of the few directors who could control Sinatra or at least get along with him. Warner Brothers may have felt he’d be the man to ride rein on Knievel. The problem with that thinking is that Frank Sinatra may have been difficult, but he could actually act and pretty damned well when he wanted to.
The film opens with Knievel sneaking into an orphanage at night to bring children the uplifting gift of Evel Knievel action figures. One child is so moved by Knievel’s presence, he throws away his crutches and tells Knievel he’s the reason he can walk again. That’s right folks – Knievel might have inspired your children to shatter their own bones emulating his crazy stunts, but don’t worry – his inspiration will have them out of their hospital beds in no time at all.
Soon enough, Knievel’s setting up his next jump with his alcoholic mechanic sidekick Will, played by Gene Kelly. GENE KELLY? Yes, that Gene Kelly. The cinematic icon, beloved the world over, now inexplicably reduced to playing Evel Knievel’s second banana. (What’s worse is that Kelly is genuinely bad in the role.) We also meet Evel’s unscrupulous promoter, played by Red Buttons. Apparently Warner Brothers was under the impression that the best way to make Knievel a movie star was to surround him with people who were really current and hip in 1977, you know, like Red Buttons and Gene Kelly. We’re treated to a great scene of Kelly threatening Buttons because he feels Evel’s last jump hadn’t been safe enough.
“What’s the matter with you? Evel is my pal too!” is Buttons’ meek response.
Next we meet a genuine 70s icon like Knievel, with about as much acting ability: Lauren Hutton. Hutton comes on board as Kate, an ace reporter from Rolling Stone sent to profile the king of the stuntmen. Evel immediately dislikes her because a) she’s a woman and b) he’s convinced she’s only around hoping he’ll crash and die, making it a really big story. Of course, she’ll wind up falling for him, but they give off such little romantic heat, it’s hard to see why. It would have been equally plausible to have Hutton fall for a life-size cardboard stand-up of Knievel. Or maybe it’s just those wonderful shirts he wears.
We also meet Will’s son Tommy, whom Evel has sent for from his boarding school. Unfortunately, this is not the Gene Kelly from An American In Paris who wandered around singing Gershwin to street children. No, this Gene Kelly hates his own son, because he reminds him of his dead wife. Apparently, he loved her so much that even to think about her makes him violently angry. Evel takes ugly Tommy under his wing while trying to get Will to warm up to him. Let’s be honest, no one really cares.
Evel enters a stadium to the huge ovation of the carefully positioned 100 extras made to look like a huge crowd and is interviewed by “his old friend” Frank Gifford, playing himself, and Frank Gifford’s enormous lapels. Then he gives the crowd his boilerplate anti-drug speech. Apparently it’s okay to attempt to jump 15 Pepsi trucks on a souped-up motorcycle, but one should never take any sort of illegal drug due to the harm it will do your body. Look, what do you want, the guy’s a daredevil, not Bertrand Russell.
Don’t be fooled, though, this isn’t just a serious of vignettes – there’s a plot! It seems that Evel’s one-time protégé and friendly rival Jessie (played by 1970s oddball b-movie phenomenon Marjoe Gortner) has been in touch with some money men who want Evel to take on a huge jump in Mexico. Not only is Jessie now a dope fiend, Mr. Millard (a diabolical Leslie Nielsen) the man behind the money, seems to be much more interested in drug smuggling than promoting daredevils.
Millard has hatched a “brilliant” scheme – he’ll make sure to rig the jump so Knievel dies and he can transport his body back to the US in an exact duplicate of his tour trailer. This second trailer will already be packed with illegal narcotics. The bad guys tell each other that no one would ever think of stopping and searching Evel Knievel’s funeral procession. Then, Jessie will take over Knievel’s spot as the top motorcycle jumper. Apparently, no one was listening when he said “Jessie’s a good jumper and a good kid, but if you’re not Knievel, you’re not number one.”
Will discovers Millard’s plot, so Millard has him drugged and committed to a mental institution under the care of a crooked quack played by Dabney Coleman (what did I tell you about this cast!). Jessie, who was so stoned for the first hour of the movie that he failed to fully comprehend the implications of Millard’s plot, now feels he must warn Evel. Still hopped up on something, he stops Evel from making the jump by knocking him unconscious and donning one of Knievel’s signature jump suits. Jessie of course then dies while making the jump in Knievel’s place, illustrating that even 1970s dopers can die nobly in the service of a bigger star.
The rest of the movie is a series of chase scenes, as Knievel frees Will and then chases down the bad guys. Whether or not Knievel did his own stunts, I cannot say, but yes, he does manage to save the day. Will reconciles with his pygmy son and of course, Kate finds herself head over heels in love with Evel. Evel celebrates by taking a motorcycle jump, which segues into a horrible theme song that I will have in my head for the next 48 hours. I love this movie.