He was the man who literally jumped the shark. Among the feats of the one and only Evel Knievel was riding his motorcycle over a tank of sharks. It was his last grandstanding stunt, which broke both his arms and gave him a concussion. The Australian Age obit may be the best-- naturally, they appreciated a man of Knievel's peculiar talents Down Under. This one from the OC Register in Orange County gives a more chronological account of Knievel's crashes, as well as as a tribute from a US Congressman. Somewhere I read that Knievel said that he'd broken every bone in his body except for the stirrups in his ears. This was a lie, it was only either 35 or 40 bones. It is of course a downbeat ending to be carried off by a treacherous liver (that terrible Hep C) and something called "idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis." ("Idiopathic" is your doctor's word for "damned if we know what caused it or how to treat it".)
Knievel's memory is burnished by today's generation of 1970s worshippers. He lives on in cultural spaces as varied as Kayne West videos (Knievel was not to be sampled for free) and the ineffable Hot Rod. Steve Mandich's stunningly well-researched webpage shows the remarkable amount of bands and songs named after the daredevil. Mandich also provides the tidbit that Kurt Cobain said that Knievel was his only hero. (College radio disc jockeys, looking at this huge roster of songs and bands, may be overwhelmed with riches: one recommends the real prize in this list, the 1974 Amherst album Evel Knievel. Ebay has a sealed and autographed copy for a mere $100. but there's bound to be other copies floating about for cheap. "Why?" by Knievel is a spoken-word song over guitar and harmonica, in which he tries to explain his penchant for jumping his Harley over everything from a pit of rattlesnakes to the Snake River Canyon. Having no c-note to blow on the record, I spent 99 cents the day after Knievel died to pick up a DVD of Evel Knievel (1971) at the Grocery Outlet. Surprise: it's pretty good!
The George Hamilton-produced and starring film is, in many ways, a conventional show biz bio. Knievel, battered by his many crashes, has a moment of doubt before he jumps 19 cars at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California. In flashback, he revisits his early life. At the end, he prepares for the great leap forward, stopping only to gently check the chain on his motorcycle to make sure it's steady. The Fontana High School marching band plays a slightly error-ridden version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and Knievel poses, tense but alert, in front of a field of American flags.
At the beginning, in his white leather jumpsuit, chevroned and belted with stars, with a lucky rabbit's foot around his neck, Hamilton's Evel addresses the camera, hesitatingly, telling us what an honor it is to perform for us.
There is a lot of sincerity in this film. Now this could be due either to screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now) or co-scriptwriter Alan Calliou an actor and scriptwriter who had extensive war-time experience, according to the IMBd. For what it's worth, Calliou also played Count Paisley in Ice Pirates.
But Evel Knievel genuinely seems Milius's handiwork. If this is true, it's a case where the irascible writer is perfectly in his groove. Even during the iconoclastic 1970s, Milius was uninterested in taking heroes down a peg. Evel here is both quirky and brave. Actual quotes from the man ("I'm high all the time, high on terror, which isn't the same thing as fear. I'm just high on victory!") combine with the man's worries. He doesn't like the fans too close: "Elvis was almost killed by a 14 year old, she tried to stab him in the eyes!" It's a larger than life, eccentric role, and if David Carradine had played the part, I believe they'd still be talking about this movie.
But weirdly, Hamilton acquits himself. He's phenomenly good looking, which is an underrated talent, and he's very relaxed. I enjoy Zorro the Gay Blade as much as the next guy, but Hamilton here demonstrates Shatner's Law: a performer is a whole lot more interesting before the world convinces them that they're a joke.
True, in the flashbacks, Hamilton is too old to play a teenager, and he's hampered with a duck's-ass haircut that makes him look like both Lenny and Squiggy. Sue Lyon has the part of his future wife Linda, and it's sad to see how worn she looks, even though her starring role in Kubrick's Lolita had been less than a decade before. Her voice is husky, and she looks like she had a rough 1960s. In the long shots, though, both look young enough.
And I haven't mentioned the location work in Butte, Montana, the hometown of "The King of Stuntmen." The scenery of this city, as remote as Afghanistan, gives us a visual reason why Evel did what he did. People from a place that moon-like would want to have some crazy fun, like ride motorcycles up the stairs and try to dynamite City Hall. Knievel in voice over tells us about the problem of Butte: honeycombed with mines as it is, the place can sometimes implode under your feet. In one startling bit, a large automobile is suddenly swallowed up by the earth.
Knievel gets his start at a small-time carnival. This sequence, again, seems likely to be all Milius. Dub Taylor plays the head man "Turquoise Smith" who hires Knievel to make his first motorcycle jump. ("$50 if you make it, $25 if you don't.") While hanging with the carnies, Evil getting some worthwhile advice: "Don't ever harass a man who cooks your food, and don't ever send your food back." And here he also learns the price of the game, in the cooly underplayed scene of the sudden, unmourned death of a bronco rider (the impressive long-time movie cowboy Rod Cameron).
Don't confuse this uneven but heartfelt biopic with the psychotronic 1977 Viva Knievel!, where the great man plays himself in a berserk fantasy plot. Gene Kelly has his penultimate movie role (before Xanadu) as a drunken mechanic. Leslie Nielsen (another actor who proves Shatner's Law) is a South American drug lord who tries to kill Knievel and use his truck (American Gangster-wise) to ship drugs back to the US. In the meantime, Knievel shakes hands with cute orphans and sasses a reporter (Lauren Hutton) who insists on being called "Ms.": "Which are you, a Ms. or a woman?"
The last shot of Evel Knievel shows the Grand Canyon waiting for Knievel to jump it with a motorcycle. Of course that never happened, and Knievel had to settle for the also-terrifying Snake River Canyon in Idaho. He almost made it. Certain of a glorious death, Knievel went out the way so many of us will go, surrounded by oxygen tanks and doctor bills. His funeral is Dec 10 in Butte, according to the Knievel website, and I hope they put on his tombstone what he says here to the camera: "I am the last gladiator of the New Rome." Morituri te salutamus, Evel, We who are about to die salute you.