5 for the road

| June 01, 2006

A candid look at your favorite trucker movies.

Ask most highbrow movie critics to name the best trucker movie of all-time, and they’re likely to sneer in disgust. It’s a genre most latte-sipping movie reviewers love to hate.

We can take solace in the fact critics’ opinions are often refuted by the movie-going public. Independence Day and Forrest Gump are prime examples of award-winning films panned by many critics and embraced by audiences. Sometimes the elitists forget we like to be entertained.

This is not to say that all trucking movies deserve a pity party for being underappreciated. Some are simply bad. But many do warrant a certain amount of credit for not only being entertaining, but also spotlighting a slice of Americana.

Movies involving trucks and truckers are almost as old as the film industry itself. Many silent movie classics showcased working delivery trucks of the day, and you’ll even find an actor or two credited as a truck driver, like Charlie Hall in the 1929 Laurel and Hardy short, Bacon Grabbers.

Among the earliest notable movies with truck drivers as central characters were The St. Louis Kid (1934) with James Cagney and Patricia Ellis and the 1940 melodrama They Drive By Night, starring Humphrey Bogart and George Raft. The films were the genesis of the trucker-struggling-against-corruption theme that would serve as the plot of future trucking flicks.

The next three decades saw trucking sporadically used as a centerpiece with movies like Thieves’ Highway and The Wages of Fear.

But that drastically changed during the 1970s, the heyday of the trucking movie. From the suspense-filled thriller Duel to the still-popular, cross-country smash-‘em-up Smokey and the Bandit, the CB-crazed ’70s spawned no less than 12 trucking films.

Since then movies like Black Dog and Over the Top have continued the trucker tradition.

Whether inspired by real-world issues, popular music, stereotypes or simply the creativity of a screen writer, trucking movies have made their mark on society and the image of the truck driver.

In the following pages we take a look back at the classics as ranked by readers on our website, eTrucker.com. Enjoy the ride.

  1. Smokey and the Bandit
    Year of Release: 1977
    Director: Hal Needham
    Notable Stars: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Jackie Gleason

    Mix a catchy theme song, (“East Bound and Down” by co-star Jerry Reed – see sidebar on page 26); the charismatic Burt Reynolds and the one-of-kind Jackie Gleason with a fast sports car and a truckload of illegal beer, and you’ve got the key ingredients of a cult classic.

    This high-speed, freewheeling comedy was the second highest grossing movie of 1977, topped only by Star Wars. When adjusted for ticket price inflation, it ranks 61th all-time in revenues. That’s not bad considering blockbusters like Top Gun and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring fall below the Bandit and company.

    The plot is rather simple as the Bandit (Reynolds) enters into a bet with two small-time con men that he can make a run between Atlanta and Texarkana in 28 hours. He must bring back a load of Coors beer, which was at that time illegal to sell in states east of the Mississippi.

    The Bandit and his truck-driving partner Cledus Snow (Reed) get mixed up with a runaway bride-to-be (Sally Field) and are chased across the country by her prospective father-in-law, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Gleason).

    There are many things that make this movie stand out. First, Gleason is at his comedic best (relax Honeymooners fanatics, Gleason got even better with age). Second, the interstate chase scenes are plentiful and fun in a Dukes of Hazzard kind of way. And finally, the chemistry among the cast was excellent. Reynolds’ and Field’s love interest is flirty cute, and Reed fits the part of a wise-cracking, fun-loving good ol’ boy perfectly. And you can’t forget Fred, Cledus’ ride-along basset hound, whose stoic, lazy demeanor adds subtle flavor between police car crash scenes.

    It’s not hard to figure out why the movie is so popular among truckers. It’s a fun watch. It’s one of those movies that allows the viewer to be entertained without putting any effort into it. That’s rare.

  2. Convoy
    Year of Release: 1978
    Director: Sam Peckinpah
    Notable Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young

    Many die-hard Sam Peckinpah fans refer to this movie as the worst in his directing portfolio. Convoy is definitely a 180-degree turn from his critically acclaimed westerns like The Wild Bunch and his controversial Straw Dogs.

    Inspired by Bill Fries’ (aka C.W. McCall) popular hit of the same name (though the lyrics were rewritten in an attempt to support the movie’s storyline), Convoy manages to overcome a rambling plot with the help of a memorable performance by the multi-talented Kris Kristofferson. As independent trucker Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald, Kristofferson plays the anti-hero role with a quiet passion that outshines the paper-thin plot. Ernest Borgnine also does his character justice as the corrupt Sheriff Lyle “Cottonmouth” Wallace.

    While critics hammered away at the movie’s plot, one has to take into consideration the internal struggles with making the movie and its timing. Insiders point out that Peckinpah was struggling with his widely publicized alcohol and drug abuse problem during the filming of the movie. (It was widely reported that actor and longtime associate James Coburn pitched in to help out with directing when Peckinpah’s condition made him questionable for certain scenes.)

    Over budget and long past the shooting deadlines, Peckinpah turned in hours of film and walked away from the project, which gives some explanation of its meandering storyline. The unwarranted comparison with Smokey and the Bandit, which came out a year earlier, and the winding down of CB fanaticism also bolstered its detractors.

    In the film, Rubber Duck and his friends beat up Sheriff Wallace and his cronies a few hours after they were illegally shaken down by Wallace.

    Tired of being extorted, Rubber Duck leads a mile-long convoy of truckers across state lines with law enforcement in hot pursuit. It all boils to a head when Wallace arrests and beats up Rubber Duck’s black friend, Spider Mike. This leads to a classic break-‘em-out-of-jail scene, followed by a final, dramatic showdown between Wallace and the Duck.

    Convoy displays the ’70s-era rebel trucker persona that was sparked by many state and national issues involving the transportation industry. It’s a protest film with elements of human drama, humor and spectacular stunt work. For those who love trucks, lots of trucks, it’s a must-have in the video collection.

  3. Black Dog
    Year of Release: 1998
    Director: Kevin Hooks
    Notable Stars: Patrick Swayze, Meat Loaf, Randy Travis

    It’s hard not to get caught up in the action of Black Dog. Maybe it’s because Patrick Swayze is cast in the starring role that it could be characterized as Roadhouse takes to the open highway.

    In true Hollywood irony, the good guy is ex-con and former trucker Jack Crews, who is trying to get back on his feet as a mechanic after serving time for vehicular homicide for falling asleep at the wheel.

    Crews is given a trucking opportunity he can’t refuse. Of course, there is a catch he’s not aware of – he has been duped into hauling illegal weapons. With a fanatical associate of the boss named Red (Meat Loaf) and his goons trying to steal the cargo and government agents in pursuit, it’s a slam-bang flick. Now, throw in Crews’ family being kidnapped and you’ve got the conflict of a man trying to do the right thing and not get the people he cares about killed. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Crews must face the source of his personal demons – Black Dog, a haunting apparition.

    Country music star Randy Travis (Earl) does an admirable job as a wannabe singer. But it’s a host of other singers that make the soundtrack for this movie really roll.

    There are elements of Black Dog that parallel the 1975 movie White Line Fever, but the stunts are much more powerful and explosive, thanks to director Kevin Hooks.

    In an era when trucking movies were few and far between, Black Dog put big rigs back in the spotlight.

  4. Duel
    Year of Release: 1971
    Director: Steven Spielberg
    Notable Stars: Dennis Weaver

    An embellishment of a 1963 real-life incident involving sci-fi author and screen writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man), Duel is a thriller that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning until end.

    The fact that the viewer knows little about the main character, businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver), and nothing about the villain, the never-seen driver of a filthy tanker-truck, doesn’t detract from the storyline. It only adds to its eerie atmosphere.

    The plot is simple. Trying to return home from a business trip, Mann’s red Plymouth Valiant is being chased across the desert by an unknown driver of a 281 Peterbilt for no logical reason.

    Mann can’t get anyone he encounters to believe his story that a psycho trucker is trying to kill him. (The exception, in one of the most famous scenes, is the reptile lady who witnesses the trucker’s wrath but is too worried about her snakes to help).

    Originally shot in 13 days as a 74-minute ABC network movie, tenderfoot director Steven Spielberg gave Duel viewers a sneak peak into the brilliance to come in later films. Watch closely and you’ll see similarities between Duel and Jaws in terms of setting up suspense.

    In 1973, Universal Studios added scenes (railroad crossing and school bus shots) to expand it to 90 minutes and released Duel in Europe to rave reviews from audiences. Due to the popularity of Spielberg films, Duel had a limited released in theaters in the United States in 1983. It has now gained classic status for many Spielberg fans, suspense fanatics and movie enthusiasts.

    Not bad for a work that started out as a movie of the week.

  5. White Line Fever
    Year of Release: 1975
    Director: Jonathan Kaplan
    Notable Stars: Jan-Michael Vincent, Slim Pickens, Kay Lentz

    White Line Fever is one of those movies that tells a lot about the period it was filmed. It’s is an action-drama that is more low-key than the onslaught of trucking movies that would follow over the next five years.

    Its plot revolves around Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent), a serviceman returning from war with dreams of buying a big rig and marrying his sweetheart. But Carrol Jo’s fledgling career as an independent owner-operator is turned upside down when forced by corrupt trucking bigwigs to haul contraband. Carrol Jo and his 1974 Ford WT9000 get their revenge in one of the best climaxes in trucking movie history. (The late Carey Loftin, the faceless driver in Duel, handled many of the driving stunts for the movie).

    White Line Fever, while exaggerated in many ways and playing on stereotypes, gives a glimpse into trucking before deregulation. Its gritty, rebellious storyline was well received by many working-class audiences. It could have had even broader appeal had Columbia Pictures not “dumped” its primary distribution into neighborhood theaters and drive-ins. Many middle-class audiences of the time avoided White Line Fever because it didn’t start out in first-run movie houses.

    Some critics, who originally dismissed the film as B-movie trash, have in hindsight given it decent-watching status today.

Not to Be Forgotten
Also making our poll (listed by year):
They Drive By Night: 1940 (Humphrey Bogart, George Raft)
The Great Smokey Roadblock (aka The Last of the Cowboys): 1977 (Henry Fonda, Susan Sarandon)
Breaker, Breaker: 1977 (Chuck Norris, George Murdock)
High Ballin': 1978 (Peter Fonda, Jerry Reed)
F.I.S.T. : 1978 (Sylvester Stallone, Peter Boyle)
Smokey and the Bandit II: 1980 (Dom DeLuise joins original cast)

Other trucking flicks:
The St. Louis Kid: 1934 (James Cagney, Patricia Ellis)
Thieves’ Highway: 1949 (Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb)
The Wages of Fear: 1952 (Yves Montand)
Deadhead Miles: 1972 (Alan Arkin, Loretta Swit)
Truck Stop Women: 1974 (Claudia Jennings, John Martino)
Sorcerer: 1977 (Roy Scheider, Francisco Rabal)
Citizens Band (aka Handle with Care): 1977 (Paul Le Mat, Bruce McGill)
Steel Cowboy: 1978 (James Brolin, Rip Torn)
Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: 1978 (Annie Potts, Kim Darby)
Coast to Coast: 1980 (Robert Blake, Dyan Cannon)
Roadgames: 1981 (Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis)
Smokey and the Bandit III: 1983 (Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed)
Over the Top: 1987 (Sylvester Stallone, David Mendenhall)
Hoffa: 1992 (Danny Devito, Jack Nicholson)
Joy Ride: 2001 (Steve Zahn, Paul Walker)


A Chat With Jerry Reed
Editor’s Note: Jerry Reed has had a storied career, country music hits, television shows and hit movies. But for most truckers, he’ll always be Cledus “Snowman” Snow in the Smokey and the Bandit movies, as well as the voice behind the film’s anthem, “East Bound and Down.” Late last year, the quick-witted Reed chatted via phone from his home near Nashville, Tenn., with Truckers News Editor Randy Grider about the movie and his music.

TN: How did you get cast as Cledus Snow?
JERRY REED: I had done two movies with Burt [Reynolds], and Hal Needham, who had been Burt’s stunt double, called me up in Hollywood one day when I was doing The Glen Campbell Show. Hal came by my hotel for lunch and told me about this trucking movie he was trying to sell to Universal Studios. He had talked Burt into doing Smokey and the Bandit, and he wanted me to be his trucking partner. It all started over that conversation at lunch with Hal.

TN: What were the two previous movies you had done with Burt Reynolds?
JERRY REED: The first was W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings that Burt did here in Nashville. I read for the part as the band leader and got the part, and that’s how I met Burt. Because of that movie, Burt called me about a movie he was doing called Gator. He wanted me to be the heavy. I said, “Wait a minute, Burt, I don’t weigh 155 pounds – how can I be a heavy?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to give you a sawed-off shotgun to carry in your coat.” I said, “OK, son, count me in.”

TN: Did you study truckers for the part in Smokey and the Bandit?
JERRY REED: No, I didn’t study truckers. The people I come from are the people truckers come from. One of my wife’s cousins was a trucker, and he just loved it. But I never associated with many truckers because I was a guitar picker at nightclubs trying to get ahead in the music business.

TN: What was working on Smokey and the Bandit like?
JERRY REED: It was a hoot. All we were doing was running up and down those Georgia highways wrecking cars as fast as we could. It was a real hoot.

Plus I got to meet my idol, Jackie Gleason. I grew up watching Jackie in The Honeymooners. When he was on the set, I’d go out just to watch him. I got to hang out with him and play golf with him. He beat me and I didn’t like that, but we had a great time.

Jackie was quite an individual. I tell everybody that it was a Gleason movie as far as I’m concerned. If you take Jackie out, you don’t have a movie. The movie was basically a cartoon. If you did what you did in the real world, we’d never get out of jail.

TN: What moment about making the movie stands out the most?
JERRY REED: There are a couple of things that stand out in my mind. I’ve still got a headache from that bar scene where I get into the fight with the bikers. Hal Needham was a stunt man, but he was directing this movie. At the end of the fight, they set up the camera, aimed it at the door and this biker hits me and I’m supposed to hit the door without anticipating it, knock open the door and fall out in the parking lot.

Well, being a guitar picker and not a stunt man, I kind of anticipated it. Hal would say, “Cut, come here, Reed. Quit worrying about that door. OK, hit that door.” Bang. I’d say, “That door’s hard. Can’t I have a double?” He’d say, “No, you can’t have a double.” I did it five times before I got through that door. I finally said what the heck. The fifth I hit that door and my head’s ringing. When you look at me outside, my bell’s really rung.

TN: You said there were a couple of moments that stood out.
JERRY REED: The other thing is writing the song “East Bound and Down.” I remember that song was hot and when I sung it, you’d have thought that I had just sung the National Anthem. Beats anything I’d ever seen: people standing up and throwing babies up the air.

TN: Tell me about Fred, where did you find that basset hound that rode with you?
JERRY REED: Fred the dog weighed 65 pounds. In the scene where we pull off the road and Fred runs out into the water, well, let me tell you something, a basset hound’s legs are about an inch and half long. What the viewer didn’t know is that dog couldn’t wait to get to me.

TN: Yeah, Fred was supposed to be enjoying messing with you

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