Now on DVD is perhaps the oddest trucking movie ever made: Moonfire, the long-unseen low-budget 1972 release written, produced and directed by Overdrive founder Michael Parkhurst. Hard to follow and hard to forget, it’s about a lost space capsule, a gang of Mexican bandits and a fortune hidden inside a load of lettuce.
The DVD has no audio commentary track, alas, but here’s our poor substitute, based on the scene-by-scene notes we took as the movie unfolded. (The comments below assume you’ve seen the movie already; they make no attempt at a summary, though they do give away a number of spoilers.)
Parkhurst’s biggest coup may have been getting Marty Robbins to sing the theme song, “The Wheel of Life,” over the opening and closing credits. Robbins was just about country music’s biggest star in the early 1970s, though we can’t recall his being known for trucking songs.
Top billing goes to Richard Egan. Egan, who died in 1987, was a leading man best remembered today for getting top billing in Elvis Presley’s first movie. His top billing in Moonfire may be equally unfair, as we will see.
Second billing goes to Charles Napier. This tall, muscular, blond actor with a Dudley Do-Right jawline was known in Hollywood at the time mainly for his full-frontal nude scene (known in the trade as a “pickle shot”) in Russ Meyer’s bizarre softcore Cherry, Harry and Raquel. Napier learned to drive a truck for this movie and subsequently spent a couple of years as a roving correspondent for iOverdrive, before returning to the character roles and voice-over work with which he has made his living ever since. His best-remembered movie role may be the vengeful leader of the Good Old Boys in The Blues Brothers, but his best performance was as a bigamist trucker in Jonathan Demme’s Citizens Band, the best movie to emerge from that short-lived 1970s craze. He subsequently had small roles in a number of Demme movies.
The third big name in the acting credits is Sonny Liston, the former heavyweight champion who lost the title to Cassius Clay in 1964, before Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston was found dead at home in Las Vegas by his wife in January 1971 – from a drug overdose, according to authorities, though many found the circumstances suspicious – which means his Moonfire scenes had to have been filmed about two years before the movie was released. (He actually delivers his lines pretty well, and may have had a Jim Brown-level acting career had he lived.)
Note that deep in the credits, Ed Begley Jr. is credited as a camera assistant. Yes, the future actor-comedian star of St. Elsewhere and Living with Ed was doing camera work at this very early stage of his career, mostly on TV commercials.
As the movie unfolds, fans of old Westerns immediately will ask: Is the more talkative of the sinister Mexican bandits – the one clearly intended as comic relief – the diminutive actor who played the bartender in iRio Bravo? No, that was Pedro Gonzales Gonzales; this is his older brother, Jose Gonzales Gonzales. Their Frito Bandito roles in U.S. movies, which doubtless make La Raza activists wince today, were interchangeable.
The other Mexican bandit is played by Joaquin Martinez, a well-known movie “heavy” of the 1970s, sort of the Mexican Charles Bronson. He had the title role, for example, in the Burt Lancaster Western Ulzana’s Raid.
The title Moonfire, like the later James Bond movie title Moonraker, refers to a space mission. We learn this early on, as Egan listens to a news report in his cab. Note that the goal of the secret launch is a satellite TV network to rival ABC, CBS and NBC. In that one respect at least, this is a prophetic movie, as satellite TV networks became commonplace a few years later.
Egan’s character is named Sam Blue, which sounds like the name of a character in a Russ Meyer movie. At the truck stop, Sam visits with his friend Ira Morris, played by actor Sandy Rosenthal. Ira Morris was the actual name of the manager of the truck stop where much of Moonfire was filmed, the Triple T in Tuscon, Ariz., and the real Morris briefly will show up later.
Sam brandishes his collection of bad checks from crooked brokers. This is one of the moments Parkhurst refers to at the Internet Movie Database, where he calls Moonfire “the most technically accurate trucking movie ever made.”
Now we meet Napier’s character, Robert W. Morgan, who leaps from his cab brandishing a wicked-looking tire thumper. “My trailer’s light,” he says, “but my eyes are heavy.”
The downed pilot, Hawkins, has similar thoughts. “I’m very tired,” he tells the owner of the ranch he’s blundered into. “Is there a bed?”
His sinister host, Fuentes, is played Dayton Lummis, who usefully resembles John Carradine. During their conversation, Fuentes seems to crush an actual roach. Was the Humane Society present for filming?
The abrupt cut in mid-conversation – during which the director switches our attention from the pilot’s bunk to the guard standing watch outside – leaves us lacking crucial information about who the pilot is and what he’s up to. The cut also ends with the pilot lacing his boots and zipping up his jump suit while his host smokes contentedly, which could make smart-alecks in the audience wonder what exactly the two men were up to after the guard was sent away.
At the time, Overdrive was known not only for strident advocacy on behalf of the independent trucker but for cheesecake photos of attractive women posing in, on and around big rigs. Was the young woman playing the Tucson Package Delivery receptionist in this movie one of the Overdrive models, we wonder? She doesn’t seem to be credited at the end.
In the early 1970s, Howard Hughes was the nation’s most famous wealthy recluse, and a lot of Hughes-inspired characters cropped up in pop culture, for example Willard White (played by Jimmy Dean) in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Here, the Hughes stand-in is aerospace magnate Leslie Russell, the brains behind the Moonfire launch.
The unseen Russell’s second in command (played by William Wintersole) schemes with his associates (one of whom seems to be wearing Groucho Marx makeup) about how to transport the $2 million ransom for their pilot and their capsule. One asks: “How much do we tell the truck driver?”
“Truck drivers don’t ask questions,” the executive replies. “You find me the dumbest-looking truck driver you can, and we’re in business.”
As if on cue, Egan wakes up Napier: “OK, fun-lovin’, hit the deck. What did you do last night, set a record?”
Note that Napier is instantly wide awake at the prospect of earning 75 cents a mile, and that Egan’s shipper “can’t guarantee delivery without two trucks.” Is this a testament to the trustworthiness of long-haul trucks circa 1972, or of business as usual in the industry in the days before deregulation and just-in-time delivery?
Until they’re summoned, Egan tells Napier, they’ll spend their time at the truck stop doing “the same thing that every trucker spends half his life doing – waiting.” Napier ogles the waitress, who doesn’t seem to mind, although Egan seems dismayed by the exchange for some reason.
Immediately thereafter, Egan’s character gets an emergency call that summons him home – and gets Egan, apparently, completely off the set of Moonfire, as he’s absent from the bulk of the movie. The truck-stop employee who brings this news while Napier is in the barber chair is played by the late Ira Morris, founder of the Triple T Truck Stop and a NATSO president.
Could Parkhurst afford Egan for only a couple of days? Or did something else happen – perhaps illness, perhaps a dispute of some kind — after Egan had filmed only a few scenes, leaving the writer-director to make do with his in-the-can Egan footage the way Ed Wood Jr. made do with his footage of the deceased Bela Lugosi when filming Plan Nine from Outer Space? Whatever the reason, the true stars of the movie from here on are Napier and Liston, whom we’re about to meet as a hired tough guy called only “the Farmer.”
“What about my old friend Sam Blue?” Napier asks the executive in the warehouse. “This is his production. I just inherited the starring role.” True enough!
The executive helps Napier load his cargo. That should make Napier suspicious right there. CEOs don’t do the work of lumpers without ulterior motives. The executive immediately strips off his shirt, which makes us wonder what those ulterior motives are. The Farmer strips off his shirt, too, and the three sweaty men bond through physical exertion. Napier and Liston even keep their shirts off to drive the Mack back to the truck stop.
What follows is a confrontation between the truckers and a motorcycle gang that plays like a very slow-moving precursor to a later hit trucking movie, Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way But Loose. Come to think of it, trucker Jerry Reed has his own dustup with a motorcycle gang in Smokey and the Bandit. Truckers and motorcyclists must have been seen as natural enemies in 1970s pop culture, groups that would assault one another on sight, like the rival gangs in West Side Story.
The members of the gang ride up and wait for the Farmer to react by deliberately removing his jacket. The Farmer punches out No. 69, but the rest of the gang seems not to care. They keep staring. Then they go for the Farmer one at a time, in time-honored Hollywood fashion, because if they went for him all at once – as Mad magazine explained, decades ago – they’d beat the hell out of him.
“They was about to make me mad,” Liston says. This is one of the best lines in the movie, but it’s said while the Farmer’s back is turned, perhaps because the line was dubbed in later.
The Mack has 200,000 miles and is “just getting broken in,” Napier says. He also explains the CB radio to Liston. Soon no one in the United States would need to have the principles of citizens band explained to them.
The most passionate and engaging scene in the movie has Napier seething with resentment while he’s being shaken down by sleazy ICC agents, whom he calls “a bunch of pigs that sweat beer.” This confrontation has much more energy than the previous scene with the motorcycle gang. It suggests the scenes between the Norman tax collectors and the Saxon peasants in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
“I paid more than 4,000 bucks last year in highway taxes!” Napier says.
“Smile, buddy,” the ICC agent replies. “Next time it’ll be more.”
We presume these are meant to be Interstate Commerce Commission agents, but they are referred to in the dialogue and the closing credits not as ICC but ACC. Was there an ACC in the early 1970s that was widely hated by truckers? (Not the Atlantic Coast Conference, surely.) Since Overdrive the magazine pulled no punches in its vitriolic condemnation of the ICC, why would this Overdrive movie fudge the regulatory agency’s name?
The trucks pass the Lordsburg city limits, which reminds the Western-movie fan of Stagecoach.
“I don’t dig all this mumbo-jumbo jazz,” Napier tells his mysterious contact. Yes, it was the 1970s.
A little boy in a cowboy suit pulls a cap pistol on Napier. One theme of this movie seems to be that truckers are robbed all day long.
Note that unlike truckers today, Napier has to place all his phone calls from coin-operated booths and receive all his messages at truck-stop bulletin boards. Cell phones, laptops and Qualcomm have changed all that.
Product placement: The Farmer reads Overdrive in the cab.
A sign at the truck stop reads: “We do not recommend any diesel garage.” What does that mean? We don’t recommend any non-specialist garage, with technicians who don’t know big rigs? Stick with the experts who work here at the truck stop?
When the Macks head south of the border, Liston says, “Now you know why I had to come along. … To make sure you get through Juarez without unloading.” Throughout the movie, Mexico is depicted as a lawless, dangerous place for truckers (and, by implication, for anyone else), and the only Mexicans we meet are villains. These attitudes are still common in the industry decades later, as the recent controversy over President Bush’s cross-border trucking program makes clear.
Bonding, Napier and Liston exchange endearments over the CB: “You lonely again?” “Hey, you blond wetback.” “Me and this beautiful engine are having a love affair.”
Napier on Sam Blue: “I do all the work, and he gets all the money. No wonder they call him Uncle Sam.” One does wonder how Napier’s salary for this movie compared to Egan’s.
While Napier is asleep and dreaming of an old girlfriend, Egan’s character comes and goes, unseen, presumably because Egan still was unavailable for filming. (The opening credits list Robbins as singing a second song, “Get You Off My Mind,” and the tune we hear briefly during Napier’s sexy dream just might be it.)
The head villain shoots at Napier, but why? Doesn’t he realize that the trucks are delivering his $2 million? He’s certainly a poor shot; Napier has plenty of opportunity to unload his Chalmers forklift and use it to push the villain off the cliff. (Probably Chalmers was ambivalent about the value of this product placement.)
Egan finally shows up. Before, his character was clueless about the load, but now he seems to know all about it. “I think the ice’ll melt faster when we get the pilot,” he says, etc.
Note that when leaving the ranch, the Farmer lifts the gate himself, apparently not trusting the help to do it.
When the second villain lies down for a siesta beneath the trailer, one of the least convincing deathtraps in movie history ensues. The water very slowly seeps beneath the trailer, the trailer very slowly begins to sink, and the villain patiently waits for the trailer to sink low enough to crush him, realizing his predicament only seconds before he expires.
Liston is strangely absent from the final scene, despite the big build-up of the Farmer’s growing friendship with Napier and his growing respect for truckers. Was the final scene filmed after Liston died, perhaps?
Upon their return to the Moonfire headquarters with the pilot and the capsule, the truckers are met by a mob of reporters and learn that the pilot was the mysterious Leslie Russell all along. Here, too, as at every other point of the movie, the truckers – for all their bravado, bluster, skills and charm — are dupes, pawns of larger forces in American society (big business, government, organized crime, the press), and essentially passive. They’re onlookers; all they can do is watch things unfold, shrug, and keep on driving. Egan and Napier will just have to take their chances on the road, as Marty Robbins reminds us in the reprise of the theme song as the credits roll. Small wonder the credits include this line: “The producer further wishes to thank the truckers of America for their limitless patience, flexibility and reliability.”
At the IMDB, Parkhurst writes
The film was shot entirely on location in California, Arizona, New Mexico Texas and Mexico for less than $300,000 … “low budget” even in 1970. Even though it was a low budget film, several years later, Orion Pictures distributed it for many years on TV, and it got good audience reaction when first released in theatres. The production sound mixer went on to gain five Oscar nominations … In spite of a good cast,I would rate this film as “fair,” but not bad, especially considering the low budget. It was even a union crew.
He goes on to say it’s much better than lots of trucker movies, and he has a point there.