By the mid-to-late1970s, the legendary Henry Fonda was deemed all-but-through as a leading man. What was a screen icon to do in an industry that no longer appreciated his talents? In Fonda's case, he began farming out his services in cameo roles, often playing scientists or presidents and bringing a bit of gravitas to such decidedly underwhelming productions as "Tentacles", "City on Fire", "The Swarm", "Wanda Nevada" and "Meteor", along with the hit WWII film "Midway". Clearly, Fonda was frustrated by being relegated to cinematic window dressing, which probably explains his participation in "The Great Smokey Roadblock", which went into production in 1976 and which received a spotty release the following year. Fonda probably disapproved of the fact that the studio had changed the title from the more appropriate "The Last of the Cowboys" in order to cash in on the CB radio craze and the unexpected success of "Smokey and the Bandit". It is rather shocking to see Fonda starring in this bare bones production shot entirely in rural California. But he brings dignity to his performance as "Elegant John", a well-known aging trucker who is revered by his peers for his record of reliability. Seems he's never missed a scheduled delivery and is known as a true professional. However when an illness confines him to a hospital, John falls behind on his truck payments and the vehicle is confiscated. Facing bankruptcy and the loss of his livelihood, John steals his own big rig and immediately becomes a wanted man. Low on cash and resources, he gives a lift to a young hitchhiker, Beebo Crozier (Robert Englund), a naive and shy young man who possesses enough cash to fill up the gas tank at least once. The pair hightails it to a bordello run by John's old friend Penelope Pearson (Eileen Brennan), who presides over a group of happy young hookers. However, they have just been busted by the cops and face arraignment. They concoct a daring scheme to move their possessions into the back of the big rig and take off for South Carolina, where for some vague reason, everyone feels they can safely start a new life. (Apparently, they have never heard of extradition laws.) John states that he may be doomed but he wants to make one last, big successful run.
No corn pone trucking comedy would be complete without a buffoonish lawman and in this case he's played by the inimitable and always amusing Dub Taylor. The plot finds the group arrested by Taylor and his equally dopey deputy but they turn the tables on them by using sex as a temptation. The big rig then takes off at high speed but now inter-state warnings are out and John and the girls are becoming the stuff of popular legend. Along the way, the rag tag group attracts more lovable misfits including a down-and-out DJ played by master impressionist John Byner and a crazed hippie from New Jersey played by Austin Pendleton, who seems to be channeling the future performance of Dennis Hopper as the whacky photographer of "Apocalypse Now". Soon, the entourage of counter-culture types forms a nomadic family that is perpetually one-step ahead of their pursuers. (Picture "The Outlaw Josey Wales" with motorcycles and a big rig.) The only action set piece in the film comes during the climax when police have set up the titular roadblock that Elegant John and his followers are determined to smash through on their way to a new life. The scene itself is well staged and features the requisite amount of crushed police cars for a film of this peculiar genre.The movie borrows heavily from director Richard C. Sarafian's 1971 cult flick "Vanishing Point". Both films center on outlaws who become populist legends by avoiding capture by the police. The film even has John Byner blatantly imitate the DJ from "Vanishing Point" played by Cleavon Little by having him broadcast propaganda to the masses on behalf of the outlaws.
Well directed by John Leone (who apparently has only two screen
credits to his career), the film is more poignant and touching than the
title might suggest. It also features an abundance of young
up-and-coming talent. Robert Englund gives a fine performance and
reminds us he had a career prior to becoming a horror film icon. Young
Susan Sarandon (who co-produced the film) appears as one of the hookers,
along with Melanie Mayron. Also aboard are comic actors Valerie Curtin and Gary Sandy. However, it's
Fonda that provides the primary reason for seeing the film. He still
retains his dignity even in a low-budget production such as this. The
film is upbeat and and occasionally touching, thanks to Fonda's sincere
performance as a down-and-out man in his sixties trying to regain the
dignity he once knew. Fortunately, Fonda would end his career on a high
note by finally winning an Oscar for his final starring role in the 1981
film "On Golden Pond". Movies like "The Great Smokey Roadblock" paid
the rent until then, even though there is no indication that the movie was widely seen thanks to the bungled release.
The Code Red Blu-ray is impressive, with a very fine transfer and an
extensive new interview with Robert Englund, who provides wonderful
anecdotes about working with Fonda and the other crew members. Code Red doesn't truncate the interview to a mere five minutes. Instead, Englund is allowed to regale viewers with some great stories for about a half hour. Despite being known for playing gruesome characters, he seems like the kind of guy any movie lover would love to sit around chatting with. There is
also a theatrical trailer and a reissue trailer under the film's
original title "The Last of the Cowboys" that capitalized on Fonda's