The influence of Evel Knievel was quite astounding when your a little guy in the mid to late seventies. No I never had the wind up Evel toy and his motorcycle or the other Evel brand products that were advertised in between Saturday morning cartoons yet all us young boys would set up ramps and jump over them on our bikes despite being warned repeatedly not to from our uncool parents. Little did they know that our imaginations were working overtime as we made our bicycle leaps over great distances and dangers.
This “take” on Viva Knievel is being offered up for the celebration of athletes in film brought to us by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Rich from Wide Screen World. Truthfully, I have no recollection of this film from my early years but thanks to the world of home video, I can once again be transported back to my childhood and dream of making the big jump just like Evel himself.
Let’s just get right at it. Viewing Viva Knievel is to experience one of cinema’s campy treasures.
Opening late at night we find Evel sneaking into an orphanage. Why you ask? To hang out with the little tykes who idolize him and hand out his Evel Knievel toys while flashing the biggest rings this side of an Elvis Presley concert. Makes me pause to wonder if Evel and The King used the same tailor. Flashy outfits, plunging neckline for plenty of chest exposure and even a cape. All in leather. Back to the plot……
“You’re the reason I’m walking, Evel.” says little Wally as he tosses aside his crutches and comes to get a hug and his own toy from Evel. Little wally has been touched deeply and inspired by Evel’s willingness to overcome one of his latest crashes. In walks Sister Charity leading Evel to sweet talk her with a box of chocolates. I love her exit line as Evel moves on into the night, “Evel, God Bless.” No fooling!
Time to get serious here as this plot does involve drug dealers led by Leslie Nielsen. But first Lauren Hutton appears as if she has fallen from a fashion show in the sky. Evel is heard to say, “Honey,I’ve known what to write to pretty girls like you since I was in Kindergarten.” when asked for a personalized autograph.
Evel has a roadshow on tour that surrounds him with a shady promoter, Red Buttons and as his alcoholic mechanic and motorcycle mentor, Gene Kelly. Former partner and jumper, Marjoe Gortner comes back into Evel’s life with an offer to tour Mexico and make some big money. Gortner is being used as a pawn by Nielsen’s drug operation to lure Evel down south so his custom transport rig can be used to smuggle 3000 bags of drugs across the border in the trucks liner. Joining the Canadian icon in the illegal operation is Albert Salmi and Cameron Mitchell.
When Gene Kelly catches on to the evil doings of Leslie and company, he’s put on ice leading Evel to go incognito and get him out of Dabney Coleman’s shady hospital operation. When Kelly unveils the truth, it’s time for Evel to go vigilante and take down the evil doers. When it’s all said and done, not only does Evel give little Wally at the orphanage the strength to walk again, but gets Gene off the bottle, stop the drug traffickers, land Lauren Hutton and….. oh yeah. Jump a cage full of lions and tigers to the cheers of Viva Knievel from the good people of Mexico where Evel is revered. Thankfully Frank Gifford is on hand for the gravity defying leaps to bring color commentary to the proceedings.
Campy and fun as this might be, you can’t say the filmmakers didn’t go out and surround the Evel one with a first rate cast of well known faces led by Gene Kelly of all people. Perhaps the chance to play a more dramatic role enticed Gene to the script. Or perhaps it was just the money. Either way it was nice to see him share a couple of scenes bickering with Red Buttons.
How about listening into the Viva Knievel theme song. Careful cause it’s catchy.
A time capsule? You bet! This serves as an entertaining window to the past when Evel was a household name and hero to little boys all across North America. All because he could ride a motorcycle and look flashy doing it. The toys didn’t hurt either.
Unbelievable guts and or no brains? I’m not sure but he found his place in pop culture and went with it.
Now make sure you have a look at the other articles covering athletes in film by clicking here and seeing just who else is participating and the athletes turned film stars involved.