The miraculous return
to active duty of 63-year old daredevil Evel Knievel
creates a flash revival of one of the 20th Century's
most popular adventure serials. It also rewrites the
rules on what it means to be a hero in America.
The most important new distinction can
be summed up directly. There are actors, then there
are men of action. The former group had a free ride
for decades, as they were liberally rewarded for pretending
to be the latter. But right now nothing less than genuine
men of action - soldiers, cops, firefighters, daredevils
- will satisfy the American heroic ideal.
Though he is a master showman and spends
lots of time inside an RV, Evel is much closer to a
circus performer than a movie star. Like an aerialist
working without a net, Evel's gambits without a doubt
risk his life even as they test his skill.
Actors enjoy a challenge, they enjoy playing
someone operating under extreme conditions, having a
drug OD onscreen or typing really fast into a computer
to prevent an A-bomb attack; they enjoy "being
in the moment" and "finding their character,"
but as for literally looking Death in the eye and telling
him to take his best shot? It's not part of the program.
And there's the rub. An actor is always
trumped by a man of action. Which is why Evel Knievel's
resurrection is unprecedented. From limbo - completely
off the radar screen of celebrity pop culture save for
a tiny pilot light within the national memory - he is
staging a comeback that shows the potential to launch
him over the heads of many Hollywood Untouchables, his
contemporaries in the suddenly ice-cold field of acting.
Jack, Warren, Dennis, no offense, but you are actors.
This is an action hero. In fact, when Evel walks into
the Academy Awards next year as Five-O urges him to
do, every A-list actor in the room except Jackie Chan
better press his forehead into the red carpet before
the Evel One.
distinction explains why actors love to play soldiers
- or gladiators. Because they were the original men
of action. Except on certain sensitive missions, that
is, where soldiers are required to blend in with civilians,
thereby practicing the art of acting as Plato described
it: deceipt. And so it comes to pass in The Great Escape
(1963), you have actors playing soldiers who are play-acting,
that is you have a movie about escaping U.S. POWs as
they attempt to impersonate German civilians.
Among the cast, and exempt from the suddenly
ice cold designation of mere actor, you find Steve McQueen,
who, like Tom Mix and Jackie Chan, was a daredevil stuntman
as well as a movie star. McQueen's specialty for the
picture? Cycle-jumping. And seldom in a heroic adventure,
not even in Ben-Hur, has a stunt sequence been so spell-bindingly
integrated into a crowd-rousing plot climax. Here you
have McQueen, a solitary American with movie star good
looks, a veteran rebel called "The Cooler King,"
a flyer, a fighter, an escape artist. Here you have
McQueen rolling the throttle on a stolen military motorcycle
as SS troops with machine guns and dogs give chase through
the long corridors carved into the meadow's rolling
hills by quarter-mile long stands of barbed wire.
McQueen jumps the cycle over the wire
nests by banking fast over the hilltops, no ramps and
no stunt doubles provided. I defy anyone with a pulse
to watch this sequence without feeling it racing, sparking
real emotional electricity hoping the amazing McQueen
leaves the villainous Nazis in his dust and makes it
back to Allied territory to resume the good fight.
It was here, in 1963, as Steve McQueen
flew over the Nazi barbed wire, that the modern myth
Evel Knievel embodies was born.