Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 26, 2011
In 1977, 20th Century Fox released a big-budget, star-studded science-fiction extravaganza and a cheap piece of crap chock-a-block with nobodies. The cheap piece of crap was George Lucas’ STAR WARS, which cost the studio a measly $9,000,000 and could boast among its cast no big names, unless you counted Debbie Reynolds’ daughter and the guy from THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957)… which is to say, no big names. The stars of the $17,000,000 DAMNATION ALLEY, however, were established Hollywood leading man George Peppard from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961), THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964) and THE BLUE MAX (1966), brash young man-of-action Jan-Michael Vincent from THE MECHANIC (1972), BITE THE BULLET (1975) and WHITE LINE FEVER (1976), alabaster-skinned French film actress Dominique Sanda (from Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST and 1900 and Vittorio de Sica’s THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS) in her Hollywood debut and feisty little teenager Jackie Earle Haley, who had made a splash as Jodie Foster’s irascible Little League teammate in THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976). Now that’s a cast, Jack! Guaranteed to generate buzz and put butts in seats. (Seriously, the casting agent who put these talents in the same room probably spent the next eight weeks on the Mediterranean as reward by Fox for a job well done.) If you’re old, as I am, you know how this story ends. STAR WARS was hugely successful and changed the shape of American, if not international cinema, while DAMNATION ALLEY, hobbled by a lackluster script, shoddy special effects and phoned-in performances from all involved, disappeared from the public consciousness in the time it took for the celluloid on which it was printed to spool onto the take-up reel. Guess which one I like better?
Okay, trick question. I liked STAR WARS better thirty-four years ago. I wasn’t yet 16 in the summer of 1977 and I was juvenile enough to thrill to its intergalactic sturm (trooper) und drang. Darth Vader was cool and I wanted my own blaster, pew pew. The movie impressed me and inspired me. Of course, being 16 and it being 1977, I saw any old thing that hit my local movie theatre, the good, the bad and the crappy — from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and CAPRICORN ONE to EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and STARSHIP INVASIONS — and I liked them all. I was not an idiot — I could appreciate the differences in sophistication – but these movies took me somewhere, they let me stay a while, and all that really mattered was the journey. For some reason, as the decades rolled along and me with them, only one of these movies really stuck. STAR WARS doesn’t count because you can’t live in modern society and not be choked with the excretia of Lucasfilm. Overexposure chilled my teenage ardor and I no longer think much of that movie or its many sequels. But DAMNATION ALLEY… damned if I could shake it. What was it about this adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel that obsessed me so? It wasn’t the acting. It wasn’t the special effects. It certainly wasn’t the story (for reasons I will articulate shortly). No… it was the truck.
Hail this thing! It was and is badass on 12 wheels, with a concertina belly and a rocket launcher. I wanted one; barring that, I wanted to ride in one. I couldn’t care less about the movie in which it starred — and make no mistake, the Landmaster (as I would come to know it) is the star of this show — I just wanted to know it, the way a man wants to know a beautiful woman, to know victory over his enemies and death with honor.
DAMNATION ALLEY fails on almost every level, from its oddly perfunctory title sequence (of business as usual in the brain center of a missile silo) to its strange misuse/underuse of veteran character actor Murray Hamilton (who dies without speaking a single word of dialogue), to its woefully inadequate special effects. Nuclear fallout-spawned double exposure giant scorpions? The crazy thing is that this is as bad as Postapocalypse America gets and its in the first ten minutes. Air Force apostate Jan-Michael Vincent outruns the behemoths on a rice-burner (the irony! You know, because we dropped the atom bomb on Japan) without too much trouble and all DAMNATION ALLEY offers in their wake are killer Salt Lake City cockroaches, sandstorms, hillbillies and flash floods, which cause the Landmaster to leak – a little. That’s the magnificent epic promised in Fox’s ad art. Even the antagonistic central relationship of the vaguely hippyish Vincent and George Peppard, as a by-the-book, bristle-brush-mustachioed commissioned officer, peters out before the halfway mark — it took Felix Unger and Oscar Madison longer to get used to one another than these two. At the helm, the normally competent and reliable director-for-hire Jack Smight (HARPER, NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY, AIRPORT 1975) seems totally disengaged from the story — not that the script by Lukas Heller (FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, THE DIRTY DOZEN), rewritten by Alan Sharp (ULZANA’S RAID, NIGHT MOVES), is any great shakes. When our heroes pick up lounge singer Dominique Sanda at Circus-Circus in a nearly submerged Las Vegas, there’s no sexual tension between the men, no competition for the last woman on earth, no bitterness or resentment. No drama. No conflict. But there is…
That’s right, all complaints are forgotten when this baby tears across the mise-en-scene. Just seeing those goofy wheels turning up the red clay is all the return I need from my price of admission. What’s great is that Heller and Sharp have not weighted the story down with meaning, with invigorating dialogues between the martinet Peppard and the cynical Vincent about man’s will to destroy himself or of the end — the damnation — of the human race. Nah, none of that. Vincent takes naps, Peppard uses his electric razor, Sanda has a shower, along the way they pick up orphan Jackie Earle Haley (all-out nuclear war has tilted the earth off its axis but Haley’s prospector shack hasn’t lost a shingle), Vincent lets the kid steer the Landmaster, Peppard doesn’t mind — hey, why not let a feral child take the wheel of the highly specialized custom vehicle designed to ark you from perdition to Albany? It’s all good! And even if it weren’t all good, there’s always…
Seriously, the filmmakers could have scotched the plot entirely and just projected test reels of the Landmaster ripping it up in the Grand Canyon or at Lake Kalispell and it would have made a better movie than DAMNATION ALLEY. But plot will out, so after our happy heroes have adopted their junior partner they run afoul of some radiation-scarred weirdos (led by COOL HAND LUKE’s Robert Donner) who have not seen a woman since the end of the world two years earlier… and guess what they make her do? Play the piano! But this being Easy Like Doomsday Morning, our friends best the uglies in about five minutes and head on none the worse for wear to Detroit because they need truck parts. That’s right, the end is nigh, the landscape is populated by mutants, gas is extremely hard to come by, but they head on up to Michigan as easily as you’d swing into the parking lot of your local Auto Zone. (Sidebar: I’m kind of tickled by the notion of major metropolitan hubs being good for one thing only. If they’d needed bagels, our heroes would head to New York; if they’d needed cigars, they’d heat to Ybor City; if they needed voodoo, New Orleans.) Once in Detroit, truck parts are obtained (easily, natch) but atmospheric disturbances that have apparently never happened before (so we can discern by the way that cars are still stacked pretty high in the wrecking yard) happen now, there’s a flood of Biblical proportions and the Landmaster is swept away as if it is no more than a flimsy scale model. But that’s okay, because…
Not for nothing, but is this model even a foot long? Hollywood miniatures tend to be quite large, which gives the scale models some sense of weight and dimension during effects scenes, especially in water, where they might otherwise be dwarfed by water drops… but if this bugger measures 12 inches end to end then I’m half Hawaiian. LOOK AT IT! You half expect to see AAA batteries float to the surface. But just when I start to actually get angry that DAMNATION ALLEY is, end to end, an unconscionable slop job executed by bored journeymen capable of much better work and that the 17 mil went up the lengths of several rolled up $100 bills…
Yeah, I can’t stay mad at the Landmaster — it has meant too much to me. Trucking around the blighted earth in the Landmaster is one of my favorite willing-myself-to-sleep devices and has been for over three decades. Sometimes it’s just me at the helm, sometimes it’s my family. Sometimes we make it through the hatch and shut the door behind us just as zombies close in. Sometimes we inch through nuclear winter storms. Sometimes we park someplace nice, break out the lawnchairs and coolers and have a picnic… which is invariably interrupted by a horde of zombies, who chase us through the hatch but never catch us. Barb likes to work the rocket launcher, so I imagine, and the kids are great at running necessary things up front; some day soon, they’ll be old enough to drive the Landmaster themselves. And when they do, somewhere George Peppard will be smiling.
Shout! Factory offers DAMNATION ALLEY as a remastered, anamorphic widescreen DVD boasting an audio commentary by producer Paul Maslansky (who does not broach the Murray Hamilton question or the obvious softening of coarse dialogue in postproduction with family-friendly alternatives) and a clutch of featurettes detailing aspects of the making of the film. Surviving screenwriter Alan Sharp proves a bemused and bracingly honest historian while co-producer Jerome Zeitman provides some interesting background information of the project’s genesis — specifically his decision not to wait for special effects guru Douglas Trumball to come aboard. There is a theatrical trailer and a TV spot, too…
… but the one extra to watch right away is “Landmaster Tales,” which features vehicle designer Dean Jefferies and some fascinating trivia (22,000 pounds!) about our favorite apocalyptic RV.
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