Why are the seventies synonymous with the appeal of the open road? Other decades have their fair share of hot rod movies, but none of them can hold a candle to the sheer number of films about cars, racing, or plain old wanderlust that were crafted during the seventies. Maybe it was the stress of the Vietnam War, or the frustration of the Nixon administration, or the influence of the counter-culture movement. Maybe it’s all of the above. One thing is clear, though: audiences of the 1970s had gasoline in their veins in a way that we haven’t quite seen before or since.
Cannonball! is also the first of a whole rash of cross-country rally movies. The name of the film and the title character is a tribute to a real man, Erwin G. “Cannon Ball” Baker, who was famous for making automobile trips across the country in the early 1900s. It was in his name that something called the “Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” was conceived, which was a real, illegal cross-country race during the seventies. The race was a stunt to protest the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit that had been enforced in 1974 because of the national oil crisis. The whole string of coast-to-coast racing movies of the seventies and eighties that include The Gumball Rally (which this movie beat to theaters by a month
Night of the Comet) and character-actor-legend Dick Miller (Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, every movie ever made).
Jaws, spending most of the movie in intimate repose with blonde bombshell Louisa Moritz? Roger Corman appears as a district attorney, and Don Simpson as the assistant district attorney. And I can think of no other film that features Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone quietly eating Kentucky Fried Chicken together.
These are the elements that make this movie worth watching. Do not be mistaken: this is not a good film. I’m not here to convince you that this is a hidden gem or an overlooked cult classic. It’s bad, sometimes aggressively so. It’s poorly acted, the fight choreography looks like garbage, and the narrative is almost non-existent. But in between those things are a bunch of actors who seem to be making their lines up on the spot and having a really good time, a subversive sense of humor that permeates the entire project, and…well, then there’s the symphony of destruction itself. This movie is basically a demolition derby spread across the entire United States. There are at least a dozen car crashes, but those are to be expected. What we don’t expect are assassins with long rifles, killers pretending to be police officers, or the extreme number of explosions that come out of nowhere. I don’t know how many cars they completely destroyed making this movie, but it’s a lot. By the end of the movie, things have gone completely past ridiculous into the territory of the absurd.
And through it all, you can feel Paul Bartel laughing and saying “I’ll show ‘em. They want carnage? I’ll give ‘em carnage. They want sex? I’ll give ‘em sex. But I’ll do it MY WAY.” Everything in this movie feels askew, but in the most wonderful and unexpected way. You know how sometimes we compare something to a car wreck that we can’t look away from? This movie is literally one long car wreck, deliberately designed to feature just about every exploitative element in existence, but without any polish whatsoever. In many ways, it’s the sleaziest brand of exploitation, but it’s done with so much personality that I can’t help but find myself admiring Bartel.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and even Two-Lane Black Top, and later movies would take inspiration from the actual Cannonball Run, the Gumball 3000, and the Bandit Run--inspired, of course, by Smokey and the Bandit -- but I think this one is the first one to pay such direct homage to old Cannon Ball himself and the race that was created in honor of the man. Paul Bartel may have been making the most of an undesirable situation, but in the process, he created something that stands completely apart. Cannonball! may not be the best in the sub-genre (it isn’t even the best racing movie of 1976), but I think it could very well be the strangest.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!