The Great Smokey Roadblock

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The 70’s is such an interesting time in film history. Many new things were happening, but we were also seeing some of the last remnants of the eras of classic film still hanging on. It’s strange sometimes to see some of the unusual projects that some classic film stars ended up taking on. I certainly didn’t expect to see the likes of Henry Fonda driving a truckload of hookers across the country…but that’s what we get in 1977’s The Great Smokey Roadblock.

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Fonda plays a truck driver known as Elegant John. Illness has landed him in the hospital, and unable to work his precious rig “Eleanor” has been repossessed. John figures he still has one more run in him, though. So, he busts out of the hospital, takes Eleanor back, and heads out to find a load. Along the way he meets up with a hitchhiker called Beebo (Robert Englund), who comes along for the ride.

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News starts to hit about the old man with the stolen truck, which makes it harder for him to find something haul. However, when going through Wyoming he stops to visit an old friend and occasional romantic interest, Penelope (Eileen Brennan). She’s got problems of her own as she and the six prostitutes who work for her (including Susan Sarandon) are being run out of town by the cops. So, they decide to turn John’s truck into a brothel on wheels. Of course, law enforcement is on their tail, but meanwhile, various folk around the country start to see Elegant John as a bit of a folk hero.

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The poster art for this film makes it out to be something along the lines of Smokey and the Bandit. It was released the same year as the Burt Reynolds classic, although this film was actually filmed several years earlier and delayed. There are a few similar elements, but The Great Smokey Roadblock is a much more thoughtful film, which both helps and hinders it at times. We have several moments of just simple conversation between Fonda and Brennan or Fonda and Englund which are well acted and quite engaging. Englund especially shows a side of his acting talent that I had never seen before.

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I did appreciate the quieter moments this film had to offer, but when it needs to step things up a bit and get a bit of momentum going, it all too often misses the opportunity. The roadblock that is supposedly so “great” is pretty unspectacular. The Duke boys could bust through it in their sleep. We also get very little in the way of hijinks with this whole cathouse on wheels thing. The only moment that gets a bit crazy is when the crew gets caught in a trap by a local country sheriff played by Dub Taylor. His presence alone ups the craziness, a bit, but the film does not maintain that type of energy. The film also falls short in its final act as it tries to show people rallying around John and the girls. The grassroots effort starts with the likes of Austin Pendleton and John Byner.
Then in the blink of an eye, there’s a bunch of other people following our heroes around like it’s the montage scene from Rocky II. It all just happens quite abruptly.

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Despite some missed potential, the film still has plenty to enjoy. Fonda feels a bit miscast in the beginning, but his performance is strong and it doesn’t take long for him to settle into the role. I also really liked Susan Sarandon in this. She is very sweet in a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role. She also has some nice chemistry with Robert Englund, who gradually becomes her love interest as the film progresses. It’s interesting to note that Sarandon is credited as a producer on the film, as well.

On a whole, I enjoyed The Great Smokey Roadblock…which is sometimes known as The Last of the Cowboys (not as good of a title, I’m afraid). I certainly appreciated it’s kinder, gentler approach to the cross-country truckers chased by the cops type of formula. There’s a lot of missed potential, though, which leaves it not totally satisfying.

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