Steel Arena

The first car I ever had regular access to as a teenager was my family’s 1978 Pontiac station wagon. When it finally got to the point where it took a lot of work to even get it to run, my father sold it to a guy who wanted it to use in the demolition derby. The 1973 film Steel Arena might as well be called Demolition Derby: The Movie. Short on plot, but heavy on destruction, it features many actual automobile daredevils doing what they do best.

The film centers on Dusty Russell (playing himself) as a guy who wanders from town to town. He ends up getting himself caught up in a moonshine run that doesn’t go as well as planned. When things turn against him, he makes a quick escape, with lovely waitress Jo-ann (Laura Brooks) in tow. He also picks up another partner in crime named Speed Sterns (himself, too). Eventually, they find their way to the Circus of Death where Dusty makes his way into the demolition derby, which he wins. This leads to the owner of the show, Gene Drew (also playing himself) to offer Dusty a job as a daredevil.

Dusty soon moves up the ranks of the daredevils. This doesn’t go over well will some of the other daredevils who see the spotlight moving off of them. This begets bitterness, backstabbing, and more dangerous risks being taken. Of course, tragedy follows, but hey what’s it matter when you are on the verge of breaking the world dive bombing record?!

Of course, a movie like this is not about having an intricate story. This movie is an excuse to film a bunch of wild stunts. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, Hal Needham basically built his directing career on making movies that were a collection of stunts strung together with scenes of Burt Reynolds yucking it up with his buddies. Those movies aren’t terribly deep, but they’re fun. For what it’s worth, the stunts in this film are fun, but also a bit repetitive. We get to see cars flipping over, cars crashing head on into each other, cars jumping into other cars, and more. Then we see those same things again, and again, and again. There’s even some strange stuff that has nothing to do with cars! One dude who calls himself Mr. Atom has an act where he gets into a wooden box rigged with dynamite, which is then blown up. That’s it. 

The moonshine sequence that opens the film is pretty enjoyable and sets an action bar that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to. Beyond that, the action sequence that is the most interesting is actually the demolition derby early in the film. It’s amazing how enthralled I was with watching cars driving around in circles and banging into each other. I don’t believe how some of these cars keep functioning after a while. It’s strangely captivating how the twisted metal becomes a sort of rolling, mud-soaked work of art.

I’m going to guess that there wasn’t much of a script for this film. The actors (and I use that term loosely) seem to be winging it; like they were given some basic instructions for what the scene needed to achieve, but the final dialogue was left to whatever happened to tumble out of their mouths. They often speak over each other, a bit too anxious to put their two cents in. Their delivery is clumsy in some scenes, robotic in others. Granted, these guys aren’t exactly trained thespians. They strap themselves to car hoods and drive through burning plywood for a living! Let’s see Leonardo DiCaprio do that! Still, this film would’ve benefited immensely from a group of colorful characters capable of making the talky talky stuff a bit more interesting. You know, something more like Police Academy, but with a guy who blows himself up in a wooden box for a living. What makes movies like Police Academy work, though, and why audiences came back for sequel after sequel, is that we like the characters. Most of the characters in this film are utterly unlikable. Several come off as rude and painfully self-centered, which is not a good thing, especially when much of the cast are playing themselves.

If all you need for a good time is seeing a bunch of cars get muddied and mangled, then Steel Arena will probably be a satisfying watch for you. If you need a bit more in the story department and need to actually like the guys doing the mangling, I’m afraid Steel Arena will go down as a crash and burn. An actual demolition derby is undoubtedly more fun.

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