Cannonball (1976)

A Cross Country Demolition Derby Without Rules!

Theatrical poster for 1976's Cannonball

An illegal cross-country automobile race is the set-up for this Paul Bartel-directed action flick, as dozens of teams haul ass in cold steel to arrive first and collect the hefty award. You have to get there on four wheels, but other than that, the only rule is that there are no rules…so you can expect a fair amount of dirty tricks along the way. Our hero here is Coy “Cannonball” Buckman (David Carradine), a karate-fighting ex-con with a need for speed and recurring nightmares of his own demise.

We’ve got an amazing cast,  a funky musical score, catchy acoustic tunes, fist fights, nudity, lots of aerial shots, plenty of car crashes and explosions, and an epic pile-up that will be difficult to forget. If you’re in a high-octane sort of mood, you’ll certainly have a lot of fun with this one. Not quite brainless action, but close enough to get the job done.

Coy has such an aura of cool badassdom surrounding him that he’s managed to bed down with his parole officer, Linda Maxwell (Veronica Hamel). She, along with his off-kilter mechanic/best friend Zippo (Archie Hahn) comprise his race team—somewhat, anyway. Linda begins as an unwilling accomplice; and Zippo is driving a replica of Coy’s car and dressing exactly like him, which is perhaps a sign of his instability, but also works in Cannonball’s favor (consider them Coy and Decoy).

David Carradine as seen in 1976's Cannonball

Other contenders in this race include a young African American (Stanley Bennett Clay) in a luxury car he has been hired to deliver; a smug and snooty German professional driver (James Keach); a husband and family man who cheats in both senses of the word (Terry McMillan); a pair of kind-hearted surfers (Robert Carradine and Belinda Balaski); a trio of beautiful ladies in a van (Mary Woronov, Glynn Rubin, and Diane Lee Heart); and Coy’s nemesis Cade Redman (Bill McKinney), accompanied by a would-be country music star and his motherly manager (Gerrit Graham and Judy Canova).

A fair share of the conflict in the film takes place between Coy and Cade, but by no means all of it. Coy’s shady older brother Bennie (played to gloriously sleazy effect by stalwart Dick Miller, in possibly my favorite of his roles) has a good deal of money riding on Cannonball, and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that he wins. The racers collide with each other in multiple ways, and what begins as a peaceful but aggressive race devolves into a full-fledged demolition derby by the film’s end.

Modern audiences may be quick to notice some similarities, both in name and content, to another, bigger-budgeted film. You would be wrong to think that this was “just another Roger Corman rip-off”, though, as it actually preceded the Burt Reynolds-starring CANNONBALL RUN by five full years. So who’s ripping off who, here?

The answer, surprisingly, is nobody. Both of these films are actually a case of art imitating life, as they were both inspired by a genuine piece of countercultural history.

Erwin George Baker was a car and motorcycle racer in the first part of the twentieth century who drove over five million miles in his lifetime. He was famous for his record-setting city-to-city runs and his racing against passenger trains from one town to the next. In 1914, a reporter drew a comparison between him and the Cannonball Express train, earning him the lifelong nickname of Cannonball Baker. He ran in the 1922 Indianapolis 500, and eventually became NASCAR’s national commissioner. He died in 1960, holding countless records and innumerable stories that should have been recorded somewhere.

Photo of Cannonball George Baker

In 1971, auto enthusiasts and Car& Driver Magazine staff members Brock Yates and Steve Smith were looking to do something new and exciting that would express their passion for the automobile. Taking Baker’s record-setting runs as a basis of inspiration, they decided on an underground car race that would span the continent. They called it The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, which began in New York and ended in California.

The first race was less than a success in that, despite the invitations sent out, no other teams participated. Still, Smith and Yates (along with Yates’s son Brock, Jr. and colleague Jim Williams) made the run by themselves in a souped-up Dodge van, completing it in under 41 hours, beating the previous record. Rather than call it good enough, Yates and Smith pressed on with their dream, and more Cannonball races were held between then and 1979, with more drivers competing—and more records being set—every time. The race was covered in Car & Driver magazine, and the public at large found themselves supporting the event. The race was eventually retired, though, with Yates citing increased police activity, traffic, and legal liabilities making it impractical.

Yates himself had, at one point, been working on a screenplay entitled COAST TO COAST, which was based on the race, but he was beat to the punch by the folks at New World Pictures, who released CANNONBALL in 1976. A similar film, THE GUMBALL RALLY, was released later that same year. Only THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981)—and, by proxy, its sequels—can boast an “official” status, though, as Yates wrote the screenplay, sanctioned the use of the name, and even made a cameo appearance.

Yates published a book detailing his experiences with the races in 2003, entitled Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race; and it’s an interesting side note that both CANNONBALL and THE CANNONBALL RUN had paperback novelizations released, both written by author Michael Avallone (who was no stranger to the art of the novelization, having written over a dozen of them). I can’t help but wonder how well they sold. The visceral thrill you get from watching flaming cars crash into each other is surely difficult to match by merely reading descriptions of the same—further reason you should go watch this film as soon as you’re done reading my review.

CANNONBALL gets less attention than THE CANNONBALL RUN, and even less than THE GUMBALL RALLY, but, unofficial status or not, it is my favorite of the three. It has comedic moments, but it also has a grimness and grittiness that can only be found in drive-in flicks from that era.

Plus, you know…Dick Miller and David Carradine. As brothers. There are few things much cooler than that.

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