Johnson served as technical advisor on the movie and although highly fictionalized (with Johnson’s characters name changed to Jackson and the story brought forth to contemporary times), the movie is helped immensely by actual North Carolina locations and an audience friendly script that contains a hugely “Americana” story with the notion that celebrates individualism and going one’s own way. In many ways its also a fascinating time capsule of rapidly disappearing piece of America & the lower rung roots of modern day racing in the form of the hundreds local dirt tracks that once dotted the south.
Released at a time when stock car racing (except for the occasionally showing on THE WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS) was essentially a south of the Mason-Dixon line pastime, it had a rather checkered initial release (surprisingly doing better business in northern theatres). Re-released several times (at one point re-tilted HARD DRIVER) it later gained a cult following thru T.V. showings and a growing audience from the “gear head” fan base – such as what happened with John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX from 1966.
Jeff Bridges was an Oscar nominee for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) and had just come off John Houston’s excellent FAT CITY (1972) and the now sadly forgotten western BAD COMPANY (1972). Here he plays backwoods North Carolinian Elroy “Junior” Jackson Jr. who as result of running a police blockade in his 1968 Mustang fastback compels the local sheriff to throw his moonshining father (Art Lund) in jail. Although Junior is basically a hothead and showoff (ultimately which is what caused his father to land in jail), like most of the characters Bridges had played over the years he brings a real down to earth personality to the role (along with a slight goofiness – and plus there’s that grin) which makes it impossible to not to root for him from the opening minutes. In addition William Roberts script plays up the “small guy vs. corporate big guys” aspect well in the form of big time racing team owner Burton Colt (70’s slimy/evil guy Ed Lauter).
Initially seeing racing as a means to help his family out financially (including brother Gary Busey & mother Geraldine Fitzgerald) he enters a demolition derby at the local track run by promoter Hackel (Ned Beatty), but soon begins clawing his way up the racing ladder (“Stars cost money Hackel !”). Entering a race at Hickory N.C. he meets up with promoter Cleve Morley (Clint Eastwood regular and PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE’s Gregory Willcott) and wry veteran driver Kyle Kingman (the great William Smith- here billed as William Smith II), who’s wonderful here as the current top of the heap driver with one eye cast warily over his shoulder at the up & coming youngster. An almost achingly pretty Valerie Perrine plays Marge a racing groupie with a heart of gold who while always aligning herself with the current hot driver takes an immediate liking to Junior, perhaps seeing in him a future champion and someone and although initially attracted to her (and later hurt) she is another one of life’s lessons for Bridge’s character.
Although at its core THE LAST AMERICAN HERO is a basic one dimensional script (Who will win the big race at the end?!), it is blessed with wonderfully drawn three dimensional characters with only actress Geraldine Fitzgerald somewhat oddly cast as the mother. Although she’s fine here (and looks the part) her Irish accent comes thru rather strongly at some points. As with a lot of movies from this period (and as mentioned before) the supporting cast is filled with familiar faces including Erica Hagen who would have a memorable bit part later in THUDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and additionally appear in about every TV detective/cop show during the 70's. Director Lamont Johnson shows up as an oily hotel desk clerk.
Bridges is superb in the title role such as the scene where he makes a recorded letter to his family in one of those do-it-yourself record booths and later the closing shot where he waves a greeting to his friends while brandishing the first class trophy before disappearing into the winners press conference as he says good-bye to his past. Although the DVD is OOP this is rumored to be a future blu-ray release from Twilight Time.