Truck stuck in first gear

Rural raunch designed for drive-ins

Published: Feb 23 2022, 01:01:am

Monday, May 30, 1978
HIGH-BALLIN'. Written by Paul Edwards. Music by Paul Hoffert. Directed by Peter Carter. Running time: 97 minutes. Mature entertainment wirh the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violent scenes.
FUNNY, THE THINGS THAT stick in your mind. It's pretty obvious that Peter Carter wants us to think of his new movie, High-Ballin', as this year's Smokey and the Bandit.
    Jerry ("You lucky devil, you got ’im, the one Snowman") Reed is the co-star here, and the likeable singer contributes a title song in the familiar S & B tempo. That's not his tune that keeps running through my head, though.
    Remember Barrelin' down the highway / Wheelin' right along / Hear the tires hummin' / Hummin’ out a song ?
    Now this is a real trivia test. You have to be over 30 [in 1978] and a Canadian to even have a chance.
    It's a TV theme song, of course.
    The rumblin' of the diesel / The shiftin' of the gears / The rhythm when he's rollin' / It's music to his ears.
    All together, now, with feeling:
    Oh, we are getting old. It was 20 years ago [1958] that an American B-picture villain named Paul Birch came to Canada to play "Cannonball" Mike Malone, a Toronto-based long-distance truck driver and the title character in a domestically-produced TV series.
    Cannonball, with its genuine working-class hero, had its moments. Which is more than can be said for a drab, forgettable effort like High-Ballin', a Canadian film designed for the "international" market.
    "International," of course, means the U.S. It also means that the picture is deliberately vague about its setting, although it strongly hints in the direction of Illinois/Wisconsin. It is the story of "Iron Duke" Boykin (Reed), a trucker fighting to stay independent.
    A particularly violent series of hijackings is scaring most of the independents off the road and into the employ of a good ol' boy named King Carroll (Chris Wiggins), the owner of a large shipping company. Into this troubled situation rides a motorcycle stunt rider named Rane (rhymes with Shane, played by Peter Fonda), a right-thinking drifter who knows how to handle himself in a fight.
    He's Duke's old buddy. Rane offers to help him out.
    Too bad he couldn't help HighBallin', a picture with a concept so old that it positively creaks. The combination of Paul Edwards’s lacklustre script and Carter's distracted direction is like a pair of flat tires. Neither one is going anywhere.
    High-Ballin' was a rush job, and it shows. Put into production late last November [1977] in Toronto, it had to take what it got by way of weather. Still, it's a bit disorienting to see half a metre of snow appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.
    Reed, Burt Reynolds’s good buddy in Smokey and the Bandit, is genial but unchallenged as the senior trucker. Fonda, as usual, puts in the sort of performance that would induce sleep in a shark.
    The single really bright spot is Helen Shaver, the actress who plays Pickup, a gear-jamming lady who likes to shift for herself. Shaver, last seen as the proper schoolmarm in [1977’s] Who Has Seen the Wind, demonstrates a flair for rural raunch that could make her a big star on the Southern drive-in circuit.
    Carter's biggest mistake was making her character subordinate to Fonda's. She's a tough-talker who turns into a simpering sex object as the plot thickens. Unlike Rane, though, Pickup had potential.
    "You know," she tells him at one point, "you're slow. Really slow."
     Just like High-Ballin'.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1978. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword:  Until a bunch of half-wits with big rigs and an inflated sense of self-entitlement spent 23 days camped out in downtown Ottawa, truckers had a pretty decent reputation. (And, yes, this time it is personal. My father was a long-distance truck driver in the 1950s, and a Truck Roadeo medalist.) Once known as “knights of the road,” they were accorded considerable respect in the public mind. One example was that CBC-TV series Cannonball  that I so fondly recalled in the above review. High-Ballin' star Jerry Reed, of course, had been Burt Reynolds’s CB buddy in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, the hit movie that elevated independent truckers to pop culture hero status. Seven weeks after High-Ballin’ opened in Vancouver, director Sam Peckinpah’s road comedy Convoy arrived in theatres.
    I’m angry about the shitshow in the nation’s capital billing itself as a “freedom convoy” for a lot of reasons. For one, precious few of the posturing insurrectionists involved are legitimate truckers. Although they called themselves “protesters,” the mob that made international headlines were a sad lot of useful idiots led by a collection of white supremacists and far-right fanatics with no connection to the trucking industry. For another, police, politicians and mainstream media went along with the dishonest sham long after it had become obvious that Parliament Hill had been occupied by a collection of incoherent thugs. Rational Canadians were appalled to see the sort of extremism currently endemic in the U.S. on our streets. Finally, it’s time to ask cui bono?, and expose the agenda of those too-rich sociopaths — “donors” — financing an outrageous attack on public safety.
     With respect to High-Ballin', I was less angry than disappointed. Peter Carter’s credits included directing Gordon Pinsent to a Canadian Film Award for best actor in 1972’s The Rowdyman.
He knew the depth of talent available on this side of the border, and yet he cast two Americans to star in his third domestic feature. Though I liked Jerry Reed, I’d never really taken to Peter Fonda.
    It was easy to think of him in terms of his kin: the son of Henry, brother to Jane, father of Bridget. Even today, he is often remembered as a crossword puzzle clue: “Peter Fonda’s Oscar-nominated role.” For which the answer is “Ulee,” from 1997’s Ulee’s Gold. He remains best known, of course, for co-writing and co-starring in 1969’s Easy Rider, among the most influential films of its day. The episodic tale of three rebel bikers (played by Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson), it follows them from California to Louisiana. It was hardly a stretch, then, for Carter to see Fonda barrelin' down the highway, wheelin' right into his picture astride a motorcycle.
    Fonda made at least four more working visits to Canada in the years that followed. He starred as an ESP researcher in director William Fruet’s 1983 horror film Spasms. On location in Vancouver, he played an unsympathetic boyfriend in Stephen Gyllenhaal’s 1985 feature Certain Fury.
In Ron Maxwell’s made-in-New Brunswick Copperhead (2013), he has a cameo role as the village blacksmith. Back in Vancouver, he was a cameo player in Shana Feste’s 2013 domestic comedy Boundaries.