Things have changed a lot since the mid-70s when truck drivers were viewed as heroic figures. The CB radio craze was followed by a spate of Hollywood films and TV series (Movin’ On, BJ and the Bear) that portrayed truckers as good guy heroes who worked hard and fought for what was right and fair, often against unscrupulous trucking magnates and sycophantic cops. White Line Fever starred Jan-Michael Vincent as Carroll Joe Hummer, an independent and unsullied owner operator who returns from Vietnam and then has to battle against a corrupt long haul industry that expects drivers to haul contraband and work long hours. He also has to make a stand against law enforcement officials who are in the back pocket of the baddies. Smokey and the Bandit pitted Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields against Jackie Gleason who played the local yokel sheriff. In Convoy, Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw faced off against more corrupt police (the antagonist is Ernest Borgnine as chief county-mounty and he has the National Guard on his side) but this time they had help from a convoy of fellow truckers. Even Clint Eastwood as trucker got into the fray by teaming up with an orangutan to battle evil-doers in the industry (that man broke all the rules).
But somewhere along the way the blush went off the rose. Truckers are no longer heroes in the movies. If anything, the media has latched on to negative stereotypes about the profession. Black Dog, starring Patrck Swayze (1998), is a case in point. Swayze is a former trucker who had been released from jail after serving a term for vehicular manslaughter after falling asleep on the road. He gets a job as a truck mechanic but he’s coerced into hauling a load of guns from Georgia to NYC. Swayze tries to quit the job after he discovers what’s in the cargo but his boss kidnaps his wife and daughter to get him to comply. Meanwhile, the corrupt shipper of the load (played by singer Meatloaf) is attempting to hijack his own load. The film has some spectacular stunts involving trucks. Swayze’s Peterbilt (powered by a CAT engine, he tells us), pushes a truck up a hill when the bad guys try to box him in. Freightliners and Internationals are no match for Swayze’s Peterbilt and driving skills. The heroes of this movie are Randy Travis (not a trucker and only along for the ride, an undercover FBI agent who gets killed in the process, and Swayze who, we are told, has given up trucking). But the truckers in the movie are all bad dudes.
I wrote to Ronald Primeau, author of Romance of the Road, to examine this shift and he agreed with me. “No doubt there has been a slow but progressive shift away from the trucker as hero (with perhaps a very idealized, mythis meaning operating) to trucker as sinister, dangerous and all. In traditional road books this probably parallels the move from the Whitmanesque through kerouac and Blue Highways to the parody of Harrison’s Good Day to Die or Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away to the road as a place where robbers, criminals and rapists lurk.”
Primeau also passed my query on to a couple of his academic colleagues. David Bain wrote: “I think the guy has a point. When I was a kid the trucker was pretty much king; everybody had a CB and truckers were the heroes of all the movies in the theaters and all the songs on the radio. The dark side of the road has always been a subgenre, in horror and otherwise, I think, but I also believe Hollywood would currently rather finance another horror movie about wanderers making a wrong turn into horror than risk something in the spirit of Easy Rider. I think some of this is a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) isolationist turn since 9/11 — stay at home and defend the hearth, only the boogieman’s out there on the road.”
Another academic, Barry Alford added, “I think there has been a clear shift in popular media away from the trucker as hero/working class savant toward a more sinister portrayal–movies with truckers as slashers and murderers etc.–parallels the turnin the American road genre from the road as open and Whitmanesque to damaged and deranged…maybe we need a Dudley Doright trucker
Author Greg Martin, who is working on a screenplay about just such a truck driver hero, and thinks the time is right for a new image to be presented by Hollywood. “The times call for a feel-good story about someone we can all relate to, someone who’s made a decision in life and done it his way. What’s important,” he says, “is to spotlight the industry in a good light and present a positive stereotype. There are a lot of career opportunities in trucking for hard working men and women, it’s an opportunity to become your own person.”
Martin and I had fun speculating who would play such a hero. It turns out hehas already consulted various web site forums including “women in trucking” and come up with a short list that includes Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Sam Elliot, Tom Sellick, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, and Sam Shepard..
“What about Clint Eastwood?” I ask Martin on the phone from his home in the San Francisco Bay area. “I think he might be a little too old,” he says. Even Billy Bob Thornton’s name comes up, who Martin admits might be perfect for the part.
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