Soul Challenger

Perhaps it’s just morbid curiosity that draws my eye to the Obituaries page of the paper each morning, but regardless I find the well-lived lives of others truly fascinating. Last week threw up a few very sad surprises, most notably for me a film director, who passed on September 18th, but whose death only merited page space close to a month later. Indeed the name Richard C. Sarafian might ring very few bells, but he spent his brief zenith helming a series of what can only be described as uniquely existential films, amongst them one which earned him a mention in any motoring column: Vanishing Point.

 

The story of “the last American hero, to whom speed means freedom of the soul” was a career-defining success for most of those involved, though Sarafian himself said that the true spirit of the film was left on the cutting room floor by executives keen to make something more commercially palatable. In this, the age of endless Hollywood superheroes and large-scale destruction, the term ‘commercial’ might seem ridiculous when applied to such a film, but in 1971 audiences were searching for something a little less escapist, dare I say, more cerebral, more timely. As the peace and love generation grew disillusioned in the aftermath of Altamont, Kent State and the Manson murders, war still raged in Vietnam, and the notion of a stalwart hero in a white hat riding up to save the day was long gone. Of course the studios had long since cottoned on to the notion of the antihero and commercialising the cause for a fast buck, but Kowalski in his Challenger was unlike any other, for he represented nobody, no ethos or way of life, just himself, and much of what he symbolised to those he met were ideals projected upon him. Betting the price of a bag of speed that he can make it home to San Francisco from Denver in fifteen hours, he is guided on his journey by a blind radio DJ named ‘Super Soul’, who hails him as “the last beautiful free soul on this planet” and helps propel him to counterculture fame. Kowalski though appears more like a bystander to the action, searching the sad images of his past for some sort of meaning, but ultimately finding only the Vanishing Point.

 

So to Kowalski’s car, the Dodge Challenger R/T, (Alpine) white in accordance with the character’s symbolic status. Five cars were used during filming, each specially prepared for the specific requirements of the various chase sequences, and famed stunt driver Carey Loftin undertook driving duties. Loftin had worked on practically every racing or chase movie made in Hollywood, a list including Red Line 7000 (1965), Grand Prix (1967), Bullitt (1968), along with various Elvis films, and would latterly double again for star Barry Newman in the 20-odd minute chase that opens Fear Is the Key (1972), before driving in the likes of White Line Fever (1975) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Having chosen the Challenger for its sturdiness and torsion bar suspension, Loftin then saw to it that the cars were fitted with the widest wheels possible, to optimise traction for the many spins he’d be called-upon to perform, then stripped of their power-steering in order to improve responsiveness. Four of the cars used were 440 Magnum spec with manual gearboxes, the fifth a 383 Magnum with three-speed Torquelite automatic transmission. The latter was used only to tow a ’67 Camaro – doubling for the Challenger – up to speed for the final stunt, the Dodges deemed too expensive to wreck.

 

The film took just 38 days to shoot, though having run $80,000 over budget, Sarafian was forced to relinquish much of his share in Twentieth Century Fox’s massive profits. Their $1.5 million investment certainly paid off, the film having swiftly passed into the popular consciousness remained there ever since. Naturally there was a remake – heavily sanitised having been made for  television – starring Viggo Mortensen as wholesome sounding Jimmy Kowalski, racing to see his pregnant wife in hospital and pulling off a truly spectacular jump-and-roll. Tarantino couldn’t resist but pay homage to the greatest of road movies in Death Proof (2007), in which the sight of that poor Challenger being repeatedly smashed made my stomach turn in a way that none of the violence in his other efforts has. Likewise Sarafian’s son Deran worked a few references into his enjoyable 1994 action-adventure Terminal Velocity, which starred Charlie Sheen as a wise-cracking skydiver nearly as failure-prone as Kowalski, and proud owner of a very ill-fated white 1970 Challenger. Word is afoot of another remake, one that’s certain to miss the mark again, if for no other reason than that the original concept is so purely existential in its nature, and to give Kowalski’s quest the kind of tangible goal I suspect modern audiences would demand would render the premise meaningless.

 

Sarafian’s name will live on as long as the film, as long as Kowalski and the notion that the open road can embody freedom, if not a means of escape, for as ‘Super Soul’ laments, “the question is not when he’s gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him”.

 

First published on Discovery.co.uk 2013

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