Keep On Truckin’

The HOT TRUCK-BASED ACTION continues at Shadowplay.

HELL DRIVERS is a wonderfully unbalanced, testosterone-oozing compendium of macho posturing, undercranked vehicular montage and political subtext, nicely organised up until a rather flat ending.

In brief, Stanley Baker is an ex-con who gets taken on by euphonically-named haulage firm Hawlett, where drivers are encouraged to take insane risks and break the law in order to keep their jobs, delivering loads of gravel. This may in fact be the finest gravel-themed action film I’ve ever seen. While the racing around isn’t too convincing, the seething rivalry between Baker and the man Sylvia Sims always calls “the terrible Patrick McGoohan” is very enjoyable, and there’s an inescapable leftist slant to director and co-scenarist Cy Endfield’s film — the conflict between profit and human well-being is a central one to our existence, and it’s front and centre here.

The film actually has more steaming, heavily-accented manhood than it knows what to do with: in addition to Baker and McGoohan, there’s a strong Scottish infusion from Gordon Jackson and a nubile Sean Connery (a svelte young David McCallum also breezes by on crutches), Sid James and Alfie Bass provide cockney comedy (yes, I know Sid was South African but still…) and then there’s Wilfred Lawson, sporting a form of speech previously unknown to the world, combining RADA, Bradford and malt whiskey. In an age over-blessed with drunken actors, Lawson actually sounds inebriated at all times, no matter what role he’s playing. He’s the man who added an unscripted line to Shakespeare: “If you think I’m pissed, wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham.”

We also get Herbert Lom as a sentimental Italian and William Hartnell as the crooked boss, a man so mean he throws tea out of the window. He also shouts EVERY SINGLE LINE, like Steve Martin in THE JERK, which is wrong but amusing and actually somewhat effective. Hartnell is always a fascinating presence.

To balance the roiling manliness, we also get lusty Peggy Cummins, who’s almost as enjoyable here as in GUN CRAZY. It’s hard to freeze-frame her without making her look freakish, because her face is in constant, Botox-free motion. The effect is lovely and lively and natural, but hard to capture in stills. Also, her voice eludes the frame grab, that delightful warm throaty sound with its blend of accents. When she shares a scene with Baker, there’s flaming chemistry and unbridled Welshness of a kind rarely glimpsed in British cinema. When she dances with him the lust is palpable. But she’s his best friend’s gal, so Baker curdles and fumes, hooking his sexual frustration to his truck engine and blasting off with maximum overdrive.

Patrick McGoohan, in his dual position as Road Foreman and Resident Psychopath, essays a Belfast/Cro-Magnon accent and slouching posture that had Fiona christening him “the Hunchback of McGoohan”.

With accent, scar, nickname (“Red”) and slouch, he has enough to satisfy the most ambitious ham actor, but pads his role with belching, twitching, barking and everpresent ciggie hanging from lip. He’s atrocious, unbelievable, and compulsively watchable. Baker wins points just for resisting the urge to goggle at his co-star’s every gesture.

Stan the Man holds everything together with his customary INTENSE ANGER, focussed inwards, simmering on a low heat, always ready to explode. My old friend Lawrie used to profess himself baffled at Baker’s knighthood, but to me the reasons for celebrating S.B. are many and obvious. He brought a kind of unabashed machismo to British cinema, which had been accustomed to mostly rather mild, lightweight actors. Alongside that, Baker brought authentic proletarian qualities — he hadn’t lost his accent at some southern drama school. And that meant he was authentically and blatantly Celtic also. He prepared the way for Connery and Harris, as well as being the original angry young man. Though somewhat neglected today, his work set changes in motion that transformed the face of British screen drama.

7 Responses to “Keep On Truckin’”

  1. helldriversmovie Says:

    Cool review, David!

    If you’re interested in experiencing the documentary version of a “testosterone-oozing compendium of macho posturing,” please check out our new film, “Hell Drivers: America’s Original Crash Test Dummies!”

    These daredevil characters, who crash garbage trucks and motorhomes with no more protection than a motorcycle helmet and ordinary seatbelt, will blow you away!

  2. Indeed he did. In many ways he’s what makes Accident work so well. All that effete repression banging up against Baker’s barely concealed rage and lust.

    And that’s not to mention Zulu, The Criminal and Eve. A great and unjustly neglected star.

  3. McGoohan actually says “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder,” (adding: “If I knock it off I might take your head off with it”) and that encapsulates the Baker quality — he’s all about social injustice, it’s rooted in his very being. Losey recognised this and saw it as being part of Baker’s Welsh background — he was not only working class, but from a colonized culture.

  4. Let’s hope some label here in the States is wise enough to put this very entertaining film out on DVD!

  5. They could certainly make money on it, the cast is still pretty impressive! I’d like to see a proper widescreen version in place of my 16X9 off-air recording.

  6. At the time, Hell Drivers was intended to be Stanley Baker showing his *sensitive side*. Although Tom was clearly tough, he was meant to be nice, and the plot compelled him to be nicer than Tom maybe instinctually was. He was an ex-con who wanted to change, which tied in nicely with Baker’s own screen persona prior to this film (allegedly) and what he wanted it to be thereafter.

    The Carlton dvd extas have a Baker interview. He’s all *intellectual* and he’s on a small chair/stool with crossed legs clad in dapper slacks and socks – being very *civilised* with the earnest interviewer.

  7. …preparing for his role as a two-fisted intellectual in Accident, perhaps. It’a always odd seeing actors like Baker in that pose. Harry H Corbett talking about “the savage moment of creation” is a favourite interview of mine.

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