[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Steelyard Blues has occasioned the most dramatic instance of critical backlash in recent memory. Reviewers of contrary political persuasions (to the extent that political bent can be determined from film reviews) have proved to be up to here with the agitprop antics of Jane Fonda and, perhaps, her FTA compatriot Donald Sutherland. At any rate, Steelyard Blues has been pelted with the sort of abusive notice all those pointyhead libberulls once visited on The Green Berets. To one who took a look at the film anyway, the phenomenon is more than a little appalling. For, if Steelyard Blues is indeed, as Molly Haskell observed, so cinematically inept that one feels compelled to pick it up and take care of it, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly likeable, enjoyable, goodnatured event of a highly positive nature.
Sure, the storyline is sappy: a klutzy demolition derby freak (Sutherland) gets out of jail and, just by being alive and around, makes life difficult for his uptight, slicked-down political candidate of a brother who has, under his new Middle-Americanized name, been surreptitiously putting it to the freak’s callgirl girlfriend (Fonda); despite the nastiness of Brother Rat and his buttondown Establishment, as well as the zaniness of Sutherland’s own confreres, the nice people realize a dream if not necessarily the dream of escape from an increasingly repressive and unattractive way of life. But clearly no one involved intended Steelyard Blues to be taken even half-seriously except as a gesture in behalf of joy and fellow-feeling—which, frankly, is one of the few sorts of political gesture I’m interested in these days. The film makes its points, but not in such hohum moralizing as the needless shooting of a caged lion by uniformed types.
There is, instead, a lovely scene in which Sutherland’s crew swoops over a naval air base like clodhopping commandos to liberate some spare parts from an obsolete plane (they hope to fly a disused junkyard buzzard off to a land “where there are no jails”). Some of the guerrillas are men and some are women, and the women are neither beautiful nor homely, and the men are aware that the women are women and the women know that the men are men, and when one of the men giggles over some small scavenger triumph with one of the women, there is mainly a sense of camaraderie, equality, mutuality. No line of dialogue underscores this and no reviewer that I’ve read has especially remarked it. But a point is made here—a revolutionary point, if you will—casually and unpushily, with respect for the characters and for the audience, without shrillness of any sort. It’s the sort of point Steelyard Blues makes again and again, mainly just by existing. Incidentally, Peter Boyle is hilarious as a compulsive and compleat role-player who does, among other things, a dandy Marlon Brando circa The Wild One.
Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson
Direction: Alan Myerson. Screenplay: Bill S. Ward. Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs, Stevan Larner.
The Players: Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Peter Boyle, Garry Goodrow.