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Thursday, December 05, 2002

Freedom Highway

Here we return to our extremely boring reviews of movies nobody ever wanted to see.

(Note: This review does not refer to the documentary Freedom Highway, directed by Philip King, which starred Bono and a bunch of other musicians, although possibly no one wanted to see it, either.

It might, however, refer to Down Liberty Road, which has the same cast and director, but is supposedly in black and white. Also mentioned at the Jerry Fairbanks (that's the director) collection at Online Archive of California.)

You know, these days, infomercials are a bore. They tell you about the product, but that's all they do. Some company shill will be joined by some washed-up celebrity and they'll ooh and ahh over some useless piece o' crap while an audience of bored retirees applauds every two minutes. Bleah.

Now in the old days, some infomercials had class. You wouldn't necessarily know what product they were for, unless you were told; and sometimes they had an actual plot and characters and everything.

Such as this old beauty from Greyhound, entitled Freedom Highway (that's part I, part II is here). This is a half hour commercial for Greyhound, disguised as a very short and mildly boring movie about history, death, love, war, and death. But it is star studded! Angie Dickinson! Marshall Thompson! Tommy Kirk! Morris Ankrum! Tex Ritter!

There's not much of a plot. Tommy Kirk plays a boy scout on his way to the Jamboree by bus from Seattle to DC. Angie Dickinson plays a young woman travelling from San Francisco to New York, where she has a serious boyfriend. But uh oh! Some chunk-headed football player has his eye on her. Morris Ankrum is a bitter man travelling to DC. Marshall Thompson is the mysterious Man in Black, probably the least mysterious Man in Black in all of literature. I was very disappointed.

Now that we have our cast of characters all arranged, we set them rolling through the romantic American landscape. The movie grips you right from the start, as a tide of panic rises up to choke off your air. You watch the bus roll through mile after mile after mile after mile of BUGGER ALL, and you want to slam your head repeatedly into the desk and die rather than ride 3000 miles in a goddamn bus. Then you realize that it's just a movie, but still must fight to keep the horror down.

It's tough, because little Tommy Kirk (a former Mousketeer) is the least of our worries. His job is to be freshly-scrubbed and inquisitive, and to be told to imagine various episodes of American history as the bus glides across the interminable continent. More frightening is the romantic subplot. Place yourself in poor Angie Dickinson's position---you've got a boyfriend, but this does not deter the good-looking knothead who's taken a shine to you. He is fun and hunky and good with kids(!), but good Lord you're trapped with him on this damned bus for days on end! Do you really want even the nicest and handsomest stranger drooling on you for days? On a bus?

Then there's Morris Ankrum, the Bitter Old Man, muttering sour comments on American history the whole trip. Your modern-day Susan Sontag or Gore Vidal would dismiss him as a completely hopeless pollyanna. When Joe Rockhead the football player finally has enough of him, the mysterious Man in Black explains that Ankrum's son was killed in Korea and posthumously awarded the Congressional Metal of Honor. Ankrum is on his way to DC to pick it up, but believes his son died for nothing. He keeps making little remarks to that effect throughout the first half of the movie.

For example, at one point Tex Ritter boards the bus, riding from Laramie to Chicago. Tommy requests a song, and Tex gives him this one:

Alamo...and the stubborn band that stood in the path of...invasion

A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis TO DIE
By the line that he drew with his sword when the battle was nigh
And young Davy Crockett was the first to cross over with the gallantry fine in his eye
For God and for freedom a man more than willin' TO DIE

Hiii-yup! Santy Anna we're killin' your soldiers below
That men wherever they go
Will remember the Alamo

They sent a young scout through the battle much bloody and loud
With the words of farewell from a garrison valiant and proud
Grieve not, little darlin', my dyin' if Texas is sovereign and free
We'll never surrender and ever will liberty be

Hiii-yup! Santy Anna we're killin' your soldiers below
That men wherever they go
Will remember the Alamo

Well. Even a savage bloodthirsty warblogger like myself has to wince at lines like that (and not just because they don't scan), especially with poor Morris sitting there. He is moved to say, "Even our songs glorify senseless sacrifice," which brings him a reprimand from the Man in Black.

The first half of the movie drags, but things pick up once they hit the cities of the East. The cast splits up in Philadelphia. Lunkhead has to go sign his football contract, Angie goes to meet her boyfriend in New York, Tommy goes on to DC, and Sourpuss and the MiB take a detour to Gettysburg.

There, an actor seems to be impersonating Will Rogers portraying Abe Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address. He has a half smile on his face, and you expect him to break into a joke at any minute. However, the meaning of the words manages to survive the delivery, and Morris realizes that his son's death was not in vain at all.

We take a side trip to New York to see very young Angie greet her boyfriend Waldo---who is also her boss and quite a bit older than she is. She decides she's in love with No-Neck after all, and dumps the poor sap right there in the bus station to go back to Philadelphia. (We don't hafta feel sorry for him, though, 'cause he's old and nerdy and has a stupid name. Not even though he brought the ring with him.)

Meanwhile we meet up with Tommy and Morris Ankrum at Arlington, where they seem to expect the MiB. While they look for him, he strolls among the tombstones, and we (and Morris Ankrum) begin to realize that he's...a ghost? An angel? One or the other. Morris is more at peace now, and we fade out to "America the Beautiful".

Well. Powerful, eh? OK, maybe not. You have to wonder, sometimes, about the 1950s. Did they take place on a different planet? What genius thought that the best way to sell Greyhound was by an extended, sobering meditation on war and death and sacrifice? Of course, they weren't exactly thinking of it that way; they were trying to sell Greyhound by selling the romance of American history. See America from inside a bus where you can't get out and look around and you're surrounded by the same people for days on end!

Among Prelinger's comments on the Internet Archive site:

The bus -- the most democratic means of transportation, a great equalizer between people, is the perfect vehicle for the freedom highway, a big metal box on wheels in which the faithless ride and rediscover their lost belief.

It's interesting that he should identify the bus as the "most democratic" means of transportation because it is an "equalizer". Which is most characteristic of democracy---equality, or freedom? In a bus, you may be equal to everyone else (although that's not strictly necessary) but you have little freedom, in particular the freedom to get out and look around at the vast country you are supposedly exploring. Actually, maximum freedom would involve getting your own car (true freedom would involve driving alone in your car, unaccompanied by loved ones who say, "For God's sake, we don't have to stop and take a picture every damned mile!"). But since some people have air-conditioned Cadillacs and some people have clapped-out Chevettes, there is no equality in private automobile transport.

Our national obsession with building highways and personalized individual transportation is embodied in our view of freedom as an open road stretching out into the distance.

Damn right it is.

I was going to write something for Buy Nothing Day about advertising, and how rarely I am swayed by it. But there is one type of advertising that gets me every time, that draws me to the TV set in rapt attention. This would be those car ads which show the car driving down an empty stretch of big highway. I love those, especially if they are accompanied by catchy tunes. A few years ago it was Hyundai with a dreamy song, "Get in the Car" (probably written for them). In Australia there were two commercials, one accompanied by "Are You Still Having Fun?" by Eagle-Eye Cherry (a song really about dissolution and disappointment); and "Just Wait 'til You Drive It", another dreamy song written for Nissan. That last showed a man driving along a road that ran by beautiful coastlines, fields filled with leaping kangaroo, and right over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. As he pulls into his corporate parking garage, he hears on the radio that the surf is really great today, and so he smiles and pulls back out again and heads to the ocean. That's an Australian commercial.

To my mind, the highway is freedom. I felt constricted and cramped when living in Sydney. Every once in a while I had to drive a few hundred miles to work at a remote site. I dreaded these trips for a variety of reasons, but there was one part I liked. A small stretch of the trip put me on a big ol' American-style highway, parts of it scenic or lined with flowers. This never failed to calm and cheer me. It was like being home again, like being in California again. When you drive a highway you are Going Somewhere, somewhere wonderful.

My most powerful dreams of home, while I was in Australia, were of driving.

Many of Prelinger's comments make obligatory noises about how our history is in fact a history of shame, involving the displacement and murder of the Indians, etc. While the facts are (mostly) not in dispute, the relentless nagging reminders that we are scum, SCUM, SCUM set my teeth on edge. (I really think this sort of thing is counter-productive, past a certain point. One gets the urge to live down to the criticisms. But that's a thought for another post.)

I've remarked on this before. I probably shall again, until I become shrill and annoying (whoops, too late).

But enough with the negative waves! Let's look at the positive side of this film.

It's the 1950s. It's a time when you could send your 13-year-old cross-country on a bus and not worry about him ending up in a shallow grave. It's a time when neatly-dressed people rode buses and so did stars like Tex Ritter. When 13-year-olds are bright and inquisitive, and politely ask singers for a song, and the singer cheerfully obliges. When some guy starts strumming a guitar and caterwauling on a bus, and the crisp people do not get angry or yell, "Dammit, I'm trying to sleep!" but listen gratefully and applaud.

Why can't we return to those more graceful days? Maybe because they didn't exist. That much politeness in the real world would kill me. But this isn't the real world. It's not a repressed world of forced politeness and obligatory civility; it's a fantasy world where annoyance is unknown, and so politeness unforced.

For example, there's the wonderful moment when Tommy asks Tex for a song. Tex asks him if he's ever heard of the Alamo. Tommy, who apparently is schooled by wolves, says he doesn't think so. Tex then asks if he's heard of Davy Crockett, and Tommy scrunches up his face in a smile and says, "Awww, sure!" (Davy Crockett was a wildly popular TV show of the time, starring Fess Parker. It was made by Disney, who also employed young Tommy Kirk.) Tex and Tommy exchange a genuine smile, which sweeps you into a warm and rosy world where a young fella can meet kindly, famous cowboys on a bus.

And then you're instantly unceremoniously ejected from the happy myth-world by that damned Alamo song.

You're going to need the memory of that moment at the end of the film, when Morris Ankrum and Tommy are at Arlington. Morris's heart is mending, and he gives Tommy (who reminds him of his lost son) an affectionate squeeze. It's supposed to be heartwarming, but to our modern eyes it's just plain creepy; I recoiled from it in horror. Ewwwww!

For a real American democratic bus moment, I urge you to read this story from a bright, inquisitive, young Kiwi lad of forty.

Coming Soon: Cruel parents abandon two young girls on bus, ca 1970.