by Marion Kelly & Robert Nason
The summer movie season is just around the corner, so it feels appropriate to look back at some of the movies that made trucks and truck drivers the central theme. We’re not claiming these are the best truck driver movies ever made – in fact, some are downright cringe-worthy – but they all have their moments and may be worth a look on these warm summer nights.
“Big Trouble in Little China” - 1986
While it bombed at the box office, this John Carpenter film grew into a cult hit. Big Trouble is a classic good-vs.-evil plot as truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) helps his friend Wang Chi rescue his fiancé from bandits and win back his stolen truck. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown with supernatural elements, Big Trouble is rife with cheesy yet fantastic dialogue and a bunch of zany characters. It’s a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and we give it extra points for naming Burton’s big rig the Pork Chop Express. Carpenter later noted that the movie was originally written as a Western and instead of Burton’s big rig being stolen it was to have been a horse.
Memorable quote: “This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there.” – Jack Burton
“Smokey and the Bandit” - 1977
With Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed conspiring to go “from Georgia to Texas and back in 28 hours flat with a truckload of bootleg beer,” how can you lose? Throw in a runaway bride played by Sally Fields and a cantankerous jilted would-be father-in-law/sheriff Buford T. Justice (one of the best screen names in movie history) played by Jackie Gleeson and you’ve got 1977’s second highest grossing movie, behind only “Star Wars.” Oh, and don’t forget about the dog named Fred. Reed was originally slated to play the lead role of the Bandit until Reynolds became involved, moving Reed into the supporting role of truck driver Cledus Snow.
“Smokey and the Bandit” spawned the CB radio genre, where truck drivers get into all sorts of mischief while talking CB jargon on the road. The movie also led to skyrocketing sales of the iconic Pontiac Trans-Am (four were used in the movie) and launched Burt Reynolds into A-list stardom.
Quote: “It’s not where you’re going that counts, it’s who the hell’s in back of ya.” – from the movie’s trailer
“High-Ballin’” – 1978
It’s the independent drivers against the trucking boss in this Western on wheels action film. Following his success as Cledus in “Smokey and the Bandit,” Jerry Reed steps into the shoes of Duke, an independent driver who, with the help of his friend Rane (Peter Fonda), fights off a trucking company that wants to put him out of business. It’s a good ol’ boys movie and the chemistry between Reed and Fonda is fun to watch. With a theme song written and sung by Reed, it’s worth a viewing. Oh, and if you look closely, you’ll catch that even though the movie is supposed to take place in the U.S., many of the vehicles on the road have Canada plates. The film was filmed in Ontario. Oops.
Quote: Eighteen-wheel drivers “make a 900-mile run in a blizzard look like a trip to church.” – Jerry Reed in the film’s trailer
“They Drive by Night” – 1940
Before uttering the now famous “Play it again, Sam” in “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart played Paul Fabrini, co-owner of a small trucking company with brother Joe (played by George Raft). “They Drive by Night” follows the lives of the Fabrini brothers as they struggle to remain independent truckers during the Great Depression. From trucks crashing to fighting unscrupulous shippers to romance to murder and false accusations, “They Drive by Night” has all the drama and suspense you’ll need for a night on the couch or in the cab.
Quote: “You know, when I was riding that truck, I used to think I'd never get enough of staying home. I've got enough, all right.” – Paul Fabrini
“Over The Top” – 1987
Sylvester Stallone plays the role of the underdog well and “Over The Top” is no exception. Stallone is Lincoln Hawk, a down-on-his-luck over-the-road truck driver who abandoned his family years ago. After the death of his wife, Hawk must fight his father-in-law for custody of his son. Desperate to mend fences, he takes his son on a cross-country journey to Las Vegas, where he enters an arm-wrestling contest in the hopes of earning not just money but his son’s respect. The film has the requisite ’80s exercise montage over a Kenny Loggins song. Our favorite scene is when Hawk is lifting weights as he drives. Sure, the arm-wrestling plot is a bit corny, but the father- and-son storyline is truly the heart of the movie.
Quote: “I drive truck, break arms, and arm wrestle. It’s what I love to do; it’s what I do best.” – Bob “Bull” Hurley
“Black Dog” – 1998
Take an old Peterbilt, throw in a cross-country trip carrying illegal weapons, add a side of kidnapping, blackmail and a dash of Meatloaf and you have “Black Dog.” Patrick Swayze stars in this action film as Jack Crews, an ex-felon who takes an “off the record” job from a sketchy new boss hauling toilets in order to avoid foreclosure. Crews finds out the “toilets” are, in reality, illegal weapons and chaos ensues. Attempted hijackings and the kidnapping of Crews’ family, all while being tailed by the FBI and ATF, keep the pace high. We have a soft spot for truck chases and “Black Dog” has them in spades.
Quote: “I’m here to drive.” – Jack Crews
“Maximum Overdrive” – 1986
“Maximum Overdrive” follows a group of people stranded at a truck stop as a mysterious comet passes Earth. While perhaps beautiful in the sky, there’s one problem: The comet’s tail emits a radiation that makes machines come to life … and they’re not happy. The stranded group must band together to survive attacks from some homicidal semis and malicious appliances like lawn mowers and pinball machines. While shooting the film in Wilmington, N.C., the crew built the truck stop and made it look so convincing, several real truck drivers stopped in hoping for a bite to eat. Stephen King wrote the screenplay and made his directorial debut with Emilio Estevez starring. Just remember, the next time a rogue comet streaks past our planet, be nice to your machinery.
Quote: Too much cursing to repeat.
“Convoy” – 1978
Based on C.W. McCall’s country song of the same title, “Convoy” follows the plight of independent driver Martin Penwald (Kris Kristofferson), with the handle “Rubber Duck,” being harassed by a blackmailing cop named Dirty Lyle (Ernest Borgnine). Events and threats escalate and Rubber Duck, tired of the cop’s abuse, gets on the radio and rallies his fellow drivers to create a convoy to evade prosecution in Dirty Lyle’s jurisdiction. The chase is on with the requisite car and tractor wrecks, bar fights and ramming barricades as the convoy grows and makes the national news. Oh, and of course Melissa, a beautiful photographer looking for a ride to the airport (Ali MacGraw), is along for the ride. Burt Reynolds was offered the role of Rubber Duck but turned it down to play Bandit in “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Quote: “Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June / In a Kenworth pullin’ logs / Cab over Pete with a reefer on / And a Jimmy haulin’ hogs” – lyrics from the song “Convoy”
“Big Rig” – 2007
Documentary filmmakers Doug Pray and Brad Blondheim traveled 21,000 miles and through 45 states to discover the truth about America’s “working-class heroes” –over-the-road truck drivers. The filmmakers interviewed several drivers, focusing on their personal and professional lives, and the movie truly cements the idea that truck driving is more than just a profession, it’s a lifestyle. This is a film worth seeing, not only to reaffirm what those in the industry already know but to see the uniqueness of this country’s essential workforce.
Quote: “Without trucks, America goes dead.” – from the documentary “Big Rig”
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