The calendar said the 1960s were a year gone, but the cultural, social, and political tides of the decade still flowed in full force. In 1968, Richard Nixon had campaigned on a promise to extract the U.S. from the war in Vietnam, but the withdrawal would be so gradual that more American soldiers would be lost after his election than before (the last U.S. combat troops wouldn’t leave until 1973, after Nixon’s re-election in 1972 on the same vow). By the beginning of the 1970s, discontent over the war was epidemic and polls showed an overwhelming majority of Americans considered the war a mistake. The escalating brutality of the war, epitomized by the My Lai massacre, and its ever-rising cost in American lives, particularly in a conflict which increasingly came to be seen as pointless, had been a shockingly disillusioning experience for the country. Equally traumatic was how the war had been an accelerant poured on long-simmering hot spots in the national body politic. Throughout the 1960s, dozens of American cities had been racked by race riots. Women, gays, Native Americans went into the streets to protest their relegation to the lower tiers of the American social hierarchy. It was, some wrote, a period of the greatest social upheaval for the country since the Civil War.
Polarization was as radical but frightfully more militant than it is today: blacks facing off against whites, hippy youth against the older hard hat crowd, men against women…the list went on and on. For every “anti” movement there was a reactionary “pro” and vice versa, and it was not unusual for protests to escalate beyond name-calling across picket lines, to thrown fists, tear gas, fire hoses and police dogs. One of the saddest milestones of the period was the “police riot” outside the 1968 Democratic Convention when police lost control and went after a fleet of protestors carrying placards on every issue under the sun. Time would later reflect on those last, turbulent years of the 1960s, when it seamed like every seam in the American fabric was unraveling, as “…verging on a national nervous breakdown.”
The key demographic in much of the protesting was the country’s young people. They were, after all, the ones tasked with fighting the war (the war was fought primarily by draftees), yet had no voice in the politics behind it (the first combat troops had been sent to Vietnam in 1965, but the voting age remained 21 until July 1971 when it was lowered to 18). For them the war had sparked a generational reappraisal of the difference between the American myth and the American reality: that the land in which all men were supposedly recognized as being created equal still treated blacks as second-class citizens, thought women still belonged in the kitchen, had essentially committed genocide against Native Americans, had engineered coups and assassinations overseas…that, in short, America wasn’t always the Good Guy.
In fact, it could sometimes be the Bad Guy against its own citizens.
Nearly every major issue on the minds of the younger generation found its way into the movies. In his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Biskind outlines a perfect storm of circumstances which produced one of the most creative periods in American commercial filmmaking, and one marked by a parade of movies grappling with the issues of the day. According to Biskind, there was a new, young generation of production execs replacing the dead or retiring generation of Old Hollywood moguls, who, in turn, granted unprecedented creative freedom to an equally new, young generation of filmmakers, who, in turn, were culturally plugged into the sensibilities and concerns of their young audience. Deconstructionism and revisionism of American myths became the go-to storytelling tools of the day.
All this in mind, it’s no surprise that a recurring trope in movies of the day was The Rebel: the maverick, the outsider, the rule-breaker and outlaw, the social outcast and oddball cutting against the social norms of mindless conformity and systemic hypocrisy, becoming a truer symbol of the American spirit than the false idols of the status quo. Among them: A Thousand Clowns (1965), Cool Hand Luke (1966), A Fine Madness (1966), The Graduate (1967), The Flim-Flam Man (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), If… (1968), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Alice’s Restaurant (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), MASH (1970)…
And in 1971, Vanishing Point.
It is not among the best of them…but its potency at the time might have been it was among the most fun. It was, after all, essentially one, long car chase starring one of the all-time classic cool cars: the Dodge Challenger.
Kowalski is a car delivery driver who, on ferrying a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco kicks off a police pursuit that crosses three states and turns a disaffected Vietnam vet, disillusioned police officer, failed motorcycle racer into a cause celebre. Most vocal celebrator of the cause is blind, black DJ Super Soul:
“And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west!…The police numbers are getting’ close, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul-mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape…the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”
I would be hard put to call Vanishing Point the best of the Rebel With a Cause movie of the time, and reviewers of the time didn’t have much love for it, and it’s probably more noteworthy as an artifact of its time rather than classic cinema. Nonetheless, it certainly pushed the right buttons in the young audience, grossing almost $12.5 million domestic against a budget of $1.6 million to become director Richard C. Sarafian’s biggest hit (using an average 1971 ticket price of $1.65 to calculate admissions multiplied by 2019 average ticket prices, that comes out to the equivalent of a current box office of around $70 million, enough to put it in the top 40 movies of last year).
I often use the movie in screenwriting, creative writing, and even freshman composition courses as an example of how to write symbolic and allegorical works because Vanishing Point is absolutely rife with Biblical and mythological allusions, and they’re not particularly subtle either (a desert preacher named J. Hovah; two redneck cops framed with two jackasses). The screenplay is credited to Guillermo Cain, a pseudonym for Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a noted novelist and essayist considered part of the same class of Latin American literary figures as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Infante’s bio is the decryption key to the adamant anti-authoritarianism of the movie. The Cuban-born Infante had been a Castro supporter, but a few years after Castro came to power, Infante fell out of favor with the regime. He eventually turned full anti-Castro, going into exile in 1965.
Because the movie is so easy to decode once you understand just how much a product of its time and author it is, I’ve found it a useful tool with young students who’ve rarely – if at all – been exposed to non-literal works. Not too many Marvel-verse or DC-verse movies go in for that sort of thing, and mainstream commercial American cinema since the 1980s has hardly been noted for topicality. I’ve also found the assignment of a kind of movie geek’s anthropological interest to see how this culty hit from the 1970s plays for a modern-day young viewer for whom the era seems as distant and irrelevant as, say, the Spanish-American War (yes, there was such a thing).