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Laramie Movie Scope:
Being Evel

The true story of Evel Knievel

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 16, 2015 -- This movie is a warts-and-all tribute to an American original, a self-made professional daredevil, promotional genius, con man, womanizer, bully and superhero who inspired a whole generation of extreme sports stars. He is a unique, and fascinating man.

With lots of archival footage, a lot of interviews with people who knew him, the film follows the life of Robert Craig Knievel from the rough mining town of Butte, Montana, to fame and fortune in Hollywood and Las Vegas, to his sudden reversal of fortune and gradual decline, to his return to Butte, where his is buried.

There is a very revealing story in the film about Evel as a young boy (the Butte Police nicknamed him “Evil” Knievel and Knievel liked the name, and changed his name, but altered the spelling). Another boy punched him in the face and knocked him out. He woke up, got up, and ran at a door hitting it with his head. He turned around and told the boy who had hit him, “You can't hurt me! Nobody can hurt me!”

Those who knew him in Butte, tell of a boy who, like others in this town, settled disputes with his fists. He ran a sort of protection racket, doing patrols of local businesses at night, checking to see if doors were locked and such. At least that's what he did if you paid him. If you didn't pay, you might just find your store burgled.

A born salesman, Evel went to work selling insurance, and was very good at it. He later sold motorcycles for a Honda dealership. He came up with a sales and promotional stunt for the dealership in which he would jump a motorcycle over cougars and rattlesnakes. He landed about three feet short knocking the angry rattlesnakes out of their box. People in the crowd ran for their lives.

Even though the jump failed, Evel was inspired to start up his own daredevil motorcycle stunt show, coming up with all sorts of stunts, like riding through flaming barriers. Deep in debt, most of his team quit when he could not pay them, but Evel soldiered on. He couldn't draw big crowds because he was doing something new and people didn't know who he was. He needed national exposure.

Evel came up with a proposal to get his name known across the nation. He proposed a big ramp-to-ramp jump, about 90 feet over 15 cars at Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles on the same day as a big motorcycle race, covered by ABC television's popular sports variety show, Wide World of Sports. He made the jump successfully, and millions instantly became aware of him, but needed a bigger stunt to become better known.

That's when he hit upon the crazy idea of jumping over the fountains at Cesar's Palace resort in Las Vegas. He hustled his way into the jump in con man mode, making several calls to the resort manager using different aliases and even mispronouncing his own name when referring to himself. The trouble is, he didn't know exactly how fast to go to clear the distance. He had promoted the stunt without doing any test runs, but that wasn't all that unusual for Evel. Once he said he would do something, he did it. He just went for it.

The resulting crash, with Evel's body bouncing around like a rag doll, became one of the most watched videos of all time. He sustained numerous broken bones and other serious injuries, but Evel, ever the promoter, played it up even bigger, claiming to be hurt even worse than he was to get maximum publicity out of his spectacular fall. He knew that maybe the public didn't want to see him die in a crash, but they sure didn't want to miss witnessing it if he did die in a spectacular crash.

Evel was on his way, shrewdly working promotional deals with companies like Ideal Toys, Mack Trucks and Harley Davidson motorcycles, he quickly became a multimillionaire. His most spectacular stunt, the 1974 Snake River Canyon jump (he wanted to jump the Grand Canyon, but the National Park Service wouldn't let him) is covered in some detail in the movie, including a secret practice run. In both practice runs, and the much publicized stunt itself, the parachute deployed prematurely. The steam-powered rocket vehicle landed in the bottom of the canyon every time.

By this time, Evel, on pain killers and alcohol, unhinged by his own fame and fortune, had become antagonistic towards the press and even abusive to his own friends and family. As a result, the press turned on him, and even some of his own team publicly blamed him for the failure of the Snake River jump. He was labeled a fraud.

He tried to redeem himself by jumping over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in 1975, but that resulted in another spectacular crash and even more injuries. Although he announced his retirement from motorcycle stunts, he wasn't done yet. He made his longest successful jump ever, 133 feet, over 14 buses at Kings Island theme park near Cincinnati, Ohio later that same year.

Angry over a book written about him by Snake River jump promoter Shelly Saltman, he assaulted Saltman with a baseball bat, breaking his arm (despite the fact that Evel and his lawyers had read and approved the book prior to publication). He pled guilty to assault and was given a light jail sentence in 1977, but lost all his endorsement deals and soon declared bankruptcy.

He was a broken man, literally (over 400 bone fractures in his career) and figuratively, but Evel was not a man to stay down for long. While he would break no more records with long motorcycle jumps again, he would once again have success as a promoter for himself and his motorcycle daredevil son, Robby Knievel.

According to the movie, Evel sought redemption in his later years, apologizing to his first wife for his many affairs, and to his friends and co-workers that he had mistreated. Afflicted with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and suffering from severe pain as a result of his many injuries, he became increasingly debilitated in his old age.

But even those who don't follow extreme sports know of Evel Knievel, who was featured on seven of the 10 top-rated TV shows in the 37-year history of Wide World of Sports, who starred in his own movie, “Viva Knievel” and who was portrayed by actor George Hamilton in the 1971 movie “Evel Knievel” (Hamilton, an executive producer of this documentary, says in the movie that Evel put a gun to his head when he declined to read him the movie script for the film “Evel Knievel” before it was made). Evel made numerous TV and movie appearances. He made himself into an American icon.

Directed by Daniel Junge and produced by stunt star and actor Johnny Knoxville, who also acts as a narrator and host (also a producer of this documentary) it also includes statements from today's stars of extreme sports about how they were inspired by Evel. Knievel's example led the to the creation of a new multi billion dollar extreme sports industry. Knoxville in no way tries to hide his admiration for Knievel, despite his many flaws and the evil things he did to people.

This isn't just a documentary, it is a tribute, even though it doesn't shy away from depicting Evel's dark side. There have been other documentary films about Evel, such as the seldom seen “The Last of the Gladiators” in 1988, and the good 2007 British television documentary “Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel” (which can be streamed for free on the Internet, and is a good companion show to see with this documentary) but “Being Evel” is probably more complete since it covers the span of Evel's entire life in more detail than the others. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2015 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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