Last July 15th I ran a column piece about a very tangy and well-respected redneck race-car movie called The Last American Hero (1973), which was directed and co-written by Lamont Johnson. Hero didn’t do much business and kind of sank beneath the waves after its initial release, and it hadn’t been seen on laser disc or DVD since, and I was pushing for Fox Home Video to think about releasing a DVD now. Hero was loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about one-time moonshine smuggler and stock-car racer Junior Johnson. Wolfe’s piece was called “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” The movie is about a guy named Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) who’s more or less content to smuggle illegal hooch until he gets pinched and his soul-weary dad (Art Lund) persuades him to think twice, and he eventually uses his car-racing skills to break into stock-car racing. Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ed Lauter, Gary Busey and Valerie Perrine were among the costars.
There’s no question that Johnson’s film was widely admired (nearly all the serious film critics got behind it, especially Pauline Kael). And its influence in Hollywood circles seems hard to deny, its commercial failure aside, for the simple fact that it was the only backwoods-moon- shine movie at the time that was seriously respected for what it was, as opposed to being (nominally) respected for what it earned. When I called Fox Home Video’s public-relations guy on 7.14 to ask about potential DVD plans for Hero, he asked, “This is ours? It’s a Fox movie?” Yeah, it’s a Fox movie, I said. Fox has the rights. “We produced it?” Yeah, Fox produced it in ’73, I said, and Fox Home Video put it out as a VHS in ’97. Anyway, it’s a little more than four months later, and coincidentally or not, Fox Home Video has just announced that The Last American Hero will come out on DVD on Feburary 7.