FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
I've just reviewed Roger Zelazny's 1969 book DAMNATION ALLEY in this post, prefatory to watching the 1977 adaptation. As many earlier reviewers have mentioned, one of the most interesting aspects of ALLEY is not the movie itself, but the fact that its studio 20th-Century Fox believed that it would be their big SF-hit for the year. Instead the monster hit turned out to be Lucas' STAR WARS, the sequels to which Lucas would own outright. When ALLEY arrived in theaters in October 1977, its old-fashioned FX alone would have killed its chances at the box office. The film's poor pace and bland characters certainly didn't help, though.
I find myself speculating as to why the Fox executives had faith in ALLEY, and my best guess is that they thought it might be a big hit not because of the source material-- which was far from a best-seller and which the final script barely evoked-- but because director Jack Smight had just finished two successful mainstream films, 1974's AIRPORT 1975 and 1976's MIDWAY. Perhaps the executives thought that the appeal of science fiction for contemporary audiences was comparable to that of the then-popular disaster films. There are some common overlaps between the two at times, but if Smight and his scripters were thinking in "disaster-movie" terms, this was certainly the worst possible approach for DAMNATION ALLEY.
At that time it would have been difficult for a big-budget film to have translated Zelazny's mean-ass hero Hell Tanner into cinematic reality. So it's not that surprising that the Zelazny hero becomes a bland soldier-boy named Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is a little bit of a rebel but largely defers to his commanding officer Denton (George Peppard). But nothing excuses the vacillating plot. The novel gives the hero an epic task: in order to deliver a needed vaccine to plague-ridden Boston, former Hell's Angel Hell Tanner must cross the perilous "Damnation Alley" in his super-car. In place of this, the movie's heroes still must cross the Alley, shielded by a mammoth vehicle called "the Landmaster," which is one of the few elements of the film for which some viewers have expressed nostalgia. But since the nuclear cataclysm has only happened two years ago, the motive for the crossing is simply to make contact with the city of Albany, the only place from which Denton and his comrades have received radio signals. This desire to reconnect with representatives of one's lost culture can be dramatically satisfying, as it was in 1959's THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL. But Smight and his scripters evoke no pathos from Denton and Tanner's quest. It all seems rather casual, even when they're fighting killer storms and diseased hillbillies.
The only part of the film that I liked-- and the only place where Vincent's Jake channels a little bit of Zelazny's Hell-- is a moment where a motorcycle-riding Jake is traversing the desert sands on his way back to his installation, only to be besieged by giant scorpions. The scorpion-FX aren't overly impressive, and the sequence can be critiqued for faking out the audience-- i.e., Jake dumps a real actress off the back of his motorcycle, leaving her to the scorpions, and in a "cheat' unworthy of chapterplay-serials, it's revealed that "she" is really a mannequin. But this was the only place where Jake seems like a proper apocalypse-hero.
As the emphasis in the script is less upon the adventurous striving of the hero, and more upon the suffering of the beleaguered protagonists, I categorize ALLEY as a drama, not an adventure.