Film - Being Evel

Being Evel

Steve Taylor-Bryant delves into the Thrill category of the BFI London Film Festival and takes a look at what it was like Being Evel…

Director: Daniel Junge

Starring: Robert Craig ‘Evel’ Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, Shelly Saltman

“He’s probably the only man in history who’s become very wealthy by trying to kill himself.” – Johnny Carson.

As a child of the 1970’s it was impossible to not know who Evel Knievel was. As a young child he was everywhere, our comic books and magazines, our lunchboxes and, for some reason, our parents didn’t seem to mind us hero-worshipping a motorcycle daredevil that encouraged us to crash our bicycles in the street and try and jump over our sisters in the garden on our Raleigh Chopper (can’t have just been me). The era of Evel Knievel spawned copycats in the like of the United Kingdom’s Eddie Kidd, encouraged the bravery/insanity of Tony Hawks, and unleashed the likes of Jackass on the future generation of kids. I mention Jackass on purpose as Johnny Knoxville plays a huge part in this documentary, as he remembers the early life and antics of Robert Craig ‘Evel’ Knievel.

Knievel started life in a tough Montana mining town where fighting and prostitution were the main pastimes and, after his parents divorced and moved away, he was raised by his grandparents but remained angry at the world for him not being allowed to live with his father. He had a troubled childhood due to his inability to back down when maybe he should and, as a younger man, he mixed crime into his job as a ‘security specialist’ which was basically a racketeering scam and the police nicknamed him Evil which he changed to Evel and so the moniker came to be. He kidnapped a girl from school he liked and rode to another town where they married and gave up crime for other more respectable jobs. He was an insurance salesman, and a very good one, but couldn’t get promoted so left to become a motorbike salesman. When he thought the dealership needed an event to improve sales, he decided to do a motorbike jump over Cougars and Rattlesnakes, a jump that he missed and sent wild snakes out into the crowd but Knievel was bitten by the bug and decided to become a motorcycle stuntman with his own travelling show.

The early days were hard. The stunts were complex and dangerous but motorcycle stunts as a pastime was relatively unheard of and so he couldn’t attract a crowd which in turn was leading to debt. ABC’s Wide World of Sports was the biggest show on television at the time and Knievel in 1967 managed to talk himself onto the show and jumped 15 vehicles. He wanted his fame to grow and conned news networks and the owner of Caesar’s Palace into coming to cover his latest stunt of jumping the fountains outside the casino. The stunt went horribly wrong but even from his hospital bed with a crushed pelvis, broken ankles, damaged wrist and the like he was still working his own press leaking reports of near death and a coma that made him the world’s most famous man.

Whilst his stunts and personality are lauded by his fans in the film, his personal life and erratic behaviour is also covered. The baseball bat attack on his business partner, the string of affairs that hurt his marriage, and his near obsession with his image are fascinating to see as a man who grew up idolising ‘the legend’ but unfortunately not covered in equal depth to the ‘what a guy’ moments and the people who laugh off his indiscretions as that was what Knievel was like. To those that idolise a celebrity in today’s world, they can probably understand that sort of blind obsession with someone, they don’t care how talentless or criminal their heroes are. But Evel was talented, he was jumping motorcycles that weighed nearly half a ton, with no scientific equipment to risk assess the dangers, and landing most of them. He was however quite a shallow man, and to know that and see it laid out in the film, however much Knoxville et al laugh it off, has tainted the image I had of Evel Knievel and has made me think about how wrapped up in image we can get.

That is the point of a great documentary though isn’t it? To make you think after having certain facts displayed to you, and Being Evel does just that, interspersed with some fascinating archive footage and a slow motion look at that Caesar’s Palace crash from different angles. The film made me remember and smile, the film made sad, and the film made me wince with pain and thank my lucky stars that I am now too old and fat to go jumping about on my bicycle, not that my sister would sit under the ramp any more I don’t think.

Image - Official Site.