I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Freedom Road

tn_freedomroadTime for a little history lesson. Not about the American post-slavery period known as Reconstruction (which is what this movie is about) but about TV movies. It’s hard for young people to wrap their heads around now, but there was a time when TV movies actually could be big events, a major shared element of our culture. This was when there were only a few channels, and none of them were SyFy, and movies about giant komodo dragons or snakes were not yet common. Believe it or not there were even sometimes TV movies where the people making them actually tried to do a good job. In fact, there were honest to God movies on TV that put some theatrical films to shame, like Spielberg’s DUEL and Carpenter’s SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME. Of course, most of them weren’t as good as that, but alot of them were at least memorable. In the ’70s and ’80s there were true crime movies to creep the shit out of us, like THE HILLSIDE STRANGLERS, THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, I KNOW MY FIRST NAME IS STEVEN. Or if you want to get real frightening there was the nuclear war movie THE DAY AFTER.

1979’s 4-hour mini-series FREEDOM ROAD fits into the Important Historical Epics category like ROOTS or SHOGUN or I WILL FIGHT NO MORE FOREVER or some James A. Michener type shit. It’s about a man who goes from a slave to a soldier to a delegate to an educated black man to a senator and freedom fighter uniting former slaves with lower class whites to stand up against racist politicians and thugs and create a stable life for themselves. But the main reason to watch it is the star: Muhammad Ali. mp_freedomroadThat’s right, the champ plays Gideon Jackson, a slave who escapes to fight with the Yankees. He doesn’t have a quarrel with no Viet Cong, but he does with the Confederates, who did call him the n-word. After the war he comes home and is appointed a delegate. He goes to the convention where he meets Ron SUPER FLY O’Neal playing an educated, wealthy black man of the North who helps Gideon learn how to read. He also meets a white man who invites him to dinner to meet other former slave owners and “help change their minds.” Really this asshole wants to show the racists what they’re up against. And right there they hatch a conspiracy to infiltrate the Democratic party and push for their racist ways. (Kind of funny to see all these references to the Democrats being the open racists and the Republicans being pro-black. When did they decide to switch, anyway?)

Gideon goes home and thinks up a more righteous plan. He knows to truly be free they have to own the land they live on. He convinces his friends and neighbors – including “white trash” sharecropper Kris Kristofferson – to work on the railroads, pool their money, team with a white investor who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and buy their land at auction. It’s a great idea – former slaves educating themselves and becoming the owners of the land where they were once forced to work.

But of course the racists aren’t gonna let this go without a fight, so there are various clashes with the Klan and it’s all leading up to a showdown when the sheriff tries to claim there was a mistake and they don’t own the land. Gideon knew they would try some bullshit like this and he convinces everybody to stay and fight.

When this aired in October of ’79 Ali had already retired as champion and had not yet had his sad 1980 return to the ring. It’s amazing to see him going around in a stove pipe hat and wearing a fake grey beard in the later scenes. To be honest Ali, in my opinion, is better at boxing than acting. I would not necessarily say that he is the Greatest of All Time on the stage and screen. He does not emote like a butterfly. But man, it’s fuckin cool to see him in this movie. There’s something perfect about the boxer who surprised everybody playing the slave who became a senator. Ironically, his poor reading and writing skills almost kept him out of the draft in real life. In the movie getting educated brought him places in life, in reality it was the lowering of the standards that got him drafted – at which point he refused to go, and his legend became bigger than ever.

mp_freedomroadIt’s also great to see him teamed with his real life friend Kris Kristofferson (who apparently coached his acting a little). Both of them are sort of unlikely counterculture icons – the boxer turned defiant activist, the West Point teacher turned drunken songwriter. Both of them poets, both of them somehow becoming movie stars along the way (well, mostly Kristofferson, but Ali starred in this one. That counts).

In the movie Kristofferson is reluctant to get involved, but he’s obviously very decent and honorable so he naturally becomes very loyal to Gideon. Having a black/white team this close to slavery might seem like wishful thinking, but man, it’s Kris Kristofferson. I buy it. These are the two guys I would choose to lead me down Freedom Road. And I definitely did follow them through this movie. Without them it might not hold up too well. Although some version apparently played theatrically in Europe it definitely feels made-for-TV. It’s epic but not exactly cinematic. But man, put Ali and Kristofferson in a movie, there’s no way it’s not watchable. I had no trouble getting through two tapes of this.

(but it turns out it's coming to DVD next month)
(but it turns out it’s coming to DVD next month)

. . . . .

Recommended further reading:

Here’s a vintage TV Guide article about the movie, which includes crazy anecdotes about Ali being friends with Elvis Presley and Christopher Lee.

And while we’re at it here’s the beginning of an outstanding Rolling Stone article about Kristofferson, written by Ethan Hawke of all people. You gotta get the magazine to find out about Kristofferson landing a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s yard to hand him a demo tape and other great tales, but here at least you get a knockout opening story where he disses Toby Keith in true Whistler fashion.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 7th, 2010 at 2:33 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

31 Responses to “Freedom Road”

  1. Kristofferson is a real man’s man in every true sense. I like that he an old man was willing to whip Tobey Keith’s younger buttercup ass. Really wish the Left were more like Kris and less John Lennon in confronting those assholes, if you get my drift.

    Anyway Vern, I dare you sometime to sit through and review HEAVEN’S GATE. All 3 and half hours. I recommend you watch it piecemeal instead of all at once.

    A movie with a pace that doesn’t give a shit if you or anyone is with it (which is most folks), a decent cast, some good moments, and great cinematography. A big budget “Red” socialist western. Oh I love irony.

    So yeah I defend that disaster. Whether one hates it or thinks its not as bad as its reputation*, cinemaphiles should see it once just because of how important that movie is in the history of Hollywood, even if its for infany.

    *=Its considered a classic in Europe and Japan.

  2. Also, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” is by a considerable margin the greatest hangover song ever written. This doesn’t seem like all that amazing an achievement until you’re really hungover one day and you realize that there’s only one song in the history of the universe that won’t make your ears bleed.

  3. Majestyk,

    I will have to look that one next next time I’m hungover (read: this weekend). Now you’ve made me wonder… what are some other good hangover songs/movies/shows/etc that people recommend?

    One of my favorite hangover movies is EL DORADO, for my money just about one of the most entertaining westerns ever filmed. The key is that during the movie, John Wayne forces an alcoholic Robert Mitchum to stop drinking, so when you’re hungover you spend the rest of the film right there with Mitchum, feeling like shit but trying to pull through and be a man. If you time it right and start the movie in the early afternoon, you start to feel better right around the same time that Mitchum pulls himself together, and it’s like you’ve been through a harrowing experience with him and come out on the other end stronger.

    If you’re a bigger RIO BRAVO fan (which EL DORADO is essentially a remake of), then that works too, but personally I find it a little too long to hold my hangover attention span. Plus, in my book, the combination of Robert Mitchum and James Caan as the sidekicks in EL DORADO is way, way better than Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in RIO BRAVO.

  4. Have you seen the Harmony Gold miniseries _Shaka Zulu_ yet, Vern? I’d dearly love to see your commentary on that. (It was made back during this era, for TBS if I’m not mistaken. It was released on DVD a few years back–I own a copy–so it ought to be Netflixable.)

  5. The last big deal TV miniseries that I remember was that Dinotopia whihc was supposedly going to usher in a new age of technology, beat Jurassic Park at it’s own game, all that kind of stuff. And then the miniseries was a four (or six or eight) cheesefest with lousy effects and crappy acting.

  6. Wow , now I’ve got a lot of things to order on the internet : 2 documentaries and a TV movie . I hate buying on the ‘net , the last time the Italian mail system lost my copy of “Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows” and I had to order another one . I want to watch this right after “Glory”.

  7. CallMeKermiT,

    I just dusted off my VHS copy of “Wrestling With Shadows” this past weekend so I could show it to my nephews before Bret Hart made his WWE return this past Monday. It is a great documentary even if you aren’t a fan of Bret Hart or pro wrestling.

  8. Charles : I’ve heard that Bret’s back with the WWE , now , but I didn’t see his return . I will watch that RAW episode when I get the chance . I’m an on/off wrestling fan , mainly because Italian programming is random at best . I was watching WWF as a child from Hogan-Warrior to the beginning of Bret-Stone Cold period , then the programming stopped here for a while . Italy then re-started the programming of Smackdown with the rise of Eddie Guerrero , and stopped again with all the Benoit issue . Now I really want to see how this story goes on , it’s really one the great real life dramas of wrestling.

  9. When is “Amerika” coming to DVD. I’ll bet that is a steaming turd.

  10. I used to see this movie all the time at my local video rental store… never got round to picking it up. I guess it would be pretty difficult to get my hands on now.

    Incidentally I watched a Kris Kristofferson documentary recently and he used to be a boxer too… so thats another thing he had in common with Ali. He said that someone hit him really hard in a bout so he jacked it in.

  11. CallMeKermiT – Bret Hart isn’t just back in the WWE, he shook hands with Shawn Michaels and buried that Montreal Screwjob hatchet.

    BTW, hell froze over.

    Part 1
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGBVmmOpgxU&feature=related

    Part 2
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WNtwgaIzV0

  12. CallMeKermiT,

    Bret’s RAW return was very well done. Seeing Shawn & Bret in the ring together was something I thought I would never see again. I would imagine you could find a clip of it on Youtube. It is worth checking out.

  13. Kris Kristofferson is a certified badass. Ali was not the best actor, but as far as athletes turned actors go I would say Jim Brown is one of the best. Vern have you ever seen the Jim Brown documentary by Spike Lee? If not I would highly recommend it.

  14. Ali and Kristofferson being friends makes me wonder what Ali would have been like as the original 1970s version of Blade:
    http://cloudninecomics.com/coverartwork/tomb_of_dracula_10_8.0.jpg

  15. This review made me realize that my mental image of Vern is not as a Yeti or Sam Elliot or Bearded Harold but as Kris Kristofferson.

  16. Stu: That would have added a few layers of incredibly cool subtext to his friendship with Christopher Lee!

  17. Gwai Lo- Hey, Vern said he wanted either Kris or Nolte playing him in a movie, so there you. Didn’t I see you in a talkback at Chud about the best comic book movies? It’s nice to see a familiar face in those foreign waters.

  18. RRA , Charles : Thanks guys , I’ve seen the segments this morning during breakfast . And Oh My God that was amazing . HBK and the Hitman in the ring together again ? That was unbelievable . I think Shawn was very, very emotional . When I watch Wrestling with Shadows I always get the feeling that Vince obviously knew , Triple H knew what was going to happen , but not Shawn. Look at his face when he stands up at the end of the match. The part with Vince and Bret on the last RAW was obviously staged , especially the ending . And I think that this year , at Wrestlemania , it will be Bret vs Vince !

  19. CallMeKermiT – Google up (if possible) the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s entire report on the Screwjob saga, why and how it happened in full-depth detail. I believe its there on the Bret Hart website.

    If that respected rag is to be believed, Shawn Michaels knew all about the scheme. Shit apparently it was ole Triple H who thought it up. Allegedly they and Vince ganged up on the friday before Survivor Series and orchestrated in detail the Screwjob along with other WWF officials (like the referee).

    I liked that Hart/HBK meeting at Raw because both guys from their perspective were right. A worker leaving a promotion traditionally does it on his back (i.e. lose), and Hart refused to drop the belt to a guy he felt didn’t respect him enough. And HBK was a total dickhead. A real lose-lose situation for both sides, though WWF long term “won.”

    That scandal helped mold Vince the supervillain CEO (“Bret screwed Bret!!”), and Hart wasn’t the critical WWF-defection that WCW thought would break Vince. In Hart’s absence (followed by Michaels’ own shortly afterwards from a spine injury), you had new superstars take over the main event. Austin, Rock, Triple H, etc.

    Yeah Kermit, It’ll be Vince/Bret at Wrestlemania. But since Bret some years back had a stroke, I sincerely doubt he’ll be wrestling or doing anything physical. It’ll be more like his three picked wrestlers (his niece/nephews in the Hart Dynasty) against Vince’s wrestlers.

  20. Oh, caution: DO NOT MISTAKE THE ORIGINAL SHAKA ZULU MINISERIES FOR THE “CITADEL” SERIES!!

    Apparently in 2001, one of the writers for the original (and awesome) Shaka miniseries decided to capitalize on Cele’s popularity as Shaka by writing a new miniseries that turns Shaka into a sort of avenging rebel slave superhero. That was “Citadel”; later compressed to a 90 minute movie called “The Last Warrior”. Sure, there’s kind of an appeal to seeing Grace Kelly as a Zulu Queen, but the story is approximately the same as if Genghis Khan had been captured to be a slave in India but then escaped to do play Rambo for a while.

    On second thought, that miniseries is so stunningly awfully crazy in its ideas and execution, it might be entertaining the other way around. Come to think of it, watch that first; and then go back to the original miniseries. (Sort of on the rule of “never drink down”. {g})

    The original miniseries appears to have been cut down to a film, too; which I suppose I’d avoid, but just because the full story is more worthwhile.

  21. CallMeKermiT & RRA,

    You should check out the excellent “The Shawn Michaels Story: Heartbreak & Triumph” DVD set. It has a great feature on Shawn’s career that surprisingly doesn’t pull any punches. In it Shawn is very candid about his personal demons and his problems with drugs. In one of the best parts of the feature he goes on record as being the mastermind behind the Montreal screw job. If I remember correctly he even goes into details about how they hatched the plan. I was completely shocked the first time I watched it. It is pretty captivating stuff.

  22. RRA , Charles :Well , you can’t be right all the time ! I knew the Wrestling Observer coverage , but I’ve never seen Heartbreak & Triumph . If you read all the different versions , in some of them the mastermind is Vince , in others Triple H , and in others Shawn . Plus , with wrestling you never know when they’re in character or not . I know that Triple H and Shawn are longtime friends ( they even had a behind the scenes group called The Kliq), but I always respected Shawn more than the other 2 , the owner and the husband of the owner’s daughter .
    But if Shawn said that , well , in this case he obviously knew . Regarding Wrestlemania , RRA , I hope to see a fight between Vince and Bret . They’re both old , so maybe , the match will be less technical and more hardcore , you know , no Sharpshooter and lots of chairs in the face . After all , Vince had a match like that at Wrestlemania against Shawn , a while back. Damn , we’re Smart !

  23. Brendan – re: CHUD, probably. I like to troll Faraci (in a civilized manner of course) a bit when I notice his head lodged up his own ass. Welcome to Vern’s sight, the atmosphere here is a lot more cordial!

  24. “To be honest Ali, in my opinion, is better at boxing than acting.”

    Vern, sometimes I think you say this crazy-ass shit just to get a reaction. You’re a virtual bomb-thrower with your inflammatory opinions.

    DUEL is motherfucking fantastic. I watched it recently with BREAKDOWN (which is one of those movies that gets called “underrated” so often it’s now officially overrated) and it was no contest. BREAKDOWN had J.T. Walsh and was entertaining enough, but DUEL is non-stop tension. And it was made fast on a TV budget by a young nobody director. He had some real potential, that guy.

  25. Everybody, please pretend that only the word “fast” is in italics. Thank you.

    I hate you, html.

  26. I gotta second the recommendation of HEAVEN’S GATE. I unapologetically love that movie.

  27. I’ve always found it interesting that GETTYSBURG was originally meant to be a TV miniseries, until Ted Turner realized that they had made a TV miniseries that was too good for TV…

  28. BrianB – Its reasons like that why I miss Ted Turner. Crazy egomaniac redneck billionaire, but dammit he loved being a redneck.

    Yeah he surely lost money on GETTYSBURG, but shit man that was a well-made red investment.

    Sad though that he also bankrolled John Milius’ last movie. I mean why wont the NEoCons give John funding?

  29. […] kritikus Vern dari OutlawVern, akting Ali biasa saja. Namun melihat petinju berjuluk "The Greatest of All Time" […]

  30. To answer your question about when the Democratic Party stopped persecuting African-Americans, that took place right about 1900.
    The Republican Party always supported Civil Rights, but a statement by a Republican governor in the 1950s was taken out of context by the media to make it seem as if the Republican Party was not sympathetic to Civil Rights, and the myth has continued to this day.

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