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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Great Smokey Roadblock (The Last Of The Cowboys) (Blu-ray)
The Great Smokey Roadblock (The Last Of The Cowboys) (Blu-ray)
Code Red // PG // August 14, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 15, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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Smokey and the Bandit meets Ikiru in The Last of the Cowboys (1978), an unusual modern Western-road movie apparently retitled The Great Smokey Roadblock in a futile attempt to lure fans of the blockbuster Burt Reynolds comedy, which this only faintly resembles.

It was Henry Fonda's penultimate starring movie (On Golden Pond followed), made when the actor was already suffering from prostate cancer and an irregular heartbeat. Some sources insist that shooting began as early as 1974, while others insist it was filmed in 1976, the latter apparently correct.

It's an ambitious, character-driven film notable for its strong cast and generally good performances, along with scattered memorable moments, but first-time writer-director John Leone, in his mid-20s at the time, overloads the narrative with too many eccentrics and spends too much time away from Fonda to focus on them. Still, it's not a bad first feature.

Many in the cast had recently done important films and/or would move on to bigger things. Susan Sarandon, who has a small role, had already appeared in Joe and co-produced. Eileen Brennan (The Last Picture Show), Valerie Curtain (All the President's Men), Mews Small (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and others had recently done important films, while Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street), Melanie Mayron (thirtysomething), Gary Sandy (WKRP in Cincinnati) were on the ascent.

Lifelong trucker Elegant John (Fonda) is terminally ill with cancer, unhappily lying in a hospital bed, his ballooning medical expenses having led to the repossession of his beloved semi, Eleanor, named after the former First Lady. Determined to make one final cross-country haul, he sneaks out of the hospital and steals back his truck. After picking up a hitchhiker, Beebo Crozier (Robert Englund), in the desert, he finds a load of refrigerators to haul, but the shipper cancels at the last-minute, aghast Elegant John is driving a stolen, license-revoked vehicle.

Instead, the pair heads to Wyoming, where E.J. visits old flame Penelope (Eileen Brennan), madam of a backwoods brothel, and rekindles their romance, she quickly aware of just how sick Elegant John is. Her den of iniquity having been shut down by local cops, he offers to take Penelope and her prostitutes (Daina House, Leigh French, Melanie Mayron, Susan Sarandon, Mews Small) to the Atlantic coast, effectively making them his final haul.

However, police are on their tail, eventually aided by obnoxious fellow trucker Charlie La Pere (Gary Sandy), who covets Elegant John's wheels. Can they evade arrest and make it cross-country before Elegant John dies?

As with On Golden Pond, life imitates art in The Last of the Cowboys, with Fonda nearly as sick and frail as the character he's playing. (Reportedly shooting had to be halted for a time, owing to Fonda's ill-health.) In the movie there's a scene where Elegant John wakes up in the middle of night, writhing in pain. Not wanting to disturb bedmate Penelope, he wanders off to a nearby pond, splashing water on his face but that doesn't help, leaving him huddled in fetal positioned-agony. It's a disturbingly authentic moment, perhaps drawn from Fonda's own recent health woes.

In real life, Fonda was notoriously emotionally distant and circumspect, and some of this is reflected in his performance. Like the traditional movie cowboy, Elegant John is basically a loner, and loathe to verbalize his troubles with lovers and close friends, let alone veritable strangers, so the character's emotions go largely unstated, read only in Fonda's face, cool and collected some of the time, reflecting an almost childlike terror elsewhere.

Though obviously cheap (probably made for less than $1 million) it appears that Fonda's reputation and the character-rich parts attracted its strong, mostly younger cast. There's a good (not great) role for Eileen Brennan, and while the six prostitutes are basically stereotypes, the young actresses and Brennan create a lived-in sense of surrogate family, women used to and comfortable around one another.

The picture spends too much time with the girls and not enough time with Fonda, or in developing Elegant John's paternal-like relationship with Beebo. In the last act, Leone really goes overboard adding yet more mildly crazy characters, including two hangers-on played by Austin Pendleton and John Byner. The frequently awkward script doesn't work in a lot of ways, the story has little momentum, some of the transitions jerk characters from one scene to another, and it never truly gets inside Elegant John's head as it might, but it deserves points for trying as hard as it does. It's not the cheap, junky movie it was sold as.

Video & Audio

Filmed for 1.85:1 projection, The Last of the Cowboys was produced independently and picked up by bush-league exploitation distributor Dimension Pictures. The film elements sourced are a little dodgy: a lot of it looks great while some portions show damage and where. One section at the 1:17:30 mark looks absolutely terrible, like warped Super-8, but only lasts about 30 seconds. The 2.0 DTS-HD mono audio is fine for what it is. No subtitles provided.

Extra Features

The main supplement is a 22-minute interview with co-star Robert Englund, who has many enlightening things to say about the picture, working with Fonda and the rest of the cast, as well as his early, pre-Freddie Kruger career.

Parting Thoughts

While not much more than a blip on Henry Fonda's IMDb filmography, The Last of the Cowboys/The Great Smokey Roadblock is moderately interesting, not exactly good, but sincerely made and worth seeing. Recommended.






Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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