American Flyers

American Flyers

 “Deleted Scenes” are small pieces of historical research that, through no fault of their own, were cut from the published Bike Battles book, or never made it past research notes.  But they live on as blog posts!  

As part of the research process for Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, I tracked down many obscure pieces of popular culture related to bikes.  Some were worth the trip; the multiple iterations of the Boy Scout bicycling merit badge and Boy’s Life magazine provided valuable historical insight into the changing cultural standing of the American bicycle.  But many were not.  Along the way, I put together copious notes on many films which did not make the final cut.  It’s probably for the best.


 

Before the year is out, we need to talk about the thirtieth anniversary of American Flyers (1985). Specifically, we need to ask whether you should watch it, whether it’s any good, and if this Hollywood movie can tell us anything about the history of bicycling in America. The answer to all of these questions is “no, probably not.”

This is really too bad, because there are not a lot of films that American bike riders can call their own. It’s a short (and partially ignominious) list of wide-release theatrical films: Breaking Away (1979), American Flyers (1985), Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Quicksilver (1986), and Premium Rush (2012).  A snarky footnote in Robert Hurst’s guide to Colorado riding calls American Flyers the “fourth best out of four total bicycle racing movies.”[1]  (There are also some older, largely forgotten Hollywood films like Six Day Bike Racer (1934) and The Lady in Question (1940), but I’ll save them for a later post.)

For reasons that will quickly become clear, the most obvious comparison for American Flyers  is Breaking Away. Both are movies more about family than about bikes; both build toward redemptive, triumphant race scenes in the final act; both have at their core a preternaturally gifted young man named Dave. There’s no particular secret here; they are so similar to each other because they’re both written by the same man. Steve Tesich’s screenplay for Breaking Away won the Oscar; but six years later, and costing millions of dollars more, American Flyers would not have the same impact.  (You can read my analysis of the meaning of Breaking Away in an earlier post.)

The story’s weaknesses might explain why American Flyers does not hold the same place in the hearts of cyclists that Breaking Away enjoys. While there is still a small subset of cyclists who would view the film as a milestone in a society that had little interest in cycling, the film was slight, and the critics were not kind. Directed by experienced Hollywood director John Badham, American Flyers has more polish than the quirkily independent Breaking Away, directed by Hollywood outsider Peter Yates. But Badham’s experience doesn’t translate into quality: Flyers is calculated and bombastic where Breaking was charming. The best that anyone could say about Flyers at the time was that is was “heartwarming,” which always seems like damning with faint praise.

The film opens with the actor David Grant (cleverly playing a character named David, or Davey).  He is clearly a free spirit, quirkily dressed in a cowboy hat and denim jacket, and sporting a bare chest. In fact the opening shot is a visual joke, presenting him first as a cowboy — cowboy hat jauntily pushed back by the wind, steam boat on the wide Mississippi behind him, cheerful smile – only slowly pulling out to show that he is also wearing bike shorts and pumping away on a ten speed.

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Davey is soon racing a garbage truck through the streets of St. Louis, culminating in a scene where a businessman is splashed by a rain puddle; Davey laughs, but is soon drenched himself. It’s a cheesy silent film gag, and looks like a Mentos commercial to a modern audience. After that, and after the first of innumerable product placements for McDonald’s, we’re introduced to the undefined family tension at the center of the film.

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Get used to it.

Davey returns to a darkly moody apartment, home of David’s worrying mother, and the stage for a tumultuous surprise visit of older brother Marcus, played by a pre-breakout Kevin Costner equipped with a fabulous mustache.  Soon Davey is on the road to Madison, Wisconsin with his brother. Dr. Marcus Sommers introduces Davey to his colleagues (or fellow cult-members – it’s never quite clear) at a fictional Jackie Robinson Sports Institute at the now-nonexistent Wisconsin State University. Actually, then-nonexistent; after 1971, all WSU campuses were rolled up into the University of Wisconsin system.

in the sports institute

Smirk.

Veteran character actor John Amos is here playing Dr. Dennis Conrad; Rae Dawn Chong is playing Costner’s girlfriend Sarah, and a sweating cast of barely-dressed aerobics instructors and muscle beach refugees make up the cheering background as Marcus runs a grueling endurance test and a CT scan on Davey.

in the sports institute

What, exactly, is the guy with the clipboard checking?

The misdirection at the core of the film is laid out here: the family tension actually results from the late father’s cerebral aneurysm, which Davey has every reason to believe that he has been diagnosed with. It’s melodramatic; critic Henry Sheehan observed that “a character with a fatal disease is a pretty good sign that the filmmaker responsible is suffering from a debilitated imagination . . . this is the cheapest way possible to build audience sympathy,” saved only by John Badham’s skillful directing. Sheehan isn’t kind: “it’s a measure of how truly awful Tesich’s script is that Badham has given us his thinnest picture to date.”

While in Madison, Davey and Marcus also have time for some recreational riding out on the Wisconsin farm roads; they appear to be having a great deal of fun and throwing around a lot of sweat.

Rural farm roads of Wisconsin.

Rural farm roads of Wisconsin.

Such a great mustache.

In order to move the story forward, and over a couple of bags of takeout McDonald’s, Marcus hatches a plan: supported by Sarah, he and Davey will enter the “Hell of the West,” a bicycle race across the Rocky Mountains, one that Marcus has ridden – and lost – before. (In the film, it’s the “Hell of the West,” a play on the “Hell of the North” nickname of Paris-Roubaix. In reality, it’s the Coors International Classic, and selected scenes here are shot during that race, with signs clearly visible in frame. Stage three of both races start in Golden, Colorado.)

Hey, let's stop at McDonald's.

Hey, let’s stop at McDonald’s.

A road trip to the Rocky Mountains ensues in Marcus’ awesome Shaver Sport bike shop van, equipped with front row captain’s chairs. After picking up Becky, a love interest for Davey (at a McDonald’s, of course, followed by a really awkward meet-cute involving dropped French fries and ketchup smeared on a thigh), the brothers race a few cowboys with the theme song playing in the background.

So American.

Marcus distracts the cowboys, making them think he is conceding the race, but actually he shifts gears and sprints, taking them unawares: “Oldest trick in the book, Davey,” he teaches, setting up later action.

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Down the road, Sarah and Becky meet an antagonist. Luca Bercovici is playing Muzzin, an out-of-control and hyper-competitive asshole with the purloined nickname of “The Cannibal.” Conveniently, he comes equipped with a built-in foil, Robert Townsend as Jerome, and (oh by the way) he’s also Sarah’s ex-husband.

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The three-day race begins with Eddy Mercx firing a starting pistol to start the actual Coors Classic. His three seconds on screen were probably a welcome sight to cyclists in the audience – but the filmmakers really need to have him there to assuage their guilt, since they’re stealing his nickname for Muzzin.

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As the first stage starts, it’s time to meet an additional villain: extravagantly bearded and musclebound Russian cyclist Sergei Belov, played by John Badham favorite John Garber.[2] In blood-red USSR jerseys and standout white helmets unlike anyone else in the peloton, the Russians are the new antagonists of the film. In the storyline, Belov won the gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which it turns out that Marcus and Muzzin were scheduled to compete in. But of course the US, along other nations, announced a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and American Flyers is set in the aftermath.

A stare down at the start line.

A stare down at the start line.

This is the new, previously hidden theme, and an explanation of the film’s title. While Tesich’s screenplay has mostly been about family and brotherly love up until now, suddenly the film becomes nearly bombastic in its patriotism. The Russians are mustache-twirling villains in Soviet flag jerseys; the American national team is wearing the Stars and Stripes; and Muzzin will soon deliver an epic diatribe echoing post-Vietnam mythos. The film is jam-packed with American symbolism; Davey and Becky spend their first night together with the TV blaring a montage of patriotic images over the national anthem sign-off music; a space shuttle launch is broadly suggestive as they tumble into bed.[3]

The American National Team at the start line.

The American National Team at the start line.

It is possible that this heavy-handed patriotism is written into Tesich’s screenplay; born in Yugoslavia but raised in the US, and with a Master’s degree in Russian literature, the swelling emotions might seem like an immigrant’s love affair with America. But it’s also possible that it is a result of John Badham’s directorial choices; it would certainly fit with what Hollywood would think would sell to the public at this time. Off screen, America was awash in patriotic symbols, both overt and misconstrued; the red, white and blue summer of 1984 included both the Los Angeles Olympics and Springsteen’s the release of “Born in the USA.” American Flyers came out the same year as Rambo II and Rocky IV, both with Russians as villains. Rocky features a cartoonishly muscle-bound Ivan Drago; American Flyers a cartoonishly hirsute and enormous Sergei Belov. Film critic Craig Howson made the connection explicit when the film came out: “At a time when patriotism has been assimilated back into pop culture (a la Springsteen, no less,) this new film offers a good ride for the price of admission.”

The next year, Top Gun would fly onto American screens; American Flyers was like an advance scout for that blockbuster. They are both films with Cold War jingoism, shirtless men competing in close proximity, and a Chekov’s gun of tactical engagement: “I’m gonna hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by,” is an early and unlikely trick in Top Gun, returning in the climactic dogfight. In American Flyers, the same role is played by Marcus’ “oldest trick in the book.”

But the inflated patriotism – the American in American Flyers – really only stands out in one conflicted piece of dialogue. Having won the second stage, Muzzin is pushed into an emotional and abusive tirade. A female journalist prompts, “It’s a big day for American cycling, to have two Americans beat an Olympic champ. You must feel some pride.” Jerome, the foil, tries to hold back The Cannibal: “Come on man, walk it off.” But Muzzin cannot be contained:

Muzzin: No, no, I’m all right. OK. I’m not riding for America lady. I tried riding for America. I spent four years of my life working shitty jobs so I could train and make the Olympic team and ride for my… Look at me! And then some fatasses in Washington started having opinions. The Olympic Committee started having opinions. You, you bitch, I know you! You started writing your opinions. So we boycott the Olympics. I was in the best shape of my life in the summer of 1980 and I got beat by opinions.

Woman Reporter: Is that why you’re boycotting the victory ceremony?

Muzzin: What victory? There’s two stages left.

Woman Reporter: Still, the fact remains…

Muzzin: You wouldn’t know a fact if it banged you all night long!

Muzzin’s rant is exactly what you’d think you’d hear from a high-level athlete, a competitor denied his competition. And he is, after all, an asshole. But it also echoes the American mythos constructed after Vietnam: the politicians were to blame for the loss, and the front line soldiers paid the price. Only three years before, the previously-stoic John Rambo broke into a similar tirade on screen:  “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win!”  In the sequel, released the same year as American Flyers, Colonel Trautman hints at the same storyline, describing John Rambo as “a pure fighting machine with only one desire – to win a war that someone else lost.”

But Muzzin’s outburst is the only scripted patriotism in American Flyers; otherwise, the message is mostly conveyed visually – the hulking, brutish Russians juxtaposed against the wide open Colorado landscape; the repeated icon of the St. Louis Gateway Arch; Davey’s ironic cowboy hat and honest-to-goodness cowboys actually herding cattle; the omnipresent McDonald’s.

The open scenery of the second half of the film.

For recreational and racing cyclists, there was probably sufficient familiarity in the second half of the film to make them happy that their sport was at last getting some attention in America. “Watch your line,” command random riders on both the first and the second stage, like every annoying group rider ever. Experienced cyclists would nod at the bananas in jersey pockets and Cokes poured into water bottles as recovery drinks. The pacing and braggadocio of the pack would feel familiar, too: “Enough of this Sunday stroll,” declares Muzzin, picking up the pace and forcing the peleton to come with him: “Let’s hurt a little bit.” But Marcus has read the signs before Muzzin takes off, warning his brother: “Here we go, Dave.” Marcus suffers a mechanical, and like a racer without a teammate, has to recruit a group of stragglers to pace him back into the front: “You want back into this race? Pick it up!”

At the same time, the biking references are made broadly accessible so that an audience of non-cyclists could latch on. The audience might not know why Muzzin trades his 7-11 Racing team jersey for the leader’s jersey before stage 3, but the director doesn’t leave them hanging – the race leader’s jersey is conveniently labeled “Race Leader.” Before starting stage 2, an ailing Marcus delivers an introduction to racing tactics, which you would have thought would have been good for Davey at an earlier stage of his race preparation. But for an American audience unfamiliar with competitive cycling, it comes at a perfect time; invested in Davey after the time trial loops of stage 1, we are given a simple overview of breakaway strategy and intermediate time bonuses: “Now, because nobody knows you,” promises Marcus, “if you do something stupid like take off by yourself, they’re gonna let you go maybe!” Without that primer, an American audience might not fully understand why Muzzin later yells “Let ‘em go, Tommy, they’re nobodys! Let ‘em die on the hill, let ‘em go!” when Dave makes his break. The subterfuge works; while caught at the end (“Let’s reel them in,” declares Muzzin), Dave’s solo breakaway nets him enough time bonuses to leapfrog into third place.

Meanwhile, Marcus has had a dramatic breakdown on the course, and the family secret is out: it’s not Dave who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, it’s Marcus. David has thought he was the one who was living under a death sentence, complaining to Marcus, “How can you be sick? Just look at yourself. You have a mustache and everything.” It’s a fair point, but Marcus still gets to deliver a bedridden “win one for the Gipper” speech.

More racing strategy is on display at the beginning of stage three, as Belov sends a teammate up the road to force a chase. Without Marcus to explain this to the audience, the nameless race commentator helpfully fills in: “This is going to force some of the other riders to do the chasing, and it’s going to take the sap out of them.” Later, Muzzin taunts Belov, explaining stage racing to an American audience along the way: “I’m still here, Belov . . . Only I’m not behind you, I’m really two seconds ahead . . . you know why you won the Olympics: because I wasn’t there! But now I’m here! Only I’m not here, I’m two seconds ahead!” The enraged Belov is tricked into pushing too early on the mountain, and actual punches fly. Dave takes his shot, flying into the lead; Muzzin suggests “Get him, Belov,” but the big Russian has nothing left: “You go get him, Can-e-bull,” he replies, in Garber’s only English line of the film.

Beginning the final climb.

Beginning the final climb.

Muzzin proposes a rolling truce with Dave, teaming up against the Russian – “Here we go, Sommers,” he invites, rolling by Belov; once they’re past, he explains to Dave the negotiated terms that are a part of competitive racing: “Okay, we got him . . . now just sit back, and you’ve got second locked up, okay?” But David is having none of it; he battles Muzzin in a dramatic finish; here’s where he employs the “oldest trick in the book” that Marcus has hinted at (remember the Chekov’s gun in the race with the cowboys?).  Davey waits for Muzzin to let down his guard before making a break; now at each other’s throats, it’s more of a physical altercation than a race.

Muzzin tries to push Davey off the edge.

Muzzin tries to push Davey off the edge.

It all comes down to the finish line, but not in a way that would intuitively make sense to a non-cycling audience; Muzzin still has an 11 second lead on Davey from the previous two stages. That’s right, Davey has to win on a time gap, a concept without direct comparisons in other American sports, and which an American audience would not likely understand. The commentator has to explain such a strange concept to the audience; even though David crosses the finish line first, he hasn’t won – at least not yet. It makes for good drama, with the crowd counting off the 11 seconds. But the nameless commentator still has to explain to the audience that David has indeed won in a voiceover after Muzzin finishes; not exactly the most obvious resolution in the visual medium of film. The denouement has Barry Muzzin telling Davey that they will race again next year, and the Sommers brothers and their mother embrace.

So – should you watch American Flyers, is it any good as a film, and can we learn anything about the history of American bicycling from it? The answer to all these questions is no. Unless you are researching the history of cycling, you should probably not go out of your way to watch American Flyers. And no, it is not all that good as a film. Most of its pleasures come from campiness and melodrama, not from timeless imagery or craftsmanship. It is emotionally manipulative and maudlin rather than moving. While Breaking Away at least touches on interesting issues of class, masculinity and coming of age, American Flyers does not really seem to have any deeper messages.  Although, having watched it a few times now, I do confess a desire to own a retro Shaver Sport jersey, which they do make.

ShaverSport

The question about whether we can learn more of the history of American bicycling from this film requires a bit of unpacking. The answer is either no, or rather, only through triangulation. The bicycling in American Flyers is almost solely about exercise, recreation and competition; it is not transportation in any sense. The experience of club cyclists isn’t really represented on screen. Neither is the bicycle an inhabitant of the city in this film. Dave doesn’t spend a lot of time following the rules of the road; he’s on sidewalks and in elevators in the opening scene, and the race takes place on both sides of the double yellow line, or outside of the normal rules of traffic.

Taking the challenge of cultural anthropologist Luis Vivanco to heart, we need to consider the way that this film conceives of the mutable bicycle.  The bicycle itself – either as physical object, or as cultural construct – is not the subject of the film in the same way it is in Breaking Away. In that film, either Dave’s Campagnola-equipped Masi Prestige occupies center screen as he lovingly fettles it; or it is an un-American object of derision for his father. In American Flyers, we never really get a lingering shot of a bike clear enough to determine a manufacturer or model; only occasional close ups of spinning cogs or down tube shifters.  (One LA bike shop identifies Marcus’ bike as a customized, Campy-equipped Specialized Allez.) But in the film, they’re props, or vehicles of competition. They aren’t the subject of the film, and the camera spends more time in close-ups on the actor’s faces, or wide panoramas with bikes in the foreground. Apart from Becky’s early confusion at seeing Marcus and Dave on the road, biking’s status as an American subculture isn’t really discussed at any point.

But what do we learn about bicycling’s status in American society in the late 20th century? This should be a film where the results of the 1970s “bike boom” in adult cycling should be visible, but they don’t seem to be here; bicycles in this film are not tools of urban transportation, or components of an environmentally-conscious lifestyle, or a choice for avoiding expensive gasoline.  Probably the only real clue offered by the film to the meaning of the bicycling in the 1980s is the efforts needed to explain – or elide – race strategy and everyday concerns. Bicycling as a sport is foreign to the audience; everything about the film tells us that. But bicycling as transportation also seems foreign to the filmmakers.  The only woman who rides a bike in the film, and the only bike ridden for transportation, is a comedic gag; a senior citizen pilots her trike disapprovingly past Davey in the opening scenes.

Judging from the film, reasons to ride in the 1980s might include extreme aerobic conditioning or cut-throat competitiveness, but not everyday transportation. The trailer for the film highlights competition, camaraderie, and adrenaline.  Here, the when of the bicycle — contemporaneous with the cardiovascular and aerobic fitness fads of the early 80’s — makes the bicycle a piece of exercise equipment, one of many in the sports institutes’ array of extreme fitness devices.

Let’s get some more people flexing their muscles into this shot.

In the film, the bicycle is placed in the context of exercise science; pushing the body to extreme limits.

The filmmaker’s efforts to make bicycling understandable to an American audience demonstrate that bicycling was an excluded subculture in the 1980s. But a bigger sign of the exclusion is the film’s lack of success. Ultimately forgettable, it did not have either the critical or cult following of Breaking Away.[4] An even greater sign of the film’s lack of success is this – as I write, in December 2015, I cannot find any other commemoration of American Flyers’ thirtieth anniversary. It is just not an important enough film to remember. If we’re looking for cultural validation for American bicyclists, we’ll have to look elsewhere.

 — James Longhurst, December, 2015


[1] Robert Hurst, Road Biking Colorado’s Front Range: A Guide to the Greatest Bike Rides from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins (Globe Pequot: 2005), 153. Hurst is including European films in his top four. See also K. Edgington, Thomas Erskine, and James M. Welsh, Encyclopedia of Sports Films (Scarecrow Press, 2005), 13-15.

[2] According to the indispensable IMDB, Garber appeared in many of Badham’s other films, including WarGames, Blue Thunder and Short Circuit. He’s also credited as a “Bicycle Trainer” for American Flyers.

[3] For younger readers: television stations used to stop broadcasting at the end of the day, and would often play a pre-recorded patriotic message to mark the end of the transmission. No, really.

[4] Jeroen Heijmans and Bill Mallon, The Historical Dictionary of Cycling (Scarecrow Press / Rowman and Littlefield: 2011), 20.

 

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