Not all shitty movies are bloody horror, or borderline pornographic sleaze. Not all shitty movies are cut and paste westerns, Italian sci-fi ripoffs, or rubber monsters. Some are family flicks, featuring well-known country/western crooners in tales of race cars, music, and moonshine. That particular formula is followed by Hell on Wheels, the 1967 star vehicle for singer/songwriter and gentleman race car driver Marty Robbins.
Directed by Will Zens from a screenplay by Wesley Cox, Hell on Wheels follows Marty Robbins as Marty Robbins, a fictionalized version of himself. Marty has built a nice life. He’s a successful musician, and that success allows him to pursue his passion as a stock car driver.
Something similar happens to a number of people after they attain fame and riches. Auto racing is an addictive pursuit, scratching an itch in one of the more primal areas of the brain. It’s a fast and dangerous occupation, and for men like Robbins, Paul Newman, James Garner, Patrick Dempsey, Steve McQueen, and even Frankie Muniz, it has an irresistible lure as a risky pastime.
In this flick, Robbins (who later raced in NASCAR’s premier division) is chasing a mid-tier stock car title. All racing scenes were filmed at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, during both real racing and some staged shots, and those scenes are extensive. The film opens with a qualifying session. Not long after, there’s a race session. Midway through the film, there’s another race, and the film ends with a final race. Racing fans will get a kick out of all this classic footage from an era that is mostly lost to history. No joke, there can’t be much footage out there of beater stock cars racing a short track from the mid-60s. These scenes are so long, though, that they might try the patience of those viewers who aren’t into the sport.
Viewers had better like country music, as well. There are two nightclub scenes in the film, featuring Robbins and his opening acts. Each of these scenes features multiple full-length song performances. A shitty movie skeptic might think all this race and nightclub footage was used to pad the running time of an otherwise thin film. And that skeptic would be right.
There is a plot to this film, involving some familial conflict. Specifically, Marty’s brother, Del (John Ashley), has a chip on his shoulder. He’s jealous of his brother’s success, and does all he can, not to undermine Marty, but to undermine himself. He begins the film as Marty’s mechanic, responsible for putting together a car fast and reliable enough to compete for the title. But, after his girlfriend, Sue (Gigi Perreau), makes googly-eyes at Marty one too many times, Del quits being Marty’s mechanic, and goes into business for himself. He also takes a job preparing souped-up beaters used by moonshiners to outrun federal revenuers. There’s a third brother in the Robbins clan, named Steve (Robert Dorman), who, in a bit of plot overkill, happens to be a revenue agent tasked with chasing down and arresting moonshiners.
There’s more racing, more crooning, finished off with a shitty shootout and car chase. The film wraps itself up in an uncomplicated bow, and everything is right with the Robbins family once again.
At times, this is a pretty squishy flick. But, the presence of race cars and gangsters keeps things drive-in fun. Ashley, Perreau, along with Frank Gerstle and Robert Foulk (who played the moonshiners) had the most extensive experience as actors, and it shows. Robbins was at his best as a singer, while his acting was amateurish. He did seem sincere, though.
I’ve liked Marty Robbins’ music ever since Big Iron was featured in the soundtrack of Fallout: New Vegas, and I’m a motorsports fiend. All that racing and music filler is just gravy to me. For those with other tastes, this flick will probably be a drag. But, this is my site, and not theirs. For the racing alone, Hell on Wheels makes it into the top half of the Watchability Index. But, I still have some integrity as a reviewer, so it does not go that far into the top half. Hell on Wheels displaces Alien vs. Predator at #141. Fans of racing, Nashville country, and southern drive-in cinema will have a fine time. For everyone else, I still recommend checking it out.