In 1973, James William Guercio was a music producer famous for his work with the bands Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. For whatever reason (it was the 70’s!) someone at United Artists thought this meant Guercio was ready to direct a feature film. The studio gave him a million dollars and a script.
Unfortunately, Guercio would never direct again. But the result of his singular effort was “Electra Glide In Blue,” one of the great unsung films of the seventies.
John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) likes to tell people he is the exact same height as actor Alan Ladd (about five-feet nothing). He is also an Arizona motorcycle cop with dreams of a job that won’t put “calluses on my ass.”
Wintergreen is bored. His days are spent in the desert wilderness hiding in speed traps along desolate highways. In-between issuing tickets Wintergreen dreams out loud to his colleague Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) of being a homicide detective, of having “that brown suit and a badge that says you’re paid to think.”
Other than wanting a big beautiful motorcycle he’ll never be able to afford, Zipper is perfectly content to sit on his police motorcycle reading comic books. Wintergreen’s ambition both perplexes and amuses Zipper. A suicide that looks like a murder to Wintergreen wins him the attention of Detective Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan). Wintergreen gets that brown suit but immediately comes to regret it.
Guercio says he made “Electra Glide” in direct response to popular films of the era like “Easy Rider” (1969) that were demonizing cops and other authority figures responsible for keeping the fabric of our society intact. After a Cannes screening, “Electra Glide” was written off as “fascist,” the same word used by the same simplistic left-wing intelligentsia to attack Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” two years earlier.
“Electra Glide” is sometimes remembered as the anti-“Easy Rider.” This isn’t an unfair label. After all, there is a scene where Wintergreen uses photographs of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their cycles for target practice.
“Electra Glide,” though, is nothing close to reactionary.
It’s not a story that pits hippies against cops.
Guercio wants us to see that humanity, decency, corruption, and evil are not exclusive to one side or the other. And through Wintergreen, he wants to remind us that there are still real-life, red-blooded heroes among us, not just anti-heroes.
Our hero actually sympathizes with hippies and hates that his job and some genuine fascists in uniform put him in a position where he has to roust them. At the same time, his generous nature towards the counterculture results in these not-so-innocents lying to him about a murder investigation, and worse.
The longhairs can be every bit wicked as the cops who roust them. (Look quick for a shot of Nick Nolte in a commune.)
Wintergreen’s not dumb, he’s just guileless. He is a man of humanity, character and integrity who very much wants to be a part of the establishment until he gets what he wishes for. Caught between corrupt cops warring with dangerous, drug dealing hippies, Wintergreen eventually realizes there is no place for a good man in such a world — and as you will see, so does the director.
As much as I love “Dirty Harry” and Easy Rider,” both are reactionary films (and brilliant and moral ones) that take a side and ask us to join. Harry represents the establishment of law and order. Billy and Wyatt represent the counterculture; the anti-establishment establishment that demands its own kind of conformity.
John Wintergreen represents John Wintergreen, an uncommonly decent man who learns you lose a piece of yourself joining … anything, and that the price of being your own man is calluses and isolation.
Blake, whose charismatic performance would win him a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination and the TV show “Beretta” two years later, is a revelation as our hero. John Wintergreen is a small, tough, charming, always smiling and always polite Vietnam Veteran who hangs the American flag in his home without irony. (His scene with a fellow Vet is priceless.)
Beneath it all, though, Blake gives his character a poignant and complicated emotional life that immediately puts you on his side. Wintergreen is what all genuinely decent men are: an outsider.
For his part, Guercio, a lifelong fan of John Ford, chose to make “Electra Glide” a Western, with motorcycles in place of horses (the Electra Glide is a police motorcycle). He wisely gave up his own directing salary to hire legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, and this paid off in ways one can’t begin to describe to someone who hasn’t seen the film.
The interior shots are beautifully designed, but the outdoor scenes (many shot in Monument Valley) are all Guercio. He wanted “Electra Glide” to look like a Ford film, and the results (in widescreen Panavision) are pure cinema, especially an iconic final shot that serves as an unforgettable tribute to The Last American Hero.
And over that final shot we hear Terry Kath’s “Tell Me,” itself an unforgettable tribute to an American ideal we will never achieve until The Man In Government Uniform and The Man In Longhair is no longer able to defeat the common, everyday decency of men like John Wintergreen.
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