Ranger's Gambit

by Christopher Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Ranger looks up to see the devilishly handsome WHISKY RAWLINS (JAMES BROLIN) sally up next to him at the bar. Decked out completely in denim with a red bandana around his neck.

WHISKY RAWLINS
If it isn’t Ranger McCoy. Race legend
turned two-bit car thief.

RANGER
Bounty hunter Whisky Rawlins.

WHISKY RAWLINS
I heard you been pretty down and out
these days.

RANGER
Yeah. An’ I heard your pecker got
bit off by a gator in the ‘glades.

The Burt Reynolds Comedy is a genre unto itself, and rightly so. Each film—save maybe a few of the earliest forays like Semi-Tough (1977) and the later Stroker Ace (1983)—ages like a fine wine. Even ‘Lesser Reynolds’ continues on like a vivid second-tier blend available from the best Napa vineyards. But no vintage embodies a richness and vitality quite like The Cannonball Run (1981). Yes, some of Cahiers du cinema’s stricter classicists may argue thatSmokey and the Bandit (1977) stands as the most full-bodied representative of the Reynolds canon, but closer examination reveals Cannonball as a step off the proud and tall shoulders of Bandit into true perfection.

But many are unaware of how—emboldened by the success of Bandit and even rowdier fare like Hooper—Reynolds was nearly sunk by a subsequent project embarked upon as the 70s turned into the 80s. Off this near-cataclysm, he was somehow miraculously able to recover and, with lessons learned, produce the nearly flawless piece that is The Cannonball Run.Cannonball’s comedic genius, airtight plot, celebrity cameo billfold, and populist acclaim in fact owe much more to this oft-overlooked project than Bandit or any of the others before it. This “lost” film, entitled Ranger’s Gambit (1980), has since disappeared to time, but in several aspects it is Reynolds’ most fascinating work. While troubled and problematic,Ranger’s Gambit may be his true masterpiece, without which his canon might lack real cohesion or a more profound arc in cinematic auteur history.

First, let’s look at some of the components of The Cannonball Run that make it so successful: Hal Needham (Bandit, Hooper) as director, Dom DeLuise as faithful sidekick, Farrah Fawcett stepping into the role of the Beautiful Woman, and no truly threatening antagonist. The movie clocks in tight—under a hundred minutes—and concerns itself entirely with an easy-to-understand mechanism—a race. Each character’s motivation is clear—to win the race. In simplicity there is great beauty. But this is a lesson that Reynolds had to learn the hard way.

On Memorial Day weekend, 1979, a concussion during a touch football game in Encino put 34-year-old 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Schneider in the hospital for a day and a half. While Schneider waited for his pupils to un-dilate and for his stool to soften, his girlfriend (he was having an affair at the time), a waitress at the Lamplighter Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, brought him two paperback novels she’d bought at a discount from the turn-style by the front register. One was Ordinary People, by Judith Guest. The other was Ranger’s Decision, by Victor McClure. Schneider found People boring and tedious, putting it down after the first chapter. Passing on this project would ultimately cost Schneider his job at Fox, and later, in the 90s, Schneider would blame his choice that fateful day on residual brain swelling.

Regardless, it was Gambit that drew Schneider in from page one. Based on true events of a zoo escape in South Texas, Gambit told the story of a former Army Ranger hired to recapture fleeing animals, journeying from San Antonio to Frederickburg over the course of two weeks. The titular “gambit”? Whether or not to shoot and kill the more dangerous escaped specimens. The book ends with a heart-wrenching scene in which the Ranger blows the head off a gorilla in order to save a group of cornered school children just outside Brownsville.

The book captivated Schneider. When his girlfriend arrived the next morning to pick him up, she found him teary-eyed in the hospital room, still lingering on the book’s conclusion. Before even saying hello, he turned to her and uttered, “I have to make this movie.”

Schneider returned to Fox the following week, and within days had acquired the rights to the novel. The book's author, Victor McClure, had tragically died in a ballooning accident off the Gulf Coast the year before. That left Schneider to contend with his wife, Amanda, a cantankerous middle-aged woman who worked in a local bottling plant and remained fiercely loyal to every word written by her late husband. Though Amanda was quick to option the rights to the novel, she would prove a difficult creative partner throughout development and production. Of Schneider, Amanda was rumored to have said, “I never liked him. I never trusted him. He painted himself as this tan intellectual, a West Coast Ivy Leaguer looking to make meaningful movies. But the truth was, he was just a jock who could forget any integrity at the slightest hint of possible starfucking. After I saw the final picture, I found myself wishing that touch football game would’ve killed him.”

Schneider’s recollection of Amanda McClure was as follows, “That bitch never appreciated Burt, or me. I hope she died alone.”

*

INT. STATE TROOPER’S READY ROOM -- LATER

Whisky Rawlins and the giant stand next to SERGEANT MENDELBAUM (GENE WILDER), a full-on Texas state trooper, cowboy hat and all, but also a man with a high-strung air.

Mendelbaum addresses a small cadre of rough and tough Texas State Troopers who sit at briefing desks.

MENDELBAUM
Now let me be... clear. This man.
This... Ranger McCoy. Is... an...
OUTLAW.

The shorthand collaboration Hal Needham and Reynolds had developed by the time The Cannonball Run started principle photography is evident in the ease of the cast in every frame. Cannonball exists as a true paradigm in that it is 1) an excellently entertaining comedy and 2) a project where everyone seems to have had a truly great time with each other. It’s unclear which is the byproduct of the other, but one only has to look at the outtakes rolling along with the credits in order to appreciate everything in front of the camera and behind. This infectious positive energy enhances enjoyment of the film exponentially, despite Roger Ebert giving it a half star out of a four and calling it “an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition.”

EXT./INT. CAMARO -- AFTERNOON

Lefty drives while Ranger sits in the passenger seat, cowboy hat pulled over his eyes. Lefty picks up an Pabst beer can from the back seat, shakes it. Empty.

LEFTY
Bad news, Ranger.

Ranger slowly wakes up.

LEFTY
We’re halfway through our beer and
we only been on the road a day.

 

Lefty tosses the can out the driver side window.

By the time Ranger’s Decision landed on Burt Reynolds’ desk—or rather, his fold-out card table behind the bar at Brewin’s, a Westwood strip joint where dancers were comprised of an unofficial rotating roster of UCLA coeds—Schneider had already had the book rights for seven months. He’d been gunning for Reynolds since the very beginning of the option period. It was Reynolds who was playing hard to get. He finally invited Schneider over to Brewin’s in February of 1980, and it quickly became clear that Reynolds had not read the book. He had his own vision of the story to pitch to Schneider—a down-and-out race car driver left at the altar is recruited by the Army to hunt for a specially-trained gorilla on the run in Texas. The film would be a comedy. There would be no decision for the ranger to make. There instead would be a dance number, and the gorilla would go to work on the pit crew once Ranger was restored to NASCAR grace. Without hesitation, Schneider agreed to the changes. Now he had a star, which meant he could get the movie made, which meant that he could afford his divorce (his wife had left him in December).

With Reynolds attached, Schneider went back to the Fox higher-ups, looking for money to hire a writer. But Fox was hesitant, even with Reynolds’ name potentially on the marquee. Bud Williamson, who’d been instrumental in All About Eve in 1950—and who still regarded Star Wars as an oddity full of robots and hard-to-read blue end credits—said of Gambit, “It’s never funny when a gorilla gets killed.” Schneider begged and pleaded, but the brass only agreed to fees a few thousand dollars above scale.

Meanwhile, Reynolds had given the book to Wes Avis, a 19-year-old longboard surfer hooked on heroin who was currently living above a Fatburger near Venice Beach. Reynolds had met Avis while walking on coals at Jerry Lewis’ house. Avis had never written anything before, but loved the book. According to him, it was Reynolds’ suggestion that he adapt it into “something fuckin’ hilarious.” Avis set about working at the beginning of March and had a draft in three days. He was astonished when Reynolds then wrote him a check for three million dollars—“a mil for each fuckin’ day”—out of his personal account. Avis would subsequently be rewritten by sixty-three different screenwriters (and an irate Gene Wilder on set), but he still fondly looks back on that moment of his career as the best it ever was. “Burt didn’t have to pay me a dime. But we were so high on amyl nitrate that night, and the check cleared, so for that I’m eternally thankful.”

Schneider was thrilled to have a script in hand, even one that was only 59 pages. He was even more happy that he didn’t have to pay for it. He and Reynolds (now an executive producer) agreed to fast-track the project, with cameras perhaps rolling as early as May. But then came two questionable moves: hiring Peter Hames to direct, and choosing Kris Kristofferson to play the co-lead of the film, a character named Lefty Luckenbock. Reynolds had already worked with Kristofferson on Semi-Tough in 1977, an amicable enough experience. Kristofferson, who had just recorded a four-sided country album full of songs about the Moon, took the job for purely monetary reasons. Kristofferson questions that decision today, saying “The script was written by a surfer hooked on H. Of course it was going to be a piece of shit.” As the film moved into production, Kristofferson would become increasingly aloof, neglecting to memorize lines (often making up his own) and looking into the lens of the camera for no reason.

Hames, on the other hand, hailed from Leipzig. His first job had been apprenticing Werner Herzog on Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1971. Hames was the consummate self-important artist, granular in his attention to detail and excessively abstract about cinema. Before Gambit, Hames had made a series of silent films about human digestion which, while profitably vacuous, had been well-received by critics in Austria and the Baltic Region. He was desperate to parlay his critical European success into Hollywood momentum. Schneider, trying to counterbalance the joke-filled screenplay Avis and Reynolds had turned in, decided to take a chance on him. He would come to regret it.

*

The Cannonball Run’s numerous cameos are managed deftly. Jimmy the Greek has a tertiary appearance as himself that still functions within the world of the Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Trophy Dash—he’s taking bets on said race. Peter Fonda plays a biker that fights the Cannonballers in a climactic brawl. Nothing strays too far afield from the plot at hand. This is a clear course-correction after Ranger’s Gambit’s cameos threatened to collapse the film under its own weight.

As word of the picture spread throughout the industry, Reynolds fielded call after call from celebrities dying to participate. Speaking roles were generated for the sake of cameos alone. When Gene Hackman was given a waiter part with one line—“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take American Express,”—Reynolds and Schneider knew they had a problem. But at that point, the cameos were beyond their control: a self-perpetuating virus sans vaccine.

The studio was especially worried about one cameo in particular—Wayne Newton—and the intention to violently kill him on screen by Gene Wilder’s State Trooper character:

Mendelbaum steps forward to shoot. As he moves his leg... HIS PANTS RIP OFF, CAUGHT IN THE DOOR

Revealing tall leather boots, white boxers with red hearts. Ranger takes the opportunity...

LEAPS FROM THE SECOND STORY INTO THE COURTYARD

Lands and rolls, looks back over his shoulder just as Mendelbaum, pantsless, aims his gun. Ranger bolts away...

MENDELBAUM FIRES, STRIKES WAYNE NEWTON IN THE CHEST

The singer catching the bullet as he innocently passes by. He grasps the wound and stumbles back...

WAYNE NEWTON
Ugnh! They got me!

Said Fox’s Bud Williamson: “Why the fuck would you kill Wayne Newton?” But Schneider and Reynolds would not budge. Newton himself was reported to like the gag, recalling in 1989: “I thought it was a gas. I mean, I’ve always been preoccupied with thoughts of my own death, so here was a chance to explore that without alarming those close to me.”

A plethora of unwieldy storylines joined the problematic cameos as production continued. Reynolds complained even before production that there were “too many fuckin’ people in the script”—countless factions of characters with separate storylines. There was Ranger McCoy and Lefty Luckenbock and their cadre; the Texas State Troopers; the secret Army division running the gorilla-apprehension operation; Whisky Rawlins (James Brolin in the worst performance of his career) as a bounty hunter out for revenge. Schneider tried in vain to pare it down. By the end of March, 29 writers had done passes on Avis’ draft—the last of which was Dom DeLuise in a hot tub with six hare krishnas at the Chateau Marmont—but the script just kept getting larger in scope. It is hard not to seeCannonball’s simple, stripped-down plot as a direct reaction to Gambit’s problems.

One byproduct of DeLuise’s draft—“the funny draft” (Reynolds)—was that it crystallized for Reynolds how brilliant DeLuise was in a kind of lieutenant role both on- and off-screen. His turn as Walter Fukeman (intentionally mispronounced throughout Gambit, a joke subtly repeated in Cannonball with Arthur Foight’s name) brought him closer into the Reynolds fold. After lackluster dealings with Kristofferson, DeLuise would step into the role of sidekick and fill it out more thoroughly in Cannonball as Victor Prinzi/Captain Chaos.

But Gambit’s character over-population particularly affected the three female love interests, played by Ali MacGraw, Goldie Hawn, and Heather Locklear. Each was dissatisfied with her lack of screen time and dimensionality, especially since the protagonist, Ranger McCoy, concludes the film by discarding these three and instead marrying all of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders at once—yet another mistake Reynolds avoided in Cannonball, where Farrah Fawcett is the singular love interest, and the hierarchy of desirable women is sharply delineated beneath her (with Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman operating casually as an attractive racer team in spandex uniforms).

RANGER SWINGS, THE GORILLA CATCHES HIS FIST

Twists his weight and TOSSES Ranger into a glass case which SHATTERS on impact...

LEFTY CRAWLS BACK OVER THE FRONT DESK

Runs at the gorilla, but...

THE GORILLA SEIZES LEFTY BY THE NECK, HOISTS HIM IN THE AIR

Choking him with both mighty hands...

MASON DIXON (HEATHER LOCKLEAR)
Ranger, do something!

RANGER
(exhausted)
I’m tryin’, gimme a second...

Ranger stumbles over to a wet bar, grabs the seltzer bottle. Makes his way to the gorilla as it strangles Lefty...

RANGER SPRAYS THE GORILLA’S CROTCH WITH SELTZER

Until finally the creature drops Lefty, flees from the wrecked front of the hotel, clutching its nuts...

MASON PULLS AN AR-15 FROM THE CAMARO AND OPENS FIRE

At the end of April 1980, one week before production was to begin in earnest onRanger’s Gambit, Schneider called the leads together for a table read of the latest draft at Mel’s Diner on Sunset, summoning Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, James Brolin, Jim Neighbors, Dom DeLuise, Gene Wilder, Goldie Hawn, Heather Locklear, Ali MacGraw, Lee Majors, George Hamilton, and Willie Nelson (recently brought on to play the role of Jesus Christ). It was the first time Reynolds and Wilder would meet, and things were immediately icy after both ordered what turned out to be the last brownie sundae and Reynolds automatically assumed it would be his.

Peter Hames directed the reading, which—thanks to his frequent interruptions and thick accent—lasted over six hours. At two a.m., the increasingly bored DeLuise, Nelson, and Majors began huffing an open can of paint thinner they’d found in the men’s restroom. By three, DeLuise had stolen a table cloth and wrapped it around himself, loudly shouting that he was Captain Chaos and Hames was the devil. Ultimately, DeLuise, while urinating on an apple pie, was arrested by the Hollywood Sheriff’s Department—but all of this later proved to be wonderful inspiration for DeLuise’s character’s alter ego in The Cannonball Run. Of course, the film version of Captain Chaos is far less profane, but no less enjoyable, even without the foaming mouth or ravings about the 1976 Argentinian coup d’etat.

Shortly after this table read, Hames began to proclaim that Gambit really needed an ending where Ranger McCoy and the gorilla commit suicide together. It was an idea that only elicited Reynolds’ signature laugh at first, but ultimately became one that Hames could never let go of, eventually causing him to leave production during the hotel bar-fight climax. A desperate Schneider brought on William Friedkin to replace Hames. Friedkin immediately took Gambit to a darker place—strongly evidenced in the hotel bar-fight. Not only is Wayne Newton shot and killed, but Friedkin lingers on the crooner as he bleeds out and drowns slowly in a four-inch deep ornamental pool. This is where The Cannonball Run can once again be seen as a fresh redux on the errors of Ranger’s Gambit. In Cannonball, Needham and Reynolds let their best players play, allowing actors to do bits that fall squarely in their wheelhouses. Dean Martin drinks, Sammy Davis Jr. doesn’t fight anyone because he’s so small, and Jackie Chan manages to turn the entire sequence into a thrilling martial arts demonstration. The fighting is good-natured, with an emphasis on humor over violence.

The fight scenes in Ranger’s Gambit tend to go the other way. In the first bar-fight scene in the film, Ranger and Lefty break not only James Brolin’s neck, but the necks of thirty-seven other men. This scene horrified Fox executives; Bud Williamson was said to have vomited in the screening room. He angrily confronted Reynolds and Schneider in the hall after the screening, hurling vitriol at them until he interrupted himself with a quivering jaw, on the verge of tears. Williamson retired from Hollywood in 1981, becoming a moss farmer in British Columbia.

MASON DIXON
Don’t worry. I can see how strong you really are.

RANGER
Yeah?

MASON DIXON
Yeah.

RANGER
Probably because of where I come from. I’m an 8th Cherokee. On my mom’s side. Loved growing up and hearing my great granddad’s names for creeks, hills by my house. All of ‘em different from what the signs said. I liked his names more. They were descriptive. Simple. He lived on the land like he was part of it, you know?

MASON DIXON
Sounds nice.

RANGER
I looked up to him. Tried to learn as much as I could... and my dad, too. He was a tracker. Could pick up the trail of anything. He could follow a single blackbird through all of Union County.

(pause)

I don’t know where I went wrong with this gorilla.

With Friedkin now at the helm, principle photography on Ranger’s Gambit stretched into August 1980. Wilder and Reynolds grew more combative, and Amanda McClure, now sleeping with George Hamilton, demanded access to the set. Unfortunately for the production, she arrived incognito on the very day of the Terry Bradshaw masturbation scene. Within 72 hours, her attorneys had managed to get Fox to freeze the production. Everything was shut down indefinitely. Schneider and Reynolds began to wonder if they’d made the biggest mistake of their careers.

Reynolds and Schneider huddled together in a motel, along with Wes Avis and Robert Towne, rewriting an ending to Gambit that could be shot with a skeleton crew. Within a week, photography was complete, with the character of Ranger McCoy abruptly ejecting from the film’s entire plot, marrying all of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and racing Jesus Christ in a single duel at Daytona (Nelson had since become unavailable and was replaced by Joe Walsh).

Despite the film’s technical completion, Reynolds sank into a deep depression and considered leaving Hollywood. Fox refused to widely release the film, putting it up at Graumman’s Chinese for a single weekend, after which it was replaced by Flash Gordon. Despite critical praise—Ebert himself gave it three stars, claiming the film’s avant-garde ending placed it alongside the works of Truffaut and Godard—the film grossed a meager $1.2 million (relatively impressive, considering it only played at one theater for three days); The Cannonball Run would gross over 72 million just one year later. Reynolds was said to have been so upset at Gambit’s performance that he hurled an NBA trophy he’d recently acquired from Christie’s Auction House through the windshield of his Maserati.

RANGER AND MASON RUN

Him leading her by the hand. They don’t get very far until...

ANDRE THE GIANT STEPS INTO THEIR PATH, BLOCKING IT

Ranger pushes Mason behind him, stares up at the lummox...

HE KICKS THE GIANT STRAIGHT IN THE BALLS WITH HIS BOOT

As hard as he can. It does nothing. The giant just smiles, begins to move toward him. Ranger steps back, looks around wildly, sees a fire extinguisher mounted to the wall and pulls it off...

RANGER SWINGS THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER INTO THE GIANT’S CROTCH With a thick CRUNCH, which causes the giant to hesitate...

RANGER SWINGS AGAIN, ANOTHER TERRIBLE BLOW

The giant begins to groan, falls over against the wall. Ranger doesn’t stop--he raises the extinguisher over his head...

SWINGS THE EXTINGUISHER DOWN AND DOWN AGAIN INTO HIS NUTS

Destroying the giant’s crotch. Finally, Mason pulls him away.

MASON DIXON
Stop! Stop!

RANGER
(genuinely afraid)
I just wanna make sure that thing never has kids.

Despite his experiences on Ranger’s Gambit, Burt Reynolds agreed to Hal Needham’s request to be in The Cannonball Run. On Cannonball, he was able to make more mature, almost visionary decisions. Yes, Reynolds views his acceptance of the role of JJ McClure (the name itself a nod to the original author of Ranger’s Decision) as a mistake:

"I did that film for all the wrong reasons. I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn't really object to what people wrote about me."

But history should be kinder to The Cannonball Run, and, for that matter, Ranger’s Gambit. The author of this piece has only been able to find a VHS recording of the latter, made during the film’s only broadcast airing on a Kansas City affiliate in 1982. The tape, alas, does not contain the entire film; Fox is rumored to have destroyed every negative. After seeing the film at Graumman’s on the weekend it was exhibited, Sally Field—Reynolds’ co-star inSmokey and the Bandit and Hooper—said, “Seeing that was the worst goddam decision I’ve ever made, and that includes trying crack cocaine.”

Now, sadly, Ranger’s Gambit is a thing of pure legend.

Thankfully, we still have The Cannonball Run as proof of one man’s genius.


Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season.