|One of the old movie posters hangs|
in my classroom at school.
The film depicts a group of friends living in Bloomington, Indiana -- the home of Indiana University, where the local boys are known as "cutters" by the rich college kids. The term is derived from the fact that the main livelihood of many of the locals was cutting limestone in the quarries just outside of town. That the name is used dismissively as a slur by the college kids emphasizes their limited knowledge or understanding of the "townies" they seem to despise. The don't know the history of the town, or the troubles faced by the locals whose economic futures were thrown into doubt with the closing of most of the quarries. The college kids are only there for four years of college and then they'll move on -- almost certainly to lucrative careers, fancy homes, and expensive cars.
Dennis Christopher plays Dave, the kid who dreams of racing against the Italians -- "Like the nightingales they sing," he proclaims, "Like the eagles they fly" -- to the point that he imagines himself to actually be Italian, much to the dismay of his father, played as a lovable but grouchy curmudgeon by Paul Dooley. Dave and his childhood friends strive to make a place for themselves outside their teenaged past. Mike (Dennis Quaid) struggles to find a new role for himself now that he is no longer the quarterback of the high school football team. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) wants to settle down and get married to the cashier at the A&P. And Cyril (Daniel Stern) . . . well, nobody can quite figure out Cyril. But they soon find themselves at odds with the college kids, against whom they constantly feel they must "prove" themselves.
Breaking Away is a really well-written film that is both funny and moving. One very poignant scene shows Mike and the other boys watching the IU football team practicing. As Mike reveals his regrets about not getting a football scholarship, he lays out his deepest fears about growing old without having any significant accomplishments. "These college kids will never get any older," he explains, "because new ones come along every year. . . and they'll keep calling us 'cutters.' To them it's just a dirty word. To me it's just another thing I never got a chance to be."
The themes of lost dreams and lowered expectations carry over to others in the town as well -- including not only Mike's older brother, a Bloomington city cop, but also Dave's own parents. Dave's father clearly feels trapped in his job selling used cars, and wishes he could be back cutting the limestone which was used in the grand buildings of the university -- buildings he says are "too good" for him now. In another scene, in which Dave's mother (Barbara Barrie) urges him to follow his dreams, she shows him her passport -- obviously obtained with dreams of traveling the world -- but now used only as an ID for cashing checks at the A&P. In the end, all the townies, or "cutters," put their hopes on the boys as they race against the college kids in the university's famous Little 500 bicycle race.
Incidentally, the film's title, Breaking Away, has a two-fold meaning. On one hand, it is a term from bicycle racing, referring to the lone rider or small group who go against the odds and try to ride away from the main pack of racers hoping for victory. On the other hand, it also refers to the idea of breaking away from the past, or from family, or childhood, etc. Either sense of the expression fits the film perfectly.
The film won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Steve Tesich) and the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Comedy. For a full list of awards see the IMDB. The American Film Institute has ranked Breaking Away as #8 in their list of 100 Most Inspirational Films, and #8 in their list of Best Sports Films.
For serious fans of the film, there is a lot of interesting trivia to be found.
|One of the actual bikes from the film, a 1978 Masi Gran|
Criterium, was on display at the 2013 NAHBS.
(photo from UrbanVelo)
Speaking of the Italians, one of them was played by American track racer John Vande Velde, who was a two-time Olympian and National Champion cyclist, as well as the father of Christian Vande Velde, formerly of the U.S. Postal Team and the Garmin Team.
The character of Dave Stohler was based at least in part on Dave Blase, a fraternity brother of writer Steve Tesich from their college days. Tesich and Blase were teammates in the 1962 edition of the IU Little 500 where Blase reportedly rode 139 out of 200 laps for the victory. Supposedly he was also a lover of all things Italian. The character's last name was inspired by their team manager, Bob Stohler. Dave Blase made a cameo appearance in the film as the Little 500 announcer.
The name given to the local boys in the film, the "cutters," is actually a change from how the Bloomington locals were known in Tesich's time at Indiana U. Back then, they were known as "stoners" (as in limestone), but that name has such a widespread drug-related meaning that it was changed, lest movie viewers get the wrong idea about the boys.
|Shaun Cassidy as Dave Stohler in the ABC series. His bike|
in the pilot episode was a Huffy (equipped with sew-up tires!)
prior to winning his Italian bike in a race.
|The original cast from the film, recently reunited|
for an article for Entertainment Weekly.
As for other actors in the film, Paul Dooley has been a presence on screens large and small since the early 60s, but since Breaking Away, has practically made a career of playing cranky but loving fathers. Barbara Barrie, likewise, has had a long career -- but frequently plays characters that would seem familiar to fans of Dave's patient and accepting mom, Evelyn Stohler.
The director of the film, Peter Yates, died in 2011, but will always be remembered not only for Breaking Away, but also for another classic movie, Bullitt with Steve McQueen. The film's writer, Steve Tesich, would go on to write the screenplay for another favorite film of mine, The World According to Garp, based on the John Irving novel and starring Robin Williams. A few years later he would write 1985's American Flyers, based to some extent on the Coors Classic bicycle race and starring an excellently mustachioed Kevin Costner. That film is notable for some great racing footage (some of which was filmed right alongside the actual Coors Classic race), an incredible wheel change by Rae Dawn Chong, and some bad clichés. I like the movie, but it's one of those that doesn't really resonate with non-bicycle-geeks the way Breaking Away does. I'll probably write about that one in a future post. Tesich died in 1996.
Hard core bicyclists sometimes criticize the film for technical errors -- a notable one being a scene where Dave is drafting behind a truck going up to 60 mph (unlikely), and a closeup shot of the bike's drivetrain reveals that the bike is on the small chainring (really unlikely). The thing is, though, that the film isn't really about the bikes, and technical mistakes can be found in any film if you look for them, even those that are hailed among the best. What I think is much more important is the emotion of the film. Dave Stohler is a misfit. His friendship with the high school quarterback doesn't change the fact that the whole crew of them are misfits. But Dave's bike opens up an imaginative world for him wider than the confines of his Indiana town. Consider a scene at the quarry, where Moocher says to Dave, "Ever since you won that Italian bike, man, you've been actin' weird. Gettin' to think you're Italian, aren't ya." To which Cyril adds, "I wouldn't mind thinkin' I was somebody myself." For Dave, his bike and his love for everything Italian makes him a new person. On his bike, he imagines himself to be something more than he is. I remember feeling that way when I was on my bike as a misfit teenager, too. The movie really resonated for me.
As Breaking Away nears its 35th anniversary, it's worth celebrating not only as one of the best bicycle-themed movies ever, but also as just a great film about growing up in general. Putting its emphasis on the characters, story, and great writing, the movie strikes a chord with audiences across generations -- even those who don't know a Huffy from a Masi.