Monday, April 7, 2014

Classic Film: Breaking Away

Thirty Five years ago this summer, the movie Breaking Away was released, giving many Americans their first glimpse of bicycle culture. I was in junior high at the time, just discovering bicycles, and that film was formative for me. Seriously. I wanted to BE that kid in the movie, Dave Stohler.

One of the old movie posters hangs
in my classroom at school.
Unlike many (most?) other bicycling-themed movies, you didn't need to be a bike geek to be enamored with Breaking Away -- a bicycling movie that isn't really about bicycles. It's a film about growing up, and making that transition from teenager to adult -- "breaking away" from family and the past and the things that tie us down to our childhood. Most people reading The Retrogrouch Blog are probably pretty familiar with the film, so I hope they will forgive me for delving into the synopsis and review.

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)
For one thing, the primary bikes used in the film were a pair of California-built Masi Gran Criteriums, one of which was shown at the 2013 North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS). I recall reading a few years ago in a Classic Rendezvous thread about the bikes that at least one of the bikes may have been badly damaged at some point in the years following the film -- if that was this bike or a different one, I have no idea, or even if that was actually true. UrbanVelo ran an article about the bike shown at NAHBS and consulted with a technical advisor and bicycle mechanic from the film about it. That advisor mentions some differences about the bike from the way it was used in the film. That would make sense, because according to Dennis Christopher, the bike has been restored. A third bike was used in filming, but it was not a Masi -- it was a Sears Free Spirit, painted and decaled as a Masi, and used in a pivotal scene where an Italian racer shoves a frame pump into the spokes, sending Dave Stohler to the pavement. The bikes used by the Italian team were all Colnagos.

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 film was loved enough that it spawned a short-lived television series on ABC, starring 1980 teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy as Dave. The series is set up as a "prequel" to the events of the movie. Jackie Earle Haley reprised his role as Moocher, and Barbara Barrie as Dave's mother. Vincent Gardenia replaced Paul Dooley as Dave's father. The show's premiere ended up being delayed due to a writers' strike, and it never really caught on with audiences. It was cancelled after only seven episodes, but I remember watching all seven of them as a teenager. It wasn't as good as the film, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. The original episodes can be seen today on YouTube.

The original cast from the film, recently reunited
 for an article for Entertainment Weekly.
Breaking Away was something of a launching pad for the careers of some of its young stars. Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, and Daniel Stern were all unknowns at the time of the film's release. Only Jackie Earle Haley was a familiar face, having starred in the Bad News Bears films. Quaid and Stern would go on to other very successful films or television shows -- some might remember Stern as the voice of "grown-up" Kevin Arnold, the narrator of ABC's baby-boomer nostalgia feast The Wonder Years. Dennis Christopher was nominated for and/or won numerous "newcomer" awards in '79, although his career didn't pan out in the "leading man" direction one might have expected. Still, he's kept busy as an actor and most recently appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Jackie Earle Haley has had some career ups and downs, but has recently been in films like Watchmen and Shutter Island, as well as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

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 clich├ęs. 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.


  1. I was 39 years old when I first saw this movie but it still resonated with me also. Thanks for the memories. Excellent review. BTW, I own four Mercians.

    1. Thanks for the comments -- and another Mercian fan!

  2. Somehow I still haven't seen this film though I bought it for my partner for his birthday. (He's seen it many time!) Must rectify this soon. Meanwhile, I am studiously AVOIDING reading this post of yours!!! ;)

    1. I think you'd be relatively safe, Rebecca. I tried to avoid giving away too many spoilers, just in case there was somebody out there who hadn't seen it.

  3. No mention of Katherine? Didn't some of us start riding bicycles in hope of meeting a Katherine? Dave had some motivation because of her.

    1. Ahh - Katerina. Yeah, I wanted to meet a Katerina. She was listed in the credits with the words "Introducing Robyn Douglass" as if someone was certain she was destined for greatness. She's had some parts in made-for-TV movies and walk-on parts on some TV shows. The biggest thing she did after Breaking Away was the final season of Battlestar Galactica. (Galactica 1980).

  4. Although I too saw the film as a high school student and lusted after both, I did not get a Katerina but do have a mint condition 1981 Masi Gran Criterium in the same orange/red colour as in the movie. It was brazed by Dave Moulton in California. After the film came out in 1979 there was a jump in demand for Masis in the US but it fell off pretty soon and by 1981 there was a stack of unsold frames and Dave was let go. He went on to build his own Fuso brand bikes. By the way, the poster for the movie which showed the Masi being ridden had the image reversed so the drivetrain was on the wrong side! Great memories and a nice blog story.

  5. This is a great review of a great film. But you forgot one important fact. Steve Tesich, the film's writer, received an Academy Award for best original screenplay. It was my good fortune to have know Steve. I met him, when he lived in Peter Yates apartment at the Dakota (where I worked), shortly after the film's release. Steve and I would ride laps in Central Park in the afternoons. During these rides, he shared many things about his life. He said the film was pretty much biographical. Steve came to the US from Serbia at age 14, and settled first in Chicago and later in Colorado, where he discovered Italian professional bike racing and a love for cycling. Because English was a second language, he was determined to master it. Steve took his inspiration from the work of Joseph Conrad, the Polish writer who eventually settled in England. When I joined Steve on our rides in Central Park, I rode my 1962 Masi Special, which I got that year at the Vigorelli in Milan. Steve never said one word about the bike.

    1. Thanks for writing -- it's nice to hear from readers. I did actually mention the Oscar for the Tesich's screenplay, but you might have missed it. Anyhow -- that's a great story you have about meeting him. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. I had just started grad school in a small town when this film came out. I said to my housemates: "How do people get around in this town?" They said: "Get a bike." I saw Breaking Away and immediately went out and bought an inexpensive 10-speed.