How can I best describe The Devil at Your Heels? Truth is stranger than fiction? The eccentric shall inherit the earth? Build it and they will come?
No, I had better just describe it as stuntman Ken Carter’s attempt to jump over a river – a distance of one mile – using a rocket-powered car. Yes, you read that correctly: A rocket-powered car!
He attempts to jump over the Saint Lawrence River from Canada to the USA in the area near Morrisburg, Ontario. Since this is a car we are talking about, he can’t land it on the other side. He has to crash it. Hmm, I’m not sure if this is the smartest stunt ever conceived.
The film shows two sides of Carter: the business man and the showman. We see him early in his career as he tours the country with his stuntmen jumping over parked cars and generally dazzling the crowds. The film explains that as he got older he dreamed of a final incredible stunt that would make him the greatest stuntman alive.
Shot over 5 years, The Devil at Your Heels documents Carter’s efforts to secure financing, time and time again, to build a hundred-foot ramp and a rocket car capable of jumping that distance. It is safe to say that everything that could go wrong went wrong, including the car’s fuel tanks exploding several times.
The engineers who build the fuel tanks are onscreen often, trying to explain that they will get these problems worked out. It is hilarious to see how their determination changes with every setback. When things are going as wrong as they possibly can, the engineers start to wonder if God is trying to tell them something.
Throughout the numerous setbacks (trust me, there are too many to count) Carter’s enthusiasm never falters. He is convinced that he can make this jump happen (and become the world’s greatest stuntman in the process), even when all the odds are against him.
Speaking of great stuntmen, Evel Knievel comes by the jump site to report for ABC Sports (who will show the jump live) and discovers that the ramp is about half built and pretty much nothing will be ready on time due to the omnipresent rain. Carter’s expression is priceless as he tries to reassure Knievel that everything is progressing as it should even though it is obvious to everyone else that there is no way the jump will go ahead as scheduled.
The film was originally intended as a short on the jump attempt in 1975. Filmmaker Robert Fortier thought it would all take place over a couple of weeks, and he would get some great stunt footage. As things dragged on, he had to alter his plans and ask the NFB to allow additional shooting. The result is a fascinating feature documentary on Carter the man and Carter the promoter.
One newspaper review pointed out that Carter rarely spends his own money and is a master at getting others to open their wallets. I don’t know if I would go that far, but I will acknowledge that he certainly knows how to sell a dream.
Now I’m sure most of you want to know if Carter succeeds in making the jump. I won’t reveal what happens at the end but it includes a surprise twist you never see coming. The film moves at a surprising clip, and you rarely notice the 102-minute running time.
Gordon Pinsent does a masterful job narrating with wry humour. The filmmakers never make fun of Carter. He is always treated with respect even though some of the situations he finds himself in are downright hilarious. Sometimes it’s like watching a train wreck: It is horrible to look at but you can’t keep your eyes off the action.
The film was completed in 1981 and shown to various theatrical distributors in the USA who found it “too documentary.” In Canada, the distributors found it too long. Documentary features were not in vogue in the 1980s so the NFB gave it a scattered release in several cities. It played, notably, in Montreal as well as at a Calgary Cineplex for a week in March 1982.
The film picked up the Genie for Best Theatrical Documentary in 1983. It did much better on television airing throughout the world in countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, the USA, Norway, Argentina and Israel. It was very popular on home video and became a cult hit in Australia.
Sadly, Carter was killed in September 1983 when the rocket-powered car he was driving overshot a ramp by 30 metres and crashed during a stunt show in Peterborough. He was only 45, but he lived every one of those years as fully as any human being can.