Our List of the Top 10 Trucking Movies
What are some of your most favorite trucking movies? While they may feature trucks and portray truckers and the trucking industry, chances are many of them simply don’t reflect the professionalism trucking companies look for and expect from drivers and owner operators these days. Often they portray this common mythology of truck drivers as modern day cowboys – mavericks. After all, with a few notable exceptions, movies are fictional dramas made to thrill us or they’re comedies made to show us the humor of everyday life. They’re entertainment.
Still, they often reflect the language, history and culture of trucking and, for good or ill, some have greatly influenced the public’s perception of trucking. Below we offer our Top 10 list of some of the most popular or most memorable movies featuring trucks, truckers and the trucking industry and a few facts about them. They are offered in alphabetical order as choosing how to rank them would be nearly impossible without getting into a brawl.
We would be interested in knowing how you would rank these choices or if you think our list ignores more noteworthy films.
Big Rig – 2007
This film would be one of those few notable exceptions we mentioned before. Told from the perspective of long-haul truck drivers, this 2007 documentary, directed by Doug Pray, offers a glimpse into the modern-day trucking industry. Filming took place over four different two-week roadtrips. The documentary’s director and cameraman, producer and production assistant drove into a truck stop in an RV and approached truckers for interviews. If the driver agreed, Pray rode along for a day and interviewed the driver while the producer followed along in the RV. Big Rig was an official selection of the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival and the American Film Institute (AFI) Fest 2007.
Big Trouble in Little China – 1986
Director John Carpenter once described “Big Trouble in Little China” as an “action adventure comedy kung fu ghost story monster movie.” The 1986 feature starring Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong is also a top trucking movie. The story unfolds as Jack Burton, an all-American trucker played by Russell, becomes entangled in a centuries-old mystical battle in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Yes, we know it’s called the International District, now. But let’s face it, “Big Trouble in Little International District” just doesn’t sound right.
While Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wants to do a remake of the movie with Carpenter directing, Carpenter remains ambivalent to the idea. The Rock playing the role of Jack Burton, a blue-collar everyman truck driver? We’re just not seeing it.
Convoy – 1978
About a year after Smokey and the Bandit premiered, Kris Kristofferson appeared on the big screen as Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald opposite Ernest Borgnine as Sheriff Lyle “Cottonmouth” Wallace. The movie, directed by Sam Peckinpah, was inspired by country song “Convoy,” by C.W. McCall, originally released three years earlier. Later, a new version of the song was recorded with saltier lyrics for the movie’s soundtrack. While C.W. McCall is listed as the artist and co-writer, that name is actually a pseudonym created by the actual songwriter, Bill Fries, also listed as co-writer. The movie tanked at the box office as a lot of the CB radio hype had died down by the time the movie was released. Still, it remains a cult classic among truckers and trucking enthusiasts.
Duel – 1971
As perhaps one of the most intense films ever made, Duel quite honestly scared the bejesus out of many non-commercial vehicle drivers. But oddly enough it’s also a little humorous at times, even if the humor is quite dark. David Mann, played by Dennis Weaver, is a businessman who’s trying to get to an important meeting. Stephen Spielberg in his full-length film directing debut revels in setting up Mann as this fussy urbanite who’s a bit out of his element in getting help after being accosted on the road by an unseen lunatic truck driver.
In fact, if you think about the other television character he played at the time this movie first aired, it would almost seem laughable to think that Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud would have any trouble in putting the truck driver down in the first 10 minutes of the movie. But Weaver does such a believable acting job as a more mousy Mann. Throughout the movie, Mann becomes increasingly panicky as he tries to get away from this unseen driver, who becomes more and more belligerent and menacing. Because the driver of the truck remains anonymous and unseen throughout the entire movie, Spielberg’s aim to make the real villain of the film the truck itself succeeds quite well. While Duel was originally a made-for-TV movie shot on a shoestring budget and a tight schedule, we think it became pretty clear to many that the movie’s director would be making some pretty incredible movies in the near future.
As thrilling as the movie was, unfortunately it also succeeded in making many a motorist a bit uneasy around semi-trucks.
Every Which Way But Loose – 1978
This comedy, directed by James Fargo, stars Clint Eastwood as Philo Beddoe, a chill trucker with an unusual team member riding along – an orangutan named Clyde, played by Manis. Following the release of the sequel – “Any Which Way You Can,” two years later, debate ensued as to what happened to Manis. The confusion seems to stem from the possibility that Manis did not actually play Clyde in the sequel because he had literally grown too big for the role. The orangutan who played Clyde in the second film was found dead of a cerebral hemorrhage allegedly attributed to abuse shortly after filming ended in 1980. However in an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on animal abuse in the entertainment industry 28 years later, the LA Times referred to the orangutan that played Clyde as one and the same animal.
BJ and the Bear – 1978 to 1981
The success of “Every Which Way But Loose” spawned the television series “B.J. and the Bear,” which aired on NBC for three seasons. Greg Evigan played Billie Joe “B.J.” McKay – an independent trucker who travelled the highways in a red and white Kenworth K100 cabover with his chimpanzee sidekick “Bear” named after famed University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Claude Akins, who previously starred in another popular trucking series, “Movin’ On,” frequently guest starred in the first season.
Sweetiepie, the wife of a trucker wounded in a shootout, played by Kim Darby, must think of a way to pay the rates for her husband’s Mack conventional truck before it’s confiscated by repossessor professor C.W. Douglas, played by Harry Dean Stanton. With the help of a friend of her husband, Flatbed Annie, who’s a truck driver without a truck, they take to the road looking to “outdrive, outhaul, outdrag, outclutch, outtalk, outhog any turkey on the boulevard.” Annie Potts plays Flatbed Annie in this 1979 comedy directed by Robert Greenwald. Kind of like a “High Ballin’” meets “Thelma and Louise,” type chick truck flick, only without the driving-off-the-cliff part.
High Ballin’ – 1978
In this 1978 film directed by Peter Carter, two truck drivers played by Jerry Reed and Peter Fonda fight off truckers hired by a leading trucking operation that wants to drive them out of business. Reed also played Snowman in “Smokey and The Bandit.” Largely panned by critics, this Canadian action comedy film was widely considered to be an overly exaggerated look at trucking even for a 1970s trucking genre movie. However, its highly polished action scenes offer an unexpected amount of flash for a truck flick, which is probably why it lands on most lists of top trucking movies. Besides, when a film is described as “a modern-day western, with trucks instead of horses,” of course you’re going to want to see it. Now whether you’ll want to watch it over and over like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western remains to be seen.
By the way, did we mention it’s Canadian?
License to Kill – 1989
The James Bond Film, “License to Kill,” with Timothy Dalton as Bond, featured all of the usual ingredients for an action-packed thriller: international drug smuggling, double-crossing, and speeding. It also featured 18-wheelers doing special stunts never before attempted by a Class 8 truck: a rear wheelie and a side wheelie. The movie also featured a driverless truck and a truck with a highly supercharged engine.
Acquiring the trucks to accomplish those stunts wasn’t a matter of going to the nearest truck dealer and ordering them. For the movie, Kenworth’s engineering department was set to work by the movie’s stunt expert Remy Julienne to come up with the special trucks required for the stunts. For the wheelie truck, Julienne needed a rig with a 1,000-hp engine – about three times the power of a normal engine, plus modified suspensions and front and rear axles replacements. The biggest challenge for Kenworth engineers was the dual steering driverless truck, which required the installation of two throttle pedals that could control the engine independent of each other. They also had to work out the steer, clutch, and shift linkages so the Kenworth W900 could perform a wheelie driving through a wall of flames on a winding mountain pass.
Smokey and The Bandit – 1977
This is the movie that may have launched many a trucking career and helped make CB radios popular and the language of the trucker a little more accessible for the general public. It was released at the height of popularity for the ‘70s genre of trucking movies. You may or may not know that this movie, directed by Hal Needham, was the second highest grossing movie of the year at the box office. And the highest? “Star Wars – Episode IV – A New Hope.” Here’s another lesser known fact – three different short wheel base Kenworth W900A trucks were used in the movie. One was a 1973 model and the other two were 1974 models.
White Line Fever – 1975
Director – Jonathan Kaplan
After returning from a two-year tour in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force, Carrol Jo Hummer, played by Jan Michael Vincent, marries his sweetheart, borrows money to buy a truck and tries to become an independent long-haul driver. He goes back to Red River, the produce hauler that his father drove for before he died. Hummer discovers things have changed since his dad worked at the company. When he refuses to haul un-taxed cigarettes, Hummer finds himself blackballed by his father’s former business partner, who runs Red River. Hummer risks his life fighting the corruption and trying to organize the truckers.
OK, yes, we said we would give you our list of our top 10 trucking movies, but we think these movies deserve at least brief mentions:
Henry Fonda plays 60-year-old truck driver Elegant John, who gets his rig repossessed by the finance company while in the hospital being treated for a terminal illness. He escapes from the hospital and steals back his truck in an effort to make one last perfect cross-country run. Pursued by the police, Elegant John becomes a folk hero after he picks up six prostitutes along the way as a favor to his friend, madam Penelope, played by Eileen Brennan. This movie also stars Susan Sarandon.
While the film’s director, John Leone, shares the same last name of the spaghetti western movie director, alas it doesn’t appear as though he’s any relation to Sergio. Considering the movie’s alternate title, wouldn’t that have been interesting if he were?
Over the Top – 1987
Director – Menahem Golan
Sylvester Stallone plays Lincoln Hawk, a trucker who enters a world arm wrestling championship in Las Vegas, hoping to win a new semi-truck and $100,000 to start his own trucking company.
They All Kissed the Bride – 1942
This World War II-era movie, directed by Alexander Hall, features the story of Margaret Drew, a ruthless trucking company executive, played by Joan Crawford, who runs the business single-mindedly. Interestingly, Carole Lombard was originally slated to star in the role of Margaret Drew, but she was killed in a plane crash in Las Vegas while on her way back from a bond-selling tour. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer agreed to let Crawford star in the role of this Columbia film. Following its release, Crawford’s performance was panned by critics as being overly harsh and unamusing, making the romantic interests of Michael Holmes, played by Melvyn Douglas, baffling. Still, we think the movie offers an interesting glimpse into the business of trucking before the series of federal laws deregulated the industry in the late ‘70s. It’s also a bit refreshing to watch as Crawford’s Margaret Drew dresses down a member of her company’s board of directors.
They Drive By Night – 1940
This 1940 film noir directed by Raoul Walsh features two brothers, Paul and Joe Fabrini, who run a trucking business in California hauling fruit from farms to Los Angeles markets. Joe, played by George Raft, and Paul, played by Humphrey Bogart, struggle to make ends meet while trying to work for and compete against corrupt businessmen. One night, after picking up waitress Cassie Hartley, played by Ann Sheridan, the three of them witness the death of a mutual acquaintance. The death profoundly affects Paul and Joe, who are determined to find a way to make their business pay.
Transformers – 2007
Autobots: Roll out. In 2007, Optimus Prime appeared for the first time in this full-length feature film directed by Michael Bay. And for those who remember watching the cartoon on Saturday mornings and playing with the Hasbro toy at Christmas time, there was an overwhelming feeling of giddiness as Peter Cullen’s voice boomed those three words for the first time on the big screen. We always knew Transformers were cool. Now we had this kickass movie to prove it. OK, so maybe the original Optimus Prime was a cabover. But really, who cares? It’s Optimus Prime – a Class 8 truck that transforms into an intergalactic traveling robot fighting the forces of evil for the protection of mankind. Man it just doesn’t get any better than that.