History is messy. The winds of cultural change seldom align neatly with our calendars; the things we think of as quintessentially 1950s, for example, like teenyboppers and nuclear testing and television, properly date to the 1940s. The same holds true for the 1970s, a decade which began in the midst of a sort of cultural bridge, a short period starting in the months after the Summer of Love and lasting to about 1973 and the early days of disco. Take the career of Neil Diamond, who I bring up not entirely because of my personal obsessions, but because his commercial image so accurately marks this rapid-fire change in popular culture. In 1966, he was a pompadoured kid singing country-rock pop tunes; by 1970, he was a moody, long-haired troubadour in flower power shirts; by 1974, he was sporting feathered disco hair and singing overwrought television duets while poured into spangly Lurex pantsuits. We can be as logical as we want to be, but when we see 1966 side by side with 1974, it’s difficult to comprehend the enormous transformations in American popular culture in those eight short years.
That’s why it’s so exciting to come across a cultural touchstone that helps fill in what feels like gaps in our collective memory, and that is exactly what Kansas City Bomber (1972) does. The kind of B-movie actioner that played on local television stations in the mid 1970s during slow afternoons when the baseball game got rained out, Kansas City Bomber is considered — when it’s even considered at all — a stereotypical 1970s film, probably something with faux commercialized feminism and skating to disco and plenty of camp.
Yet Kansas City Bomber is none of those things. Its reputation is about as inaccurate as a reputation can get, both in content and context. Kansas City Bomber is one of the better examples of low-budget cinema of the early 1970s, surprisingly influential, ahead of its time and a really terrific film. K.C. Carr (Raquel Welch) is a divorced mom of two who makes her living skating for the roller derby team the Kansas City Ramblers; the team is often mistakenly referred to as the “Bombers” in reviews, but “Bomber” is just her nickname, given to her later in the film.
Roller derby utilized much of the same showmanship as wrestling, with players adopting nicknames, a persona and manufactured clashes between teammates. K.C.’s personal bete noire is Big Bertha, played by real life roller derby star Patti “Moo Moo” Cavin. Bertha challenges K.C. to a skate-off — “the team is only big enough for one of us!” — and the loser has to leave the team. K.C. loses, and finds herself traded to the Portland Loggers, owned by savvy businessman Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy).
It’s questionable whether K.C. really knows that this was all a set-up. She and Bertha approach the challenge as a legitimate showdown, while behind the scenes, Burt and other managers take advantage of genuine antipathy between players, and haggle for who is going to be traded to what team. K.C. is relatively naive, the kind of athlete who joins a team because that’s what she’s good at, not so much to become a local or regional roller derby star. But it’s a difficult life for her, leaving her two young kids (Jodie Foster and Stephen Manley) with her mother as she travels all over the country, and her mother (Martene Bartlett) actively disapproving of her life.
Things seem to be looking up for K.C. when she falls for her new manager Burt, but he puts her on the second-level team, the Renegades, until she proves herself. Finally promoted to the Loggers, K.C. immediately clashes with the team’s top player, Jackie Burdette (a terrific Helena Kallianiotes). K.C. doesn’t even realize she’s in the middle of a fight, just keeps cheerfully chatting Jackie up, jumping into the men’s team play for the sake of honor and a good show, and trying to get along with the rest of the team, including the no-nonsense trainer Vivien (Jeanne Cooper). She makes friends with fellow skater Lovey (Mary Kay Pass) and Horrible Hank Hopkins (a wonderful Norman Alden) on the Renegades men’s team, but notices Hank is treated poorly by audiences — he’s what would be called “the heel” in pro wrestling — and also by his own teammates.
Still, when Burt promises her a new spot on a team in a town closer to where her children live, K.C. seems to believe everything is going her way. But Jackie knows the score, and soon even the clueless K.C. figures it out, too. Everyone is being used by businessmen looking to make a profit, and her friends start to fall victim to these money-minded machinations, while her teammates grow to resent her for getting favors because, to them, she’s just another lady sleeping with the boss.
The realism provided by actual roller derby players is terrific. K.C.’s nemesis back in Kansas City, played by Patti “Moo Moo” Cavin, was a big woman, and her real-life derby persona involved humiliating nicknames based on her weight. In 1972 she was “Moo Moo,” but by 1973 she was with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds and going by “DC 10.” Horrible Hank, in comparison, is also a big guy, a farm boy who never really grew up, and Burt exploits this by encouraging the audience to shout pig calls at him, to which Hank will “soo-EEE!” back. But this hurts Hank, and K.C. can see it, even if no one else can.
If the humanity in her teammates is hard to find, it’s even more difficult to see in the outside world. Her mother refuses to understand her, wanting her to quit, move back to their small town and work as a cashier in a grocery store. But K.C. has dreams and wants her independence, and it’s refreshing to see a movie where someone has an unconventional dream that isn’t made fun of, nor is it glamorized. Much of the criticism of Kansas City Bomber is leveled at how silly and worthless roller derby is, how showing it on screen must necessarily be making fun of it. But the film treats it respectfully, with a lot of empathy and understanding that, lower-tier it may be, roller derby is still a job in the entertainment industry.
Preconceived notions of what is acceptable, glamorous or important, however, color the way the film is seen. Similarly, Kansas City Bomber uses actual roller derby crowds, a fascinating socioeconomic cross section of society, people of all races, ages, and even styles. When you’re looking into these crowds made up of real people and not extras reflecting the styles and fads that Hollywood entertainment product wanted to promote, you realize that the culture didn’t change as fast in the real world as the media made it seem. We see people in this crowd sporting everything from 1967 Head-era Monkees fashions to this amazing man in flashy striped Levis right out of the 1972 Montgomery Ward catalogue, but in frames that even John Lennon would have deemed out of date.
There is no one in this crowd that is not amazing, but again, many casual online reviews essentially state that merely showing real people in real clothes and real situations is making fun of them. It’s feels almost revolutionary for a non-documentary film to show reality so bluntly, though truth be told, Kansas City Bomber is not that many steps away from documentary. Roller derby was geared toward a working-class audience, people wanting to be entertained, pick sides and blow off steam, and Kansas City Bomber approaches that honestly and shows it as it happens. By 1972, roller derby had gained massive popularity, with some arenas selling over 50,000 tickets for a single game. Though the sport had been around since the 1920s, its time as a wildly popular sport was brief, from about 1969 until the gas shortage crisis of 1973; simply, teams could not travel by bus across the country anymore, and though fans were eager to buy tickets, no teams could afford the trip.
This is not a good screencap, but the look on K.C.’s face (#11, to the right) when this guy on the men’s team, who had been going completely nuts for five solid minutes, gets himself thrown head-first into a bench, is pure gold.
And then a guy from the other team puts a bucket over his head and punches him. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
The cinematography of the bouts is quite good, with long shots capturing the action in documentary style, as well as some extreme close-ups that were quick-cut into the action where everything is just a blur, which adds to the chaotic feel. The editing, especially the audio integrating crowd sounds with the skaters, is terrific, and personally I much prefer this to the more stylized look of 1975’s Rollerball.
While the film approaches roller derby honestly, it falters at the casting of Raquel Welch as a regular skater who needs to be groomed into a glamorous persona. Welch’s appearance in the film is highly controlled and bears all the hallmarks of a Hollywood star: the hair, makeup, lighting, and a jersey tailored to show off cleavage in a way that makes her stand out from her team. There is the use of an obvious stunt double who keeps her hair — far less fabulous than Welch’s own — in her face to hide her identity. Even though Welch broke her wrist during rehearsals and likely needed a stunt double, the presence of one just adds to the obvious separation between her and the other actors, especially those from actual derby teams. Raquel was special, not a team member, and the film suffers for this distinction.
Kansas City Bomber was influenced by popular culture portrayals of feminism. Above, K.C. is seen driving to her new job in Oregon in a montage straight out of the opening of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Later, a teammate is shown with a large “S” on her wall, reminiscent of Mary Richards’ famous “M.” This isn’t a surprise, given writer Calvin Clements, Sr.’s extensive work in television. Also working on the script were new writers Barry Sandler (The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox) and Tom Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter).
The way the skating itself is approached is not exploitative, at least in an anti-woman sense. Kansas City Bomber is not one long catfight, as some have implied, because two women competing against each other in a sport is not automatically a catfight unless you bring your own preconceived notions into it. Again, however, the insistence on showing Welch in clingy knit clothing with nothing underneath is mostly unforgivable and undermines any point the film was trying to make, while also compromising the narrative: How can we believe she’s a naive, regular girl when she’s made up to be a cartoonish sex bomb?
You think this is bad, but when she turns to walk away, we realize the fabric is basically see-through under the lights, making her butt glow out from under the dress like a harvest moon. This tokenism coupled with Welch’s limited acting ability means Kansas City Bomber starts to become campy at times when it should be doubling down on the drama. She’s miscast, and her character is impossible to reconcile with the film’s overall message. But a fine supporting cast keeps it all railed in, as does a tight control of the script, which delves into noir at times. There are moments which will remind you of Night and the City, and dialogue that would not be out of place in Kiss Me Deadly, and the best part is that it’s no silly conceit: it works.
Kansas City Bomber passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors — and note that the Bechdel Test is only an analytical tool. No one is saying that a film is bad unless it passes; rather, that the idea of female characters talking about something besides a man is still so uncommon that it’s difficult to find it even in movies of today. Identifying films where women have lives beyond their relationship to men is important. In Bomber, almost every character could be easily played by someone of another gender, often with very little tweaking of characterization or dialogue.
Thought the film doesn’t exploit women, the plot definitely hinges on the exploitation of workers through a broken system of capitalism. This capitalism combines with sexism to create a power dynamic where women are especially vulnerable, used for the financial gain of rich men wanting to get richer. Society reinforces this as K.C.’s relationship with Burt continues and she, but never Burt, is accused of impropriety. None of this is preached about or harped on but rather shown plainly, the film knowing everyone in the audience will intuitively get it.
Kansas City Bomber was undeniably influential on films like Rollerball and Death Race 2000 (both 1975), though largely shrugged off on its release. Helena Kallianiotes received a best actress nod at that year’s Golden Globes, and was the sole recipient of good notices. Most reviews at the time dismissed the film as a cheap morality tale, and notably, Roger Greenspun complained about K.C. being “beaten to a pulp” every five minutes, when she hardly gets beaten at all; “roughed up four or five times in the film, usually during a contact sport and without any visible signs of injury” is far more accurate. But take note: When one of my film critic brethren feels the need to exaggerate a film to make it look bad, that means the film deserves a second look, because there’s something in there making people uncomfortable.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with Kansas City Bomber, as there are bound to be in any lower-budget film from that era, and for low-budge aficionados looking for the camp and the silly, there is enough here to keep you entertained. Greenspun pointed out a particularly hilarious bit with a taxi kept waiting, for example, the kind of thing I think all of us will enjoy. Those looking for something more substantial and interesting in this film will find it, too. And of course, there’s the fun of watching a movie that on first glance looks like a 1976 ripoff of well-known cult classics but turns out to actually be the 1972 movie that influenced them all.
Kansas City Bomber is available on MOD DVD from Warner Archive, in a great print with all the delicious, nutritious grain intact, and happily comes with subtitles and the theatrical trailer.
Animated gifs courtesy True Blood Mashups.