“There’ll be peace without end, every neighbor a friend, and every man a king!”
The Survivors, 1983 (Robin Williams), Columbia Pictures
There’s a hint of desperation in Donald Quinelle (Robin Williams) as he attempts to reach out for the American Dream or as much of that dream that his middle-class existence will allow. He loses his job and begins to lose his mind. Walter Matthau’s Sonny is a gas station owner who loses his livelihood when Williams inadvertently blows it up. He can’t get unemployment benefits because as the owner of the gas station, he wasn’t an employee or something along those lines. The two men meet in a diner before a thief named Jack (Jerry Reed) holds up the joint. In the ensuing revolt, Donald is shot.
In the hospital, he becomes demoralized when his heroic actions are decried on the news as being juvenile and mindlessly retaliatory. After Donald appears on the news to rebut the commentary and reveals Sonny’s name on live television, Jack breaks into Sonny’s house to kill him before he can identify his likeness to the cops. Reed claims to have assisted in Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. Donald arrives in the nick of time and rescues Sonny and his teenage daughter. Reed is arrested and booked.
Donald develops an interest in guns, knives, and survivalism. He invests his savings in a survivalist retreat up north, headed by con-man Wes Huntley (James Wainwright), who is exploiting people’s fears about the rotting big city cess-pool and the failing economy of a once-grand nation. Jack tracks Donald to the retreat and Sonny follows in an effort to save Donald from himself and from Jack. While initially adept at weaponry, Donald proves incapable of protecting himself.
The Survivors is a wonderful satire, and perhaps my favorite of Robin Williams’ performances, because while the broad comedy palette is more than sufficient for Williams and his antics, the undercurrent of drama and social commentary create an ultimately tragic figure in Donald Quinelle. While Matthau’s Sonny is a pragmatist who tries to keep Donald grounded and safe, he realizes he must surrender to the absurdity of his predicament. The film embraces the fears we all share and indicts the parasites who seek to take advantage of those fears.
Director Michael Ritchie had an unusual up-and-down career, making brilliant comedies like The Bad News Bears and Fletch, and horrible flops like The Island and Student Bodies as well as marginally successful movies like The Survivors and Semi Tough. He died in 2001. Walter Matthau appeared, most famously as Oscar Madison in the film version of The Odd Couple, as well as the Grumpy Old Men movies with Jack Lemmon. Matthau died in 2000. I remember Jerry Reed first for his music. One of my favorite songs ever was a ditty he wrote and recorded titled “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”. He is most famous for his appearances in the Smokey and the Bandit series, as well as another favorite movie of mine, Hot Stuff, directed by Dom DeLuise in 1979. Reed died in 2008.
At the end of the movie, as Donald realizes he has been duped and living a lie in the snow-covered woods, he gets out of the car on the ride home. Sonny follows him and tries to get him back into the car. Donald disrobes and starts shivering in the cold. Sonny gives him his coat. Donald tells him he’ll freeze. Sonny says, “that’s okay, we’ll freeze together”. I was deeply devastated by Williams’ death in August of 2014, and I screened three of his movies that are among my favorites. The Survivors was one of them.
“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.