Here’s to the Dion Brothers!
By Gabriel Jandali appel
There exists very little written about the making of the 1974 film The Dion Brothers (AKA The Gravy Train). The screenplay was penned, pseudonymously, by a young Terrence Malick; the film stars two mainstays of cult cinema, the almost terrifyingly masculine Stacy Keach, and the sublime and wile Frederic Forrest; and directors like David Gordon Green and Quentin Tarantino have offered recent glowing reappraisals—but despite such bona-fide credentials, The Dion Brothers remains underseen, partly thanks to being saddled with two separate titles, and having never been officially released on VHS, BetaMax, LaserDisk, DVD, Blu-Ray, HD-DVD, or streaming. With an eye to this gap, I spoke to as many people as I could for this piece, who’d been involved in its production. The history remains anecdotal, only as fact-checkable as the rusty memories of a few men well past the age of 70. Lucky for us, it’s more fun that way.
The movie opens with one of the titular brothers, Keach’s Calvin Dion, working an assembly line, canning what look to be beans (I cannot verify this fact, having only ever seen low-res rips, like the bootlegged copy I rented in high school that had the Cinemax logo proudly emblazoned on the upper right-hand corner of the screen, never lucky enough to watch the 16mm print that is playing at Metrograph). Within moments, Calvin rips off his apron and throws it to the ground revealing a hairy barrel chest: “I didn’t stick out the last year of high school to do this shit,” he declares. “This old hound is bound for glory. I got the makings of a Kirk Douglas, man. Look at me. Kirk fucking Douglas!”
Calvin’s out, and the credits roll, placing us in West Virginia. But there’s still one sibling left to meet, and so, we are given a second, “Fuck you, I quit” scene—Malick would repeat another version himself four years later, in the opening of Days of Heaven—as Calvin fetches his little bro Russell (Forrest) from his job working in a coal mine. Russell tosses two hard hats through different manager’s office windows, and we’re off to the races.
The boys are headed to pull a heist, with dreams of using their cut of the score to open a seafood restaurant called The Blue Grotto, and then “they’ll never be poor again.” This brings the pair to Washington, D.C., where the rest of the movie takes place, and to Tony (Barry Primus), “a slick Italian guy from New York” who may treat them like hicks, Calvin warns. A dandy complete with a canted fedora and pocket square, Tony fits the bill; after the boys successfully rob an armored car, he absconds with the money and turns them over to the fuzz. And so Calvin and Russell must escape, hunt down Tony, exact their revenge, and, maybe, open The Blue Grotto (with several explosive set pieces along the way).
To state the obvious, this is not a somber take on Watergate
What’s apparent from the jump, though (apart from the comfortably predictable plot beats) is the chemistry between Keach and Forrest, and among all of the cast. When he spoke to me this year, Primus—who acted consistently throughout the ensuing decades working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky, and David O. Russell—recalled that “he never did a movie where people bonded more.” Keach is signature Keach, easily embodying the elder Dion with a cocksure hillbilly charm. But Forrest is the heart of the movie, and he in turn makes that heart beat nearly to the point of rupture.
When I was in high school, Forrest would occasionally stroll into the rep theater when I worked, a place where he was held in ultimate esteem. He never put on airs, happily shared Old Hollywood anecdotes, and, though best known for his role as “Chef” in Apocalypse Now (1979), occasionally bemoaned what he felt was his typecasting following his role as the stoner dad in Valley Girl (1979). He seemed to embody some sort of archetype: the great American actor who was never quite given the defining role he deserved (though he was nominated for an Oscar for 1979’s The Rose, a film I’ve not seen). Perhaps Wim Wenders’s Hammett (1982) could have been it, but that movie was re-shot, re-cut, and had its original footage destroyed (a saga worth a google, or a lecture from a knowledgeable video store clerk if there are any left around).
In The Dion Brothers, Forrest is electric. His Russell oscillates constantly between the role of innocent little brother and a livewire force of true insanity, and he is responsible for many of the movie’s funniest lines. When he and the posse are waiting in a safe house, he waves around his gun, pantomiming fires, nearly dropping it several times and declares, “The way I figure it, the world is full of loony people. And everybody ought to have one of these!”
On the topic of loonies, the film takes place and was in part shot on the streets of Washington D.C. The Dion Brothers was released in June of 1974, over a year after the Watergate hearings began, and less than two months before Richard Nixon resigned. The capital’s landmarks are mostly kept to brief establishing shots, or glimpsed from a car window as the brothers zip about town quipping: “That there’s either the Washington Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, or the Ramada Inn.”
To state the obvious, this is not a somber take on Watergate, nor a movie that fits into a program of bleak ’70s Watergate reactionary films. But it is a reaction, reveling in the all-out absurdity of government corruption, and just trying to have fun. The brothers aren’t trying to solve anything, they just want to open a restaurant that will make a damn fine clams casino. Or, as Russell sums up towards the end of the film when his compatriots suggest turning back, “They got The Blue Grotto up there. All that lobster stuff and everything. We gotta go and get it. We done stuck up an armored car, blown up a building, and I think I probably killed some people! Home just don’t enter into it!”
When Jonathan Taplin, coming off producing Mean Streets (1973), bought Malick’s screenplay after seeing Badlands (1973), he’d hoped Malick would direct the picture as well. To hear him tell it, Malick’s agent strongly implied that this was a distinct possibility, but it wasn’t. (Taplin discusses the making of The Dion Brothers and much else besides in his book The Magic Years: Scenes Fromm the Rock-and-Roll Life.)
Without a director, Taplin was only able to scrape together a very modest budget “which sort of precluded anyone real important as a director,” he told me. “Then I heard about this guy Jack Starrett,” Taplin remembered. The late Starrett was another storied Hollywood figure, acting in movies like Blazing Saddles (1974), and directing a handful of films and television episodes, all the while crossing paths with countless better-known figures of the era. I can’t really fact check this (nor do I want to) but multiple folks told me Starrett’s directorial career started on a movie (likely 1969’s Run, Angel, Run!) that he was working on as a craft-services cook and set photographer. When the original director of said picture got sick, Starrett—much like Calvin Dion—tore off his apron and directed the picture himself.
Taplin described him as a “tough, crazy man. A real cowboy.” Primus called him “an American original.” Everyone I talked to for this piece had countless anecdotes from his personal life, none that I’d feel comfortable writing here or sharing in mixed company. But the frenetic tone of the movie seems to have been set by him, doing things like waving around a loaded pistol and filling the glove compartments of set cars with cocaine (only for said cars to then be pulled over by the cops). For example, it was Starrett who insisted on filming the climax of The Dion Bothers, a 20-minute shootout in a dilapidated building that is being gutted by a wrecking ball, in an actual dilapidated building as it was being torn down by a wrecking ball, and apparently made Primus hang onto the ball with no harness for minutes on end while he rushed to change film reels.
When scouting the downtown Los Angeles building that he eventually used, Starrett came upon Chino Williams, a local cook who was living in the abandoned structure and raising chickens. Starrett hired Williams to cook for the crew, and continuing the tradition he’d begun himself, gave him a brief, absurd role in the film (as “The Chicken Man”). This, in turn, yielded Williams an acting career (he appears in 15 episodes of a ’70s cop show called Baretta as well as two Rocky movies, The Terminator 1984’s, 1985’s Weird Science, and 1986’s Iron Eagle).
And Starrett pulled it off. He put together a tight crew, and made a movie that, nearly 50 years later, still absolutely rules. By the time we arrive at the final scene between Calvin and Russell, after all the goofs and gags, we realize with mild surprise that we really do care about these characters. Reportedly, when it came time to film that final scene, Starrett blocked it, and promptly left to go take a nap while the cameras rolled, trusting the team he’d assembled. Once the scene was filmed, an AD woke him up. “Was it any good?” Starrett asked. The AD told him it was. “Then print the motherfucker!” he said.
Gabriel Jandali Appel is an editor at Metrograph
George Peppard, Mr. T, and Jack Starrett in The A-Team (1983)