Documentary: The Devil at your Heels

Last night I came across this classic gem from 1981 on the National Film Board of Canada‘s website. Sifting through the films on the website can be a little bit hit or miss, but I think they knocked it out of the park with this brilliant feature-length documentary by Robert Fortier. You can watch the entire film in the player above. After the first couple of minutes you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it is that we’re talking about here.

The Devil at your Heels is essentially a character sketch of the Canadian daredevil, Ken Carter. The film follows Carter on his 5 year endeavour to break the world record in car jumping. Carter intends to use a rocket car to jump over a mile-wide river.

The film lays bare various failures of the project, as well as Carter’s raw determination to push forward. Carter surrounds himself with an interesting cast of characters. He constantly relies on a web of financial backers, mechanics, engineers, managers, and lawyers. Carter begins to lose control of his own project as assorted stakeholders try to satisfy their diverging goals.

I love the film. The vintage is perfect, right down to the bubbly yellow ‘Cooper’ font that Fortier uses in the title. Many of the characters in the film have tremendous beards, much unlike the half-measures we find commonly worn by today’s men.

The film, along with the demeanour of Ken Carter, reminds me of another great cult classic from NFB, Project Grizzly (1996). In Project Grizzly, director Peter Lynch introduces us to Troy James Hurtubise as his efforts to construct and test a bear-proof suit unfold. Carter, like Hurtubise, has the outgoing, self-promoting, and slightly obsessive edge that seems necessary to drive wacky and expensive projects forward. I won’t go too far into the parallels between these two films as I plan to discuss Project Grizzly further at a later date. But if you like one of these films, you’ll likely enjoy the other.

I hope you get a kick out of The Devil at your Heels. I’m glad to finally get a documentary post in. I’ve been embroiled in a 26 part documentary series from 1973 called The World at War (Thames Television) and I’ll write about that soon. You’ll probably see more frequent documentary posts in the future, as most films aren’t 21 hours long and they don’t take me a month to watch.

4 thoughts on “Documentary: The Devil at your Heels

  1. A lot of films like this try to portray a nobility of sorts, and squeeze some admiration from us for, as you say, the purity of purpose for the protaganist, but I’m not so sure I agree with that here. The part of the film dealing with his final ‘try’, with him dilly dallying until the rain came, really made me wonder if in his heart of hearts he ever REALLY wanted to do it. I don’t think it’s something as simple as fear of death; I just wonder if he EVER really meant to do it, or whether he’s simply addicted to being the Man of La Mancha, and maybe just wanted to always seem to people to be the guy ready to do the impossible (but never does it. Never TRIES, really, to do it). It’s interesting, when he speaks directly to the camera, how he seems to say, as often as ofteh as he says “I’m going to do it”, “I WANT to do it”. Like he’s trying to persuade himself or something.
    You wonder: is this a film about a guy and a rocket car, or about the need in all of us to self-delude about what we’re capable of (or what we’ll do in life)? He keeps talking about getting older and breaking bones. I don’t think that’s the part of aging that frightens him: I think it’s his subconscious knowledge that he won’t be able to delude himself much longer.

    • What you suspect could possibly be true. There’s no real way to determine from this film. He is a bit of a blow-hard. He likes to talk. I’ll bet his career was built as much on his talk as it was on his jumps.

      The real day for the jump basically fell apart due to reasons other than his willingness (the crew pulling power moves, for example, and then the regulator seal blowing). Those around Ken seemed a little bit leery of his nerve. We only get little sound bites of the backers expressing concern. And then, of course, they ultimately opt for the understudy, which is a firm indication of their assessment of Ken’s likelihood of jumping. But their judgment has to be questioned if they elect to put the untrained understudy in the driver’s seat. He hadn’t done any of the high speed rocket tests or that intense air plane ride. These guys clearly wanted to try to salvage their film projects, and seemed to have minimal concern for the drivers.

      I think that Ken was very reluctant to do such a risky stunt without a crowd present. Recall that before he even started building the jump, he had the team clear a large space for spectators. This was one of the ways that the project spun out of Ken’s control. All his other jumps were done in stadiums with live crowds. He might have relied on that live energy to get himself going.

      I’m not trying to defend the guy really, as I don’t think there’s too much noble about him, but he did lose control of everything, and in the end it seems as though not jumping was the smart move, given the bumpy track and somewhat sketchy plans (I doubt those wings would have done much, given the aerodynamics of that car).

      Finally, we have to talk about how crazy that dual personality thing is. I mean, a stage name is one thing, but he describes prolonged conversations between his two personalities. It seems to me like he’s switched which is which, specifically when it comes to giving orders and carrying them out.

      ps. Favourite quote (reminiscent of Ricky from Trailer Park Boys): “Back then everyone was going down Niagara Falls in wheelbarrows.”

  2. Yes, I found that out after a little more digging. But I still think that his death doesn’t, somehow, retrospectively prove his committment. As he himself said “I don’t expect to die: if I thought I was going to drown in the St. Lawrence I wouldn’t do this”. No one expects to die, eh? Risky behaviour like this is very very complicated, and I don’t purport to understand all of its facets.

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