I had a long day on Wednesday so I unwound the only way that seemed appropriate. I watched Road House, the classic film in which Patrick Swayze plays Dalton. Dalton is the second-greatest bouncer of all time. Who is the greatest? None other than Dalton’s mentor, Wade Garrett!
Now, there’s a lot of reasons to love Road House but the performance of Sam Elliott in the role of Wade Garrett is definitely one of them. If you don’t cry a little when Ben Gazzara’s goons murder old Wade, you just don’t have a heart. In the end, of course, Wade’s bloody corpse gets left on top of the bar and, honestly, I think that’s the way Wade would want to go.
Anyway, watching Road House reminded me of just how awesome Sam Elliott is so I decided to follow it up by watching another Sam Elliott film, one that I had previously DVR’d off of TMC last week. Filmed in 1975 and released in ’76, Lifeguard features a youngish Sam Elliott as the title character. Even though the lifeguard in question might be named Rick Carlson, it’s hard not to think of this film as essentially being Wade Garrett: The Early Years.
When Lifeguardopens, Rick Carlson is 32 years old. He’s been a lifeguard since he graduated high school. In his youth, he was a championship-winning surfer. Now, he’s an aging beach bum who is content to spend both the summer and the winter sitting in his lifeguard tower, watching life on the beach and occasionally saving someone from drowning. Rick has a small apartment, several girlfriends, and a legion of adoring fans. Younger lifeguards like Chris (Parker Stevenson, who would later co-star on Baywatch) view him as being a mentor. Beachgoers view him as being an authority figure, the type that can go to if the surfers are being obnoxious or if some old perv is wandering around exposing himself. 17 year-old Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan) flirts with him and, against his better instincts and common sense, Rick often flirts back. Despite a bit of gray in his hair and the fact that he gets winded a bit easier, Rick is still living the same life that he was living when he first graduated high school and he’s happy with that.
Or, at least, he is until he gets an invitation to his 15 year high school reunion and he discovers that everyone else is actually living a real life with real responsibilities. When he discovers that his former girlfriend, Cathy (Anne Archer), is now divorced, Rick starts to think about what could have been. When another former high school friend, Larry (Stephen Young), offers Rick a high-paying job selling cars, Rick finds himself wondering if it’s time to leave the beach and finally get a “real” job.
Lifeguard is an episodic film, a mix of comedy and drama that has an unexpectedly melancholy feel to it. For the most part, the film asks us to sympathize with Rick’s desire to spend the rest of his life on the beach but, at the same time, it also doesn’t deny that there are drawbacks to Rick’s lifestyle. Rick’s living the life he wants but he’s largely doing so alone, unable to build up any sort of personal connection with anyone who isn’t 16 years younger than him. Interestingly enough, for a film called Lifeguard, we really don’t see Rick rescuing many people or doing anything else that you might expect to see a lifeguard doing. Modern viewers will probably spend the entire movie waiting for Rick to give a speech about why being a lifeguard is a holy calling but that moment never happens. Instead, it’s pretty clear that Rick mostly just enjoys hanging out at the beach and being a lifeguard allows him to get paid to do just that. Watching the film, I could not help but compare Rick’s laid back attitude to the overly earnest lifeguards who populated Baywatch. Mitch Buchannon would have kicked Rick off the beach for not taking the job seriously enough. As well, as opposed to the vibrant cinematography that we’ve come to expect from beach movies, the visual style of Lifeguard is often moody and underlit. At times, the beach itself looks like it’s suffering from an existential crisis. The sand looks dull. The skies above the water often appear to be gray and full of clouds. Rick has apparently decided to spend the rest of his life on the ugliest beach in California.
It’s a flawed film, to be sure. The attempts to mix drama and comedy often lead to uneven results and Anne Archer, Parker Stevenson, and Stephen Young are stuck with underwritten characters. (The film’s script especially lets Young down, making Larry such an obnoxious character that it’s hard to believe that he and Rick would have ever been friends in the firs place.) When the film does work, it’s due to the performances of Kathleen Quinlan and Sam Elliot. Though her character is a cliché (the rebellious teenager who isn’t as worldly as she thinks she is), Quinlan does a good job of giving the character a personality that makes her more than just a stock temptation.
The film belongs, of course, to Sam Elliott and he is perfectly cast. As he would do decades later in The Hero, Elliott does a wonderful job of suggesting the little doubts that lurk underneath the laid back surface of his character. His strongest moment occurs not on the beach but when Rick goes to his high school reunion and realizes that he no longer fits in with his former classmates, all of whom have careers and families. Rick goes from being cocky to insecure in a matter of minutes and Elliott captures Rick’s emotions beautifully. At that moment, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Rick. One can understand why he’s tempted to leave the beach for the real world but, at the same time, one can also see that Rick understands that it might be too late for him to do so. He’s spent the last 15 years in a perpetual adolescence and the rest of the world has moved on. Elliott perfectly captures the moment when Rick realizes that his happiness has come with a price. Rick is a flawed (if ultimately good) person but Sam Elliott gives a flawless performance in the role. Just as surely was Wade Garrett rescued Dalton when Wesley’s men tried to stop the beer delivery, Sam Elliott saves Lifeguard.