Strap on the hiking backpack as we cross the rockies in The Continental Divide (1981) on today’s Rockwood Cinema Review, starring John Belushi in this rom/com/drom that would sadly be he his second last performance.
It’s always the writer or reporter looking to escape to the ‘great outdoors’ but Continental Divide sets itself apart as a political reporter escaping the city for his life. Starring John Belushi (Saturday Night Live, Animal House) opposite Blair Brown (One-Trick Pony, Altered State) and directed by Michael Apted (Gorillas In The Mist, The World Is Not Enough), Continental Divide is a fun comedy that juxtapositions the windy city of Chicago against windy mountains of the Colorado Rockies, where the story primarily takes place.
More than that though, it is a testament to the healing powers of the great outdoors as a place for rejuvenation and reflection. This is because, the detoxing that Belushi’s character, Ernie Souchak, goes through happened in John Belushi’s own real life during the filming. Belushi, a well-known party “animal”, was stone cold sober during the filming of this movie precisely because of its remote location. In the movie, the altitude of the Rockies and the expedition winds the reporter from the windy city, as he struggles to get a smoke in between stops during the hike.
However, the gag was not far from the truth. Belushi, physically, was a mess at the beginning of the shoot. Belushi realized he had to physically shed some poundage in order to be able to perform. A classic example of art imitating life. Sadly, this would be John Belushi second last role before returning back to the city and back to his regular habits during the filming of Neighbors (1981). However, this performance which shows the sweeter, low-key side of John Belushi is one of his best.
In Continental Divide, John Belushi plays, Ernie Souchak, whose character was loosely based on a real life journalist, Mike Royko, a columnist who exposed political corruption in Chicago. Eventually his investigations land him in hot water like a Chicago hot dog. After getting beat up by corrupt cops sent by a corrupt politicians, he decides, under the influence of his editor, to pursue a story that will take him out of Chicago and out of danger’s way. He leaves Chicago for the Colorado to do a story on Nell Porter (played by Blair Brown), an eagle conservationist.
After transversing the Rockies and escaping hungry bears, Ernie is left or rather abandoned by his guide at a rickety cabin, that is until Nell Porter shows up. Just like the mountains their relationship gets off to a rocky start. Ernie must rely on Nell’s expertise (not the other way around) to survive as he tumbles and fumbles his way through the pitfalls of the outdoor life.
So, the “continental divide” in this film is not just this contrast between big city and nature but also between men and women in the battle of the sexes in this timely 80’s movie. However, Continental Divide is different, in that it challenges stereotypes and reverses roles as Nell Porter is the headstrong, outdoorswoman who is secure in her solitary life and her sexual relationships (plural). Ernie, in contrast must depend on her experience and intelligence multiple times, albeit sometimes for comedic effect. Eventually, whether it is the close proximity in this vast expanse or perhaps the thin air, they eventual fall for each other. But can their relationship survive despite their differences and can they bridge this divide between them?
Directed by critically acclaimed director, Michael Apted, after the Grammy award-winning Coal Minor’s Daughter (1980), the bio-pic about Country singer, Loretta Lynn, Continental Divide is in a different type of “country” altogether. I would say it is more light-hearted. This was the third movie made by Amblin Productions, so it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by esteemed screenplay writer, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones, The Big Chill, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Continental Divide is an unusual departure for Belushi as a light-hearted, romantic comedy, but it is a really enduring performance from him in one of his last. It really shows a different side of John Belushi and that he could have done more serious roles in the future. That being said, it is a little corny (most rom/coms are) and the ending meanders a bit. As mentioned before James Caan and Christopher Walken were considered for his part but I think it would have been lost in the sea of 80s sappy mediocrity if it went to them. As is stands, it is an entertaining, well-balanced watch perfect for an afternoon.
Length: 1h 43m
Best time to watch: A good early morning, afternoon watch.
“Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver does not appear in this movie
but it does appear on Cottage Country Mix Vol. 14.