“Looks like a dangerous jump to me, boy. You got no elevation, you got no room for error. [...] I don’t think I’d try this stunt.” - Evel Knievel
“I still believe that Evel Knievel is the second best daredevil in the world. And I say that because I feel that I’m number one.” - Ken Carter
Ken “The Mad Canadian” Carter was a man with a dream. Like a less-well-publicised Evel Knievel, his profession was stunts and his passion was danger. The Montreal stuntman jumped cars not for drama in movies, but for spectacle and adrenaline, knowing spectacle and adrenaline were ends in their own right. He spent decades jumping cars at roadshows and speedways, sustaining a surprisingly healthy (physical and financial) career.
But Carter’s greatest dream was much more specific than simply jumping and wrecking cars, and much less plausible to boot. He wanted to jump a car over the Saint Lawrence River - to be the first person to perform a mile-long jump in a car. The Devil At Your Heels chronicles five years of attempts at this seemingly impossible feat - five years of heartbreak, determination and insanity.
It’s not an easy road to the longest car jump in the world, nor (spoilers!) a successful one. In the film, Carter faces a litany of technical problems, financial issues, injuries and aging (starting at age 38, getting on for a stuntman). His concerns prior to the start of the project are remarkably minor - wind direction, the river traffic - with no thought to the reality of performing a mile-long jump in an automobile. The actual issues he faced were more serious. His jet-powered car required hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding. Once constructed, its fuel tank kept exploding. The enormous ramp, while theoretically the right height and angle for the jump, was not constructed evenly, and even its designs were unsound - the supports didn’t even line up with the moorings to begin with. Nothing about this crazy plan seemed to work.
But that didn’t stop Carter! Equal parts stuntman, showman and salesman (his promoter alter-ego Kenneth Gordon Polsjek is a strange side-story in the film), Carter’s passion would not be swayed by blown regulators, lack of money, bad weather or any of the above issues. The Devil At Your Heels is the story of a man still striving for his dangerous, impossible dream even as his body ages and his support dwindles. He’s pretty forthcoming about his motivations: he’s doing it for the challenge and for the ego trip. He wants to astonish the world. Who cares about practicalities?
So it’s understandable when Carter is disappointed by the constant delays on his project, and equally understandable when the only full attempt at the jump is carried out without him. Fellow stuntman Kenny Powers (no relation) ended up attempting the jump with Carter in a hotel room and unaware; the money had run out and there was no other option. The jump had to happen, even if Carter couldn't be there. Powers’ car broke apart mid-air, parachuting into the Saint Lawrence and leaving Powers with broken vertebrae, cracked ribs and a fractured wrist. Carter must have contemplated the futility of his quest in that moment, amidst his fury at Powers having gone over his helmet.
But no! The film ends with Carter sitting next to his gargantuan ramp, still set upon achieving his dream. Though it’s a faintly hopeful ending, it turned out to be a false one: Carter died two years later performing another stunt, the Saint Lawrence ramp already demolished. Perhaps it’s for the best that he never achieved his dream. Incomplete, it stands as an impossible milestone in the future; something that probably can’t physically be done, only imagined. If it had been carried out successfully, some of the magic and romance might have vanished. Today, the world record for the longest car jump stands at 332 feet. It seems unlikely Carter’s vision will ever be realised.
The Devil At Your Heels highlights a significant aspect of car culture and the culture of speed - the desire (conscious or no) to go faster and further than any human has before. It's present in anyone who's ever gotten behind the controls of a vehicle. In a way, it's analogous to the human drive to explore and push boundaries. The same resolve that pushed us to the moon and to the bottom of the ocean is what would have pushed The Mad Canadian a mile through the air, if physics and reality hadn't intervened.
Decades later, Carter's story was loosely adapted into New Zealand comedy The Devil Dared Me To, the trailer for which is embedded below. Both films pay homage to a stuntman with more ambition than sense, and to a dream without any sense at all.