Many scholars and critics will try and tell you that every movie has to have a beginning, middle, and end. They’ll try to tell you a movie has to have conflict to be interesting. I am here to tell you they are wrong, and I offer ERNEST BORGNINE ON THE BUS (1997) as evidence.
About ten years after making the underground hit HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT (1986), director Jeff Krulik was working for the newly-formed Discovery channel. While trying to come up with ideas for new programming, he and his co-worker Brendan Conway heard that Ernest Borgnine had bought a souped-up 40 foot bus and was travelling across the U.S. They thought filming him driving around, telling stories, and talking to people, would make a great TV series. The Discovery Channel wasn’t interested, but they decided to film a week of footage as a test reel to try and sell it to someone else.
They flew a small crew to Wisconsin where Borgnine and his wife Tova were to be the lead clowns in the Milwaukee Circus Parade and spent the next week following Borgnine and his son/travelling companion Cris drove from Wisconsin to Iowa to Nebraska. While Ernest drove the bus himself (something the then-79 year old took great pride in), he would tell Krulik stories about his Hollywood co-stars as well as various people he’d met on the road. He stopped to tour the Miller Beer plant, a shoe factory, and a RV park. By the end of the week Krulik and Conway had tons of fantastic footage…that no one wanted to buy. None of those television executives could see the reality television trend that was five years down the road.
Eventually they did sell the rights to Goodtimes Home Video who packaged it as a straight-to-VHS documentary. With an ordinary subject it could have been a dull, typical travelogue. However Ernest Borgnine is hardly ordinary. I can honestly say I have never encountered anyone who seems to genuinely enjoy being themselves and simply enjoying life as much as he did. Whether discussing working alongside Lee Marvin and Bette Davis, or having conversations with fellow RV park residents “The Shirtless Wonder” and “The Birdman”, Borgnine truly seems to enjoy them all with equal respect. His sense of aesthetics is just as wide-ranging. He gets as much joy showing off the marble steps to his bus as he does marveling at the beauty of a Midwestern dirt road. Everything is “beautiful”, “marvelous”, “wonderful” in his eyes.
All in all, it is a love story. It’s a love story from Ernest Borgnine and Jeff Krulik to America. They love it and encourage everyone else to experience it and love it themselves. As Ernest says toward the end “Get out and learn something about your country. This is what you pay your taxes for, you might as well get out and enjoy it.”
As of right now, the only hard copies of ERNEST BORGNINE ON THE BUS is the previously mentioned VHS edition. If you don’t have a videotape player anymore, Krulik was kind enough to make both the movie and numerous outtakes available on his website and YouTube (as well as his other documentaries). It’s worth an hour of your time. Borgnine’s sheer joy is so infectious you can’t help but feel a little better by the time it’s done.