By Lloyd Vance, Writer, Sports Movie Viewer, and former Abington High School Wrestler
Vision Quest brings wrestling to life…”It’s not just six minutes, It’s what happens in those six minutes”
After 30 years and over 200 sport-related titles viewed (some so many times it is embarrassing to say), this self-described sports movie aficionado had an extremely difficult time in picking the one sports film that was tops on my list. C’mon who couldn’t love the storylines and action from Rocky, Any Given Sunday, The Karate Kid, Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard (1974), The Natural, Breaking Away or numerous other Sports Classics. But recently from my archives I pulled the film Vision Quest and determined that it clearly is number #1 on my sports movie list. Sure my wife says this film is “1980’s cheese and guys in tights”, but she also calls a wrestler’s headgear “earmuffs”, Enough Said.
My affinity and choice of VQ as my number #1 more than likely stems from the fact that I am a former high school wrestler from “Back in the Day”. But all I know is that this 1985 Harold Becker film about a teenage boy coming of age played out on the landscape the Pacific Northwest high school wrestling scene brings out the goose bumps every viewing. I have probably seen Vision Quest at least 250 times, but each time I find something new in the film about one man’s solitary belief in his dream that makes me always want to scream “Where is my singlet?” and put a half-nelson on someone. VQ is filled with true to life wrestling characteristics including the stocky hard-nosed wrestling coach, rhythmic rope skipping, authentic wrestling moves like my favorite one the “stand-up”, live practice drilling, crab walking, the dogpile at the middle of mat, the anxiety of making weight and of course the never-ending almost sadistic pegboard. Even though I know the ending the story right down to the score at the end of the second period of the culminating match, VQ always delivers a double-leg takedown worthy effort from beginning to end that puts you right in the middle of the smelly hot boiler room wrestling room at Thompson High.
Matthew Modine plays central character “Louden Swain” — what a great name by the way. Louden is a multifaceted well liked, sensitive, complicated, smart, tough, and caring kid that wants to be a writer when he grows up. The 18-year old high school senior is a phenom on the wrestling mat, but he is very naive to the ways of the “real” world that is coming quickly. At the ripe old age of eighteen, Louden like so many frantic young people facing their on-rushing future believes he has to “Make His Mark” by the end of his youth culminating senior year. His “Vision Quest”, termed by mohawk-wearing wrestling buddy/ Sensei/friend “Kuch” (Michael Schoeffling), takes on the borderline Herculean insanity filled form of dropping two weight classes (190 to 168) to take on state champion “Brian Shute” at a dual meet. Shute played by Frank Jasper is a log-toting hulk of a wrestler right down to the marine buzz cut, his own theme music (band plays “Dah, Dah, Dah” every match), and All-State ribbons on his varsity jacket. The undefeated human lawnmower is so “bad” that even legendary hall of fame wrestler Dan Gable would cross the street rather than bump into him. In two of films better lines are Kuch saying about the champion wrestler, “Shute’s a monster! A genuine geratoid! His own father has to use a livewire to keep him from f__kin’ the fireplace!” and Shute coming out of nowhere to chastising Louden in the bathroom about being a bleeder by saying, “You can’t hold your mud… I love to see blood”.
What I love about VQ is that nothing is going to stop Louden from achieving his personal goal of stepping on the mat with Shute. Sure it is insanity to put on a sauna suit every second of everyday to drop the weight and who wants to get his head slammed on the mat by a guy who could very well kill him. But commitment and purpose are what Louden Swain is all about. Whether it is his quest at the impossible dream, wrestling in general, working as a bellhop, writing for the school paper, family, or Carla (more on that later). Even though the film revolves around people that have formed special bonds with the charismatic dreamer including his high school wrestling coach, his father, a co-worker, teammates, and many others no one really knows “why” Louden wants to solely take on half man-half monster Shute. It doesn’t matter as the young grappler stays “true” to his vision throughout the movie.
Swain’s commitment to his unwavering aspiration is truly admirable making it my favorite part of the film. It is that word “commitment” that strokes my passion for VQ and the sport of wrestling. I always had friends that were non-wrestlers say, “Give me a break, You work so hard for only six-minutes on the mat”. But as Louden’s short-order cook friend Elmo (J. C. Quinn) says, “It’s not just six minutes, It’s what happens in those six minutes”, which sums up VQ and wrestling in general. Even though wrestling is “supposed” to be a team sport, it is as an individual that every grappler including Louden must go out on the mat and confront his opponent. Louden vociferously explains this to his entire team especially meathead bad boy teammate Otto in a wrestling room practice line, “In wrestling when you step on the mat your out there by yourself without anyone including your teammates”.
I would be remiss in telling why VQ is my favorite movie without talking about the other major storyline of the film outside of wrestling, which is Louden’s teenage pursuit for the affections of Carla. Linda Fiorentino plays the role of every high school boy’s “puppy love” fantasy of the older woman. Carla is a 21-year old drifter that is tough, mysterious, sexy, caring, and did I mention she is staying right under the Swains’ roof. Louden says of Carla to his favorite teacher Tanneran (Harold Sylvester), “The girl of my dreams lives under my own roof, but she thinks I’m just a kid, a dumb jock, all of which is more or less true. I’m dying, Mr. Tanneran, just like that girl in the poem… only quicker, and with a hard-on”. Just like his match with Shute, Louden engulfs himself in the pursuit of Carla (half fantasy and half reality). However the “Carla Quest” as I like to call it is so searing hot that Louden almost throws away his chance at wrestling mat glory in the process.
In the end, the movie deviates from Terry Davis’ novel by climaxing like so many sports movies that we all know and love (if you are a sports movie buff you already know what I am hinting about). But as a former wrestler I appreciate Vision Quest‘s strong portrayal of just how hard and solitary the sport of wrestling is to “survive”. That’s right I said “Survive”, because wrestling isn’t just about making weight or six minutes on the mat, it is about “commitment” to finishing in sports and in life. The beauty of the film is that one man’s “Quest” sprouts to his many relational ties, making believers of everyone including the film’s viewers and most importantly Louden himself.
I will end my Vision Quest love fest with Louden’s ending monologue that says it all to me. “I think a lot about those six minutes with Shute, and the time I spent with Carla that season. Kuch had it right, it was a Vision Quest. But all I ever settled for was that we were born to live and then to die… we’ve gotta do it alone, each in his own way. And I guess that’s why we gotta love those people, Who deserve it like there’s no tomorrow. Cause when you get right down to it…there isn’t.”
– This film has a great soundtrack including the central song the appropriately titled “Only the Young” by Journey. The “Lunatic Fringe” training scene right before the big match is exhilarating. And if you look hard enough you will see Madonna making her motion picture debut as a lead singer in a local bar band performing songs “Crazy For You” and “Gambler”.
– Did you know that Michael Schoeffling who plays “Kuch” in VQ later went on to play ultimate teenage heartthrob Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Also look for cameos by future stars Daphne Zuniga as the newspaper editor/Louden crush (later plays “Jo” on 90’s his soap opera Melrose Place) and Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker as a fellow wrestler.
– Harold Sylvester, who is the actor that plays history teacher Mr. Tanneran in VQ also is featured in the great 1979 sports movie Fast Break with Gabe Kaplan as tough power forward D.C.
– Frank Jasper, who played Shute was a wrestler in the Marines and some say that he’s the guy holding the “Will wrestle for food” sign in the Van Halen video for “Right Now.”
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)