Peter Yates’ Breaking Away

Peter Yates’ 1979 coming of age-teen-sports drama Breaking Away tells the story of four teenage rebels without a cause from Bloomington, Indiana who have recently graduated high school and must plan on what to do with their future.

Dave (Dennis Christopher) is obsessed with Italy and bicycling. He’s an aloof, funny kid that has a bit of an eccentric personality. Mike (Dennis Quaid) wants to be somebody and live somewhere else but doesn’t quite know where to start. One thing he can see is that staying in the confines of small town Bloomington is gonna lead him nowhere. Along with Cyril (Daniel Stern) the gang’s resident wisecracking goof and “Moocher” (Jackie Earle Haley) their seemingly younger looking friend, the guys spend much of their time down at an old limestone quarry. It’s a cool hideout where they jump off the rocks, swim, reminisce about the good ol days and what they’re gonna do after high school. They also cruise around town in Mike’s beatup muscle car, watching the upper crust college kids on the Indiana University campus. Dave and his friends are called “Cutters” (a derogatory term used by the college kids) because of their fathers who cut the limestone rocks in the quarry that were used to make the buildings in town. This causes them to have a lot of contempt for the outsiders who in turn look at them the same way.

The Cutters cruising around

When Mooch lets the guys know he’s got a job at the local car wash, they seem betrayed, this is seen as a crack in their youthful armor since they don’t want to grow up but each know it’s inevitable. At Dave’s house, his parents want him to get a job as well, so he reluctantly begins working at his father’s used car lot. Dave’s father Ray (Paul Dooley) is a bit of a jerk and constantly berates him, but he’s also a self made man who thinks that his son should do more with himself than pretend to be Italian (which he really dislikes) and ride his bicycle aimlessly. Luckily, his mother Evelyn (Barbara Barrie) seems much more understanding to his plight.

One day while hanging out in town, Dave spots a beautiful college girl who has dropped one of her books after leaving class. He picks it up and follows her as she drives by moped back to her dorm. When he catches up he introduces himself as “Enrico”, an Italian exchange student. Katherine (Robyn Douglass), who Dave dubs “Katerina” is charmed by his suave alter ego right away. One night Dave really goes to town and serenades Katerina at her dorm room window as Cyril strums a guitar. The other girls all watch on and seem impressed by this flamboyant show of affection. While Dave tries to turn his life into a Fellini film, trouble comes when Katerina’s preppy boyfriend finds out about this public display and he and his buddies beat Cyril up, mistaking him for Dave. Mike hears about this (he’s looking for trouble anyways) and decides to get some frustrations out. He, Cyril and Moocher confront the rich college kids and they turn the student hangout into a rumble, smashing windows and causing a huge mess. It’s not until Mike’s older brother Roy (John Ashton), a local policeman arrives that it’s broken up.

Katerina and Dave

Seeing the ongoing rift that’s occurring between the local kids and the students, the university president announces that they’ll be accepting non-students into their annual “Little 500” bike race as a way to ease tension and bring the town’s residents together. Mike sees this as a perfect chance for him and the boys to prove their worth to everyone. Meanwhile, Dave has hit the skids after finally revealing to Katerina that he’s not the cool Italian guy he said he was, but just a poor kid from Bloomington who wanted to impress her.

When the big race comes around, the guys decide to pull out the stops and take part with Dave as their ticket to winning since he’s a biking fanatic. Dave and his friends appear to be lost sheep on the surface yet they still each have a fighting spirit that when combined makes them an exceptional team with a chance. This is the traditional underdog story at it’s finest.

Breaking Away hits perfectly on the transitional period of time that most kids must go through between high school and their future. Not only that, it’s a really nice time capsule film that shows what it was like growing up in the late 70s in a small midwest suburban town. Dave and his friends could be almost any group of real kids. This gives the film even more of a universal appeal. I also liked how it seemed to ride this fine line mood wise. It’s got humor but it’s not overly funny, it’s got drama but it’s not overly dramatic, it’s uplifting but not fake about it. It seems to hit every note just right, for me anyway.

Director Peter Yates had previously directed several excellent genre films including Bullitt (1968), The Hot Rock (1972), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mother Jugs and Speed (1976) and The Deep (1977). Breaking Away is yet another gem from his filmography that we highly recommend.


– Screenwriter Steve Tesich was an alumni of Indiana University.

– Tesich wrote another bicycling themed film American Flyers starring Kevin Costner.

– The Little 500 bicycle race that forms the centerpiece of the plot is a real race held annually at Indiana University. A reenactment of the race was staged for the film in the “old” Memorial Stadium on the IU campus, which was demolished shortly after the filming of the movie.

– The team is based on the 1962 Phi Kappa Psi Little 500 champions, which featured legendary rider and Italian enthusiast Dave Blase, who provided screenwriter and fellow Phi Kappa Psi team member Steve Tesich the inspiration for the main character in the movie.

– Blase, together with team manager Bob Stohler, provided the name of this character: Dave Stohler. In the 1962 race, Blase rode 139 out of 200 laps and was the victory rider crossing the finish line, much like the main character in the film. Blase himself appears in the movie as the race announcer.

– Won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Steve Tesich.

– Won the 1979 Golden Globe Award for Best Film (Comedy or Musical).

– The film is ranked eighth on the List of America’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies compiled by the American Film Institute (AFI) in 2006. In June 2008, AFI announced its “Ten top Ten”—the best ten films in ten “classic” American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Breaking Away was acknowledged as the eighth best film in the sports genre.



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *