I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.
In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.
The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.
Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.
Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)
In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.
Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.
Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.
Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).
The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.
It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.
Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.
Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.
At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.
Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.
By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.
Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).
Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)
So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.
After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.
Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.
For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.
The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines’ Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino’s have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!
Filipino cinema had not always been that way, however. In fact, the previous decade had been what is now considered a golden age for the country’s film industry, dominated by a quartet of major studios known as “The Big Four”, who turned out relatively lavish prestige productions built around their respective stables of glamorous stars. Financial troubles and the resulting defection of contracted talent started to take their toll on those studios toward the end of the fifties, and by the mid sixties Sampaguita Productions was the last of the Big Four left standing.
And the landscape that Sampaguita found itself a part of was a markedly changed one, made up of dozens of scrappy independent production companies seeking to turn a quick profit by grinding out hastily produced imitations of whatever international product Filipino audiences were paying to see at the moment. This translated primarily into countless indigenous interpretations of the James Bond and Eurospy films (resulting, among others things, in the phenomenally successful and long running Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 series), Spaghetti Westerns. and, of course, the ubiquitous Batman television series and the numerous European costumed capers inspired by it. In this sense, Sampaguita’s 1966 production James Batman can be seen as one of the studio’s efforts to go with the dollar-chasing flow of this new industry environment.
Another tendency in Filipino cinema that is at play in James Batman — one that, in fact, can still be seen in the industry’s current cinematic output — is a fondness for broad, Mad Magazine-style lampoons of Western pop culture products. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to see this as reflecting some ambivalence on the part of the Filipino people regarding the inescapable cultural influence of their former occupiers, but, whatever the case, the result was that, alongside more earnest efforts such as the Agent X-44 films, Pinoy filmmakers were producing an equal number of spoofs along the lines of James Bone, which starred the emaciated comedian Palito as a skeletal superspy.
This particular trend was a boon to one performer born Rodolfo Vera Quizon, who, under the name Dolphy, would go on to become the most beloved screen comedian in the history of Pinoy cinema (such was his popularity at the time of making James Batman that he had recently had the gig of warming up the crowd for The Beatles during the mop-topped ones’ ultimately disastrous visit to the islands). After initially rising to fame in the fifties in a series of cross-dressing roles (sure-fire comedic gold in the macho culture of the Philippines), Dolphy had, by the mid-sixties, reinvented himself somewhat in a series of secret agent spoofs such as Dr. Yes, Dolpinger, Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (all 1965) and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (1966). Dolphy didn’t limit himself to parodying the spy genre, and also lampooned comic characters such as Tarzan and Captain Barbell during this period — and for James Batman combined the two with a dual performance as comedic versions of both James Bond and Batman.
What makes James Batman such a strange animal — aside from the obvious — is that, in parodying the James Bond films of the mid sixties and the Adam West Batman television series, it’s spoofing two things that are already spoofs themselves. On top of that, the film, in addition to delivering lots of very broad slapstick comedy, also strives to function as a proper action film, and as such features quite a lot of fairly soberly staged fight sequences and action set pieces. In fact, by the time we reach the final act, most of the comic antics have been dispensed with, and James Batman plays out its remaining length as a fairly straightforward action melodrama. The result is that the movie gets to have it both ways by presenting Batman and James Bond, as the objects of parody, as cowardly and preening, while still having them go on to perform the daring heroic feats that the audience expected of them.
James Batman‘s action starts at what is apparently some kind of congress of Asian nations, at which a Fu Manchu-like emissary of the criminal organization CLAW shows up to make extortion demands and threaten nuclear annihilation upon those who would not comply. What was most striking to me about this scene was the CLAW emissary’s sidekick, who was played by a very elderly man who looked both disoriented and confused throughout, leading me to speculate that someone’s grandfather had been put to work during furlough from the rest home. Anyway, the combined nations decide that the threat from CLAW is so great that the services of both Batman and James Bond are required. An actually kind of funny scene follows in which the movie’s distinctly childish and self-regarding versions of both Batman and Bond, who are obviously none too fond of one another, sit before the committee and argue why each of them should be given the job exclusively — an argument that quickly devolves into each of them shouting “pick me!” at the delegates.
One of the perks of the job for Batman is that it will increase his proximity to the chairman’s beautiful young daughter, Shirley. Unfortunately, while Shirley is crazy about Batman (exemplified by a shot of her gazing dreamy-eyed at a magazine that confusingly features a photo of Batman and Robin as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward), she has no time for Batman’s alter ego, Dolpho, despite the insistence of her controlling older sister Delia that Dolpho, with his many millions, is a prime catch. Meanwhile, the members of CLAW — which include a cloaked figure called Drago, an especially tall and roided-up interpretation of The Penguin, a guy with a spiked ball for a hand, and a masked female called The Black Rose who is clearly derived from the character in Chor Yuen’s Cantonese film of the same name — have learned that Bond, Batman and “Rubin” are on the case, and determine to eliminate them before they interfere with their plans.
In addition to former Sampaguita contract player Dolphy, the cast of James Batman serves as something of a showcase for Sampaguita’s house talent at the time. Boy Alano, who plays Rubin, began his acting career at the age of ten, when he co-starred in the 1951 film Roberta, a smash hit that helped rescue the studio from bankruptcy following a fire that consumed a large part of its property. Bella Flores, who plays Delia, had portrayed the female heavy in that same film, and her performance was so iconic that it pretty much doomed her to the type of bad girl roles we see her essaying here. Finally, Shirley Moreno, who plays “Shirley”, was a recent discovery whom Sampaguita head Dr. Jose Perez had that year included in a promotional launch of the studio’s new faces dubbed “Stars 66″. Despite the Spanish surname, the fair-skinned, conspicuously Anglo-looking Moreno serves as a perfect example of the Caucasian standard of feminine beauty that dominated in the Pinoy film industry at the time — and still does to some extent today.
With its simple set-up out of the way, James Batman proceeds along a trajectory not unsimilar to that of most spy films of its era, trotting out a succession of action set pieces based around the villain’s serial attempts to pick off our heroes. Only, in this case, those set pieces are punctuated by gag scenes in which, to give a few examples, Batman gets pantsed and produces condiments from his utility belt, and James Bond gets bitten on his bare ass by a rubber centipede. Alano’s portrayal of Rubin as somewhat of a cretin also provides the opportunity for some Three Stooges-style rough stuff, since Dolphy/Batman is frequently driven to violence by his idiocy. Elsewhere, the level of the movie’s humor can best be summed up by the phrase “boobies… hee hee”.
For the most part, Dolphy’s scripted dialog is painfully unfunny, but what struck me as I watched James Batman is how he comes across as being a genuinely funny guy despite that. This is conveyed mostly through what appear to be throwaway bits of physical improv — such as when, as Batman, he follows a pre-crime-fighting snack by casually wiping his hands on Rubin’s cape — and by a genuinely quirky repertoire of mannerisms and physical gestures that make the most of his spindly frame and boney, thin-lipped countenance. I think that what really works for Dolphy is his somewhat sadsack, sour-faced demeanor, an aspect that not only serves to distance him from the goofy obviousness of the humor he’s perpetrating, but also provides a contrast to the type of desperate, googly-eyed antics so often seen in cinematic comic relief characters from this period.
As mentioned before, Dolphy’s portrayals of Bond and Batman veer toward the comically vain and juvenile — an exercise in broad-stroke subversion that’s aided by some equally unsubtle costuming choices. These include Batman/Dolphy’s baggy long johns-based costume that continually slips to his knees, and which is adorned with a chest emblem that looks like a female silhouette better suited for a semi’s mud flaps. Bond/Dolphy, for his part, is decked out in a stunning plaid three-piece suit with matching Trilby, an ensemble that is really shown to best advantage during a makeout scene that takes place on an identically patterned couch. (Though, to be honest, whether this outfit was actually intended to look ridiculous, or was instead someone’s actual idea of high style was unclear to me.) Interestingly, despite being the only character to receive a satirical rechristening, “Rubin” gets to wear a costume that is entirely faithful to that of his inspiration.
Predictably, James Batman looks like it was made for about a dollar, but that doesn’t mean that efforts weren’t made to make it look as good as possible under the circumstances. Director Artemio Marquez and cinematographer Amaury Agra imbue the film throughout with fluid camera work and imaginative, comic book-influenced compositions, and the many action sequences are generally well staged and shot. Furthermore, the black and white photography serves to some extent to mask the heavy cardboard and construction paper content of the sets, and elements such as the modified Cadillac that serves as the Batmobile actually don’t look too bad as long as the camera doesn’t dwell on them for too long. Spicing things up further are some interesting location choices, including the operational processing plant in which the climactic battle scene is staged, which looks like it must have presented some very real hazards for the actors involved.
James Batman comes to a dramatic head when the CLAW gang, in accordance with their supervillain mandate, kidnap Shirley and abscond with her to their secret headquarters. Bond, Batman and Rubin are close behind, of course, and, with the aid of two undercover agents working within the organization, lay siege to the compound, all the while dodging the deadly cartoon rays shooting from the giant lady fingers that ornament Drago’s throne room. All leads to a dramatic reveal of the real brains behind the organization and, ultimately, some stock footage explosions. It’s a climax that offers the type of crossover thrills that only a flagrant disregard for international copyrights can guaranty — and if you’re the type of fanboy for whom a fight between James Bond (or, at least, a malnourished-looking, Pacific Islander version of same) and The Penguin represents sheer nirvana, it should seal the deal on whether or not you are going to begin the long grey market search for a murky dub of the film.
Personally — and much to my surprise, given my expectations going in — I’m going to come down reservedly on the pro side of the James Batman argument. This is due in part to the fact that, given that the majority of Filipino films from its era have been lost, it is one of the few remaining examples of films of its type. But I also have to say that, despite it being every bit as stupid as I expected it to be, it was still entertaining, and proceeded at a fast enough clip that none of its potential irritants were with me long enough to do much damage. Points are also in order, I feel, for the fact that its humor, no matter how juvenile, really does have a subversive component to it; the underdog lover in me just has to feel a little warm and fuzzy about inhabitants of a downtrodden island nation like the Philippines so gleefully thumbing their noses at institutionalized symbols of Western might like James Bond and Batman. That in doing so they manage to make the voraciously plundering pulp cinema of Turkey seem reverent by comparison is even more impressive. Plus, you know, boobies… hee hee.
What with my recent cinematic diet consisting mostly of overheated Bollywood masala movies and plagiarism-filled Thai man-in-suit monster sagas, I’ve gotten well past the point where it’s time to mix things up a bit. And what better respite than to watch some attractive French people screwing and languorously declaiming about the futility of it all? Granted, that isn’t an entirely accurate description of Slogan; For one, the attractive person in that scenario is Jane Birkin, who is British, while the French one is Serge Gainsbourg, who once famously summed up his position on ugliness by saying that he preferred it to beauty because it endured. Still, there’s no hint of either Amitabh Bachchan, Turkish people in ill-fitting superhero costumes, or latex creatures of any kind within miles of this picture, which is all that I’m really asking for.
Much has been said about Serge Gainsbourg in his roles as songwriting genius, pop music provocateur, archetypal seedy Frenchman, and guy who told Whitney Houston he wanted to do her on national television, but very little has been said about his career as a support player in European B movies. How could this be? After all, long before he made his mark on the French pop scene in the mid-sixties, Gainsbourg had paid the bills by both scoring and appearing in a string of films, a number of which were well within the purview of a site like Teleport City. These included a pair of Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Brad Harris Samson films, which were made before both Parolini and Harris moved on to the Kommissar X series. Both these and the earlier peplum Revolt of the Slaves put Gainsbourg’s somewhat ferret-y looks to good use, playing up the more sinister aspects of his physical demeanor in a series of juicy villain roles. Gainsbourg would also contribute to the Eurospy genre with his appearance in one of the Roger Hanin “Tiger” films (which he also scored), Carre de Dames pour Un As.
Of course, by the time of starring in Slogan in 1969, Gainsbourg had become an established figure in the French pop music scene, having written hit songs for such stars as France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Petula Clark and Brigitte Bardot, as well as making a dent in the charts on his own with solo recordings of classics like “Qui est In Qui est Out”. As such, Slogan, unlike those earlier meal-tickets, shows all the signs of having been built around Gainsbourg’s by this time well established persona. As a result we get the extravagantly dissolute 40 year old pop maverick Serge Gainsbourg starring as extravagantly dissolute 40 year old advertising maverick Serge Faberge, who embarks upon an ill-fated affair with Evelyne, an 18 year old British model played by then 22 year old British actress Jane Birkin. Slogan, in fact, plays out very much like one of Gainsbourg’s songs from the period: Sexy and stylish on the surface and loaded with sly pop culture references, but at its heart a melancholy rumination on mortality and loss.
However, whatever the intentions behind Slogan might have been at the time, when watching the film today, they tend to get overshadowed by events that we now know were taking place behind the scenes: namely that Birkin and Gainsbourg were making a love connection that would result in one of pop’s most iconic romances. Birkin was still a relative newcomer at the time, having made her initial splash in 1966 with Antonioni’s Blow-up, a film in which she appeared only briefly but also very nakedly. Long-limbed, lank-haired and coltish, with an ethereal blue-eyed gaze, Birkin so embodied a certain aspect of the late 60s aesthetic that some of her early films seemed to use her as more of a design element than an actress. As legend has it, Birkin, curious about her aloof costar, finagled a dinner invitation which lead to a long night of clubbing in Paris — including stops at a transvestite bar and a club where American bluesman Joe Turner was playing — that ended with the hard drinking Gainsbourg passing out in his hotel room.
As inauspicious as it may sound, that night would mark the beginning of a passionate love affair that, over the course of its twelve year duration, would not only produce two children (the actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg being one of them) but also provide the spark for a number of dazzling pop artifacts. As an initial volley, the newly formed Birkin/Gainsbourg union announced their love to the world with what would become one of Gainsbourg’s biggest and most notorious international hits, the duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot had begged him not to release it for fear that the track might jeopardize her marriage. The final version, which featured Birkin very convincingly feigning orgasm while Gainsbourg mutter/crooned phrases such as “Physical love is a dead end”, would go on to directly influence Donna Summer’s disco breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” and cement Gainsbourg’s undying reputation as the dirty old man of French pop.
Obviously one of the more fruitful muse/mentor relationships of its type, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s affair would also serve as the impetus for, among other things, Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson and his directing debut, a 1976 feature also titled Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus that starred Birkin in the lead role. The pair would also continue to star together on screen, even returning to Serge’s Eurotrash cinema roots for Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye — a film that, despite having a title that’s as giallo as all get-out, was in reality just an underwhelming gothic thriller.
So knowing all of this today, it’s difficult to watch Slogan without losing sight of its tale of an ill-advised affair between two shallow and self-absorbed characters for all of the romantic sparks, both actual and perceived, that we see flying between its stars. And, while Slogan is far from a terrible film on its own merits, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it distracts us from just how insufferably annoying those characters are. Gainsbourg’s Serge Faberge is a work-obsessed, habitual womanizer in the throes of a midlife crisis gone nuclear who, being also a married man with a baby on the way, employs all of the deceptions, both of himself and others, that such a combination of traits requires. Birkin’s Evelyne, on the other hand, is insecure, needy and destructively impulsive, and, when she’s not simply seducing the camera with her very Birkin-ness, prone to sulking and shrill tantrums made even less tolerable by a French accent that’s clangy even to a non-speaker.
Despite whatever flaws can be found in Gainsbourg and Birkin’s performances, it cannot be said that they aren’t courageous or lacking in vanity. This is especially true in Gainsbourg’s case, as the age difference between Faberge and Evelyne (and by extension between he and Birkin) and its implications are far from glossed over, and in fact are repeatedly highlighted as a symptom of Faberge’s benighted struggle with his impending mortality. Gainsbourg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his character, which is remarkable, given that the chain-smoking, coolly detached exterior that this frightened and confused man hides behind is so nearly indistinguishable from his own public persona. As a result, those scenes in which Gainsbourg/Faberge morosely obsesses over his growing paunch, or sheepishly tells his pregnant wife lies that you can tell he’s desperately trying to believe himself, are more than a little uncomfortable to watch, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to Gainsbourg’s integrity as a performer.
At Slogan‘s outset, Faberge meets the young Evelyne by chance while in Venice to accept an advertising award — an occasion which he has already used as an opportunity for a pre-arranged extramarital tryst with another young model. At first, all is laughing strolls and romantic montages set to a fantastically lush and swirling Gainsbourg score, but soon Evelyne, either too naive or too self involved to truly take Faberge’s measure, wants more. Not surprisingly, Faberge is put off by her sudden demands for commitment. You’d expect that he’d be happy to be rid of her at this point, but when Evelyne runs back to England and announces plans to marry the fiancé she previously ditched for Faberge, Faberge follows and brings her back to Paris. At this time, as at others, it seems that Faberge is continuing the relationship more out of obstinacy than anything else, wanting to prove to his wife, his friends and, most importantly, himself that it’s one based on authentic, deep feelings rather than merely his own desperate clinging to youth.
Faberge eventually separates from his wife and moves into an apartment with Evelyne, where, after a brief honeymoon period, the lovers’ bickering begins to escalate. Meanwhile, Faberge has won a lucrative advertising contract with Shell Oil (about as naked a symbol of brute American capital as you could place within this context) and, despite his announced intention to begin work on a “real movie”, his subsequent preoccupation with the campaign drives a further wedge between them. Finally, with a year come and gone, Serge and Evelyne return to Venice for another award ceremony, only to encounter that natural enemy of cradle-robbing old men everywhere: studly young Italian boys.
Throughout Slogan there are scenes of Faberge meeting with his colleagues and clients in which the advertising industry’s — and, by extension, the culture at large’s — obsession with youth is given ample play (“The youngsters will buy it” is a constantly heard refrain). And this wouldn’t be a sixties film if there weren’t some none-too-subtle ironic juxtapositions of televised war and disaster footage for all of that to play out against. In this context, the adman serves as an especially insidious representation of the establishment, as his goal is to decode the language of youth in order to exploit if for his own commercial gain. Given that, it’s possible that Serge’s humiliation at the hands of youth is meant as some type of poetic justice. But positioning Serge Gainsbourg as “The Man” simply doesn’t work here because, well… he’s Serge Gainsbourg. Regardless of how old — or ugly — he is, the man is just too cool to stand in for the calcified values of his generation.
This is another aspect of Slogan that may be undermined by the obvious romantic chemistry between its stars. The age difference, because it is explicitly acknowledged up front, actually becomes less of a problem, especially since Gainsbourg, gnomic, jug-eared and clean shaven as he is (it was reportedly Birkin who encouraged the perpetual three-day stubble), has enough of the mischievous boy about him to make the connection between the two seem credible. Finally, the film (which, by the way, includes among its three writers Melvin Van Peebles!) can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to punish the character Faberge or celebrate the icon Gainsbourg. All of those combined self-inflicted losses that we might expect to leave Faberge reeling at the film’s conclusion instead appear to have left him unchanged, and as the credits roll, he’s slyly chatting up a new sweet young thing, much as we might expect Gainsbourg’s more id-driven alter ego, Gainsbarre, to do. Then again, this might be another one of those disservices done to Slogan by hindsight, as, at this point, its impossible to look at Birkin and Gainsbourg and see anything but Birkin and Gainsbourg, and hence impossible to see Slogan at all clearly as the film that it was initially intended to be.
To the extent that it concerns people who are obsessed with surfaces, Slogan is also a movie about things, and, as such, it contains enough dome-topped, modular and polychromatic plastic appliances and fixtures to fuel a retro-fetishist’s fever dreams for years to come. Faberge’s office and the apartment he shares with Evelyne in particular look like they could have been inhabited by characters from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. Both director Pierre Grimblat and cinematographer Claude Beusoleil do a nice job of contrasting these sterile modern surfaces with the timeworn beauty of Venice featured in those scenes at the films opening and close, accentuating on one hand the sense of tragic romance at the film’s core and, on the other, its depiction of the manufactured distances that people place between one another.
While many of Slogan‘s no doubt modest intentions may have become obscured by the imposing backward reaching shadows cast by its stars and their legacies, it still provides an illuminating snapshot of one particular aspect of its cultural moment. By that I refer to the collective mid-life crisis that, as the sixties crept into the seventies, seemed to effect an entire generation of middle-aged and middle-class adults who, finding themselves abandoned outright by the youth obsessed commercial culture of their time, began to embrace a sort of neutered version of the hippy counterculture, free of all the utopian idealism and leftist political rhetoric, but with all of its hedonism and obsession with self-actualization intact, leading to some of the most stomach turning excesses of 1970s “adult” culture. This way lay wife-swapping fondue parties, porno chic, EST and Mike Brady’s perm, and I believe that, after Serge Gainsbourg, we wouldn’t see a man in his forties adopt a remotely swinging persona without looking like a complete dork until the arrival on the scene of George Clooney many years later. So savor the moment, people.
If you are interested in good music, sixties European style, attractive people, sexy romance, or just really enjoy watching people smoking cigarettes, there are so many reasons to see Slogan that for me to evaluate it as a film using the conventional standards seems completely beside the point. While it’s certainly an engaging and stylish little movie, there’s little doubt that it would even be available for our consideration today if not for its two stars and the particular place that it holds in their legend. As such, it comes to us more as an artifact of a specific time and place than as something to be experienced on its own terms. Fortunately, that time and place is — to me, at least — a particularly magical one, making Slogan a worthy object of fascination regardless of how successful it might have been in achieving its goals.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: France | Starring: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Andrea Parisy, Daniel Gelin, Henri-Jacques Huet, Juliet Berto, Pierre Doris, Marie-Christine Boulard, Gilles Millinaire, James Mitchell, Kate Barry | Writers: Francis Girod, Pierre Grimblat, Melvin Van Peebles | Director: Pierre Grimblat | Cinematographer: Claude Beausoleil | Music: Serge Gainsbourg | Producer: Francis Girod
It’s hard to write about these old Turkish superhero movies–especially those directed by Yilmaz Atadeniz–without making reference to the Republic serials of the 1940s. The problem with doing so, however, is that many of you young people out there, with your newfangled transistor radios and souped-up hotrods, will have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose the appropriately curmudgeonly response to that would be to refuse to continue this review until you’ve educated yourselves on the topic, instead filling space with horrific, Andy Rooney-like ruminations on how butter doesn’t taste the way it used to and why on earth is the print in Reader’s Digest so small until you return with at least one complete viewing of The Perils of Nyoka or some-such under your belts. But, as much as the thought of such an exercise appeals to me, I’m afraid I can’t do so in good conscience. The fact is that those serials were meant to be seen in a very specific context, a context which simply doesn’t exist anymore. Despite what I said previously, I’m actually not old enough myself to have seen them as they were originally presented–i.e in weekly installments as part of a Saturday matinee at the local movie house presented to an audience that I imagine as being made up entirely of young boys in immaculate baseball caps and striped shirts with names like Skip, Biff and Scooter.