When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
People, Estus Pirkle is not screwing around. When this diminutive Baptist preacher from New Albany, Mississippi looks into the camera and describes an America whose small towns’ streets are littered with the corpses of murdered children, he is not presenting us with a “what if” scenario. He is telling us in no uncertain terms what will happen — within twenty-four months, no less — if America doesn’t get serious about Jesus. And if those words alone aren’t chilling enough, he has in his service a seasoned veteran of 1960s Southern exploitation cinema who will utilize all the tricks of his trade to bring them to vivid, bloody life for your terror and edification. Never mind that drive-in theaters are counted among the litany of evils that Pirkle says are driving our country to ruin; the man is obviously not stupid. As long as it’s God’s work that’s being done, it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t mind if it’s the Devil doing it.
Since it first flickered on the walls of rural Southern churches back in 1971, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? has gone on to become one of the more notorious classics of off-the-beaten-path cult cinema. It also represents a rare instance of such a film actually living up to the breathless hype that trash aficionados have built up around it. No matter how weird and disturbing your various trollings around the online forums have lead you to believe Footmen is, you can pretty much rest assured that it will more or less live up to your expectations. However, given that the film has existed so far outside the normal cinematic channels, it’s doubtful if it would have ever received such notice had its director not already had an established track record in the secular world of Z-grade moviemaking.
Footmen director Ron Ormond is probably today best remembered for a toxic little 1953 gem by the name of Mesa of Lost Women, a film that combines boredom, incoherence and a wildly inappropriate musical score to create something almost supernatural in its ability to inspire trance-like fascination on the part of its viewer. At the time of making that film, Ormond was already a veteran exploitation professional, a no-nonsense showman with a workman-like ethic who, working closely with his wife Ruth, had made a number of micro budget programmers for low-rent production houses like Howco and Lippert. As I remember it, my initial viewing of Mesa, occurring when I was still in high school, was for me almost as much of a religious experience as first seeing Footmen must have been for its original intended audience. At the time I felt that I was truly seeing the worst film ever made, an epiphany that provoked exactly the same kind of tongue-lolling ecstasy with which I had greeted my initial viewing of The Creeping Terror a few months previous. Needless to say, that was a long time ago, and I now sadly shake my head at that pathetic innocent who was naïve enough to believe that such films represented the worst that cinema had in store for him.
Ron Ormond would eventually leave his days as a hired gun behind, and, in 1965, he, his wife Ruth and their son Tim left California and moved their filmmaking operation to Nashville, where, under the Ormond Organization banner, they began churning out product for the still-thriving Southern drive-in circuit. Availing themselves of the numerous country performers who were hungry to promote their music by appearing in their films — as well as the services of assorted friends from the local music industry — the family produced a series of corn-pone-flavored expoitationers with titles like White Lightnin’ Road, The Girl From Tobacco Row and Forty Acre Feud, and also dabbled in straightforward sleaze-horror with 1968′s The Monster and The Stripper. Things changed for Ormond in 1967 after a small plane he was piloting crashed during takeoff. The entire Ormond family was onboard the craft, but somehow managed to survive — a seeming miracle that prompted a spiritual awakening in Ormond. Thus was the filmmaker set on the path that would lead, in 1970, to him making the decision to devote his cinematic talents to the service of the Lord. It was not long after that that Ormond would be introduced to Estus W. Pirkle.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? was the title of one of Pirkle’s signature sermons, one that the preacher had also seen fit to release in book form. Given that — and the fact that Pirkle’s uncompromisingly scathing text was rife with lurid imagery ideally suited to Ormond’s visual talents — it was an obvious choice to be the subject of the first collaboration between the two. Ormond’s approach to committing it to film was to film Pirkle’s sermon and then insert into it vignettes that he had filmed illustrating some of the more sensational episodes described therein. He was aided in this by performances from the usual cast of Ormond regulars, as well as by a large number of Pirkle’s parishioners, who had secured their turn at stardom by contributing to the film’s production costs.
As I alluded to before, the content of Footmen is indeed shocking — especially if you are coming to it with expectations grounded in feature-oriented genre cinema. However, when viewed within the context of the instructional films of its era, I think it becomes somewhat less so. To me, it is most reminiscent of the type of bloody scare-a-thons they used to spring on us in drivers ed when I was in high school — scarifying one-reel automotive grand-guignols that included notorious titles like Red Asphalt and Signal 30. Only in Footmen‘s case, rather than being terrorized into practicing safe driving habits by the prospect of having the top of your head graphically shaved off in a horrific car wreck, you’re being spooked into accepting Jesus as your savor by the prospect of being mowed down or chopped to pieces by a horde of grinning communists.
Pirkle’s sermon draws its title from apassage in the book of Jeremiah. In it, he recites a list of those “footmen” who are preying upon America’s youth, weakening the nation’s backbone and leaving it unprepared for the tribulations ahead. This list essentially comprises a litany of hard-line Baptism’s usual suspects: Dancing (“the front door to adultery”), public education (a teacher with a groovy mustache is shown telling his students that the day’s lesson will concern “the seven erotic zones of passion in women”), drive-in theaters, drinking (a pair of licentious youths are shown primly pouring their cans of beer into plastic cups before drinking), second marriages, television (especially cartoons) “joy riding”, etc. And those tribulations that such things are leaving us too softened and consumed by hedonism to deal with — the “horses’ of the title and, more specifically, of the apocalypse — are in this case represented by the invading forces of international communism, here represented by a sextet of mounted Red Army soldiers lead by the generously sideburned Cecil Scaife, a Nashville-based Columbia Records executive and Ormond family friend who is here billed as “The Commissar”.
Despite their apparent pre-industrial circumstances, the commies, Pirkle tells us, have a plan that will see them in control of the United States within fifteen short minutes. Toillustrate this, Ormond presents us with a sequence in which a stunned television news anchor — filmed against a newsroom backdrop that looks to be a garage door with a page from an atlas pinned to it — informs his audience that the president, the secretary of state, the speaker of the house, and many of the larger states’ governors have all been murdered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he solemnly intones. “This is the communist takeover of the United States. This is the end of democracy.” This particular takeover tactic seemed to me to imply that foreign communist leaders occupy an actual spot somewhere way down in the presidential line of succession, but I may be misinterpreting. In any case, it is at this point that the real terror begins.
Scaife and his men descend, Red Dawn-like, upon the small, God-fearing Southern town in which all of Footmen‘s action takes place and quickly make it clear that they really enjoy mowing down innocent civilians — especially women and children — with their submachine guns. Parents have their children rent screaming from their arms and are summarily slaughtered, after which the tykes are thrown into the back of the reds’ Ford pickup truck and taken to a camp for re-education. There a mustached apparatchik — played by Wes Saunders, and referred to as “Comrade Teacher” in the credits — uses his baffling accent to mesmerize the children with devious communist logic. Commanded to pray to “Jeeesus” for candy, the kids come up empty handed. “Your Jeeesus didn’t bring us any candy!” scoffs the teacher in haughty, mock incomprehension. In short order, a prayer addressed to Fidel Castro brings candy by the bucket load, and a classroom full of newly-minted young Bolsheviks is primed and ready to hit the streets. I must say, though, that while Pirkle’s point about the communists’ amoral cunning is well taken, he never did address to my satisfaction why Jesus wouldn’t give those kids any candy.
Once the communists have taken control, Pirkle tells the camera, the viewer will see “hundreds of dead bodies in the streets” of his or her town. And as the corpses pile up, Ormond’s camera returns again and again to pan slowly up and down the immobile, red syrup-splattered bodies of Pirkle’s parishioners, exhibiting a kind of anti-narrative, pornographic focus on the aftermath of violence that, but for the context, would be indistinguishable from the work of Ormond’s contemporary Herschel Gordon Lewis. Soon, Pirkle goes on, we will see “a communist soldier with a sub-machinegun in every pulpit stand in America”. But, as it turns out, getting shot will be the least of our worries. A later scene shows a group of children forced by the Commissar and his men to hoist their father up by a rope and repeatedly drop him into a nest of pitchforks. Elsewhere, in the movie’s most audacious gross-out moment, a young boy who has been caught receiving the word of God is shown vomiting copiously after having a bamboo shaft driven in one ear and out the other. Adding to the disconcerting nature of this particular scene is the fact that the post-dubbed retching sounds that accompany it are obviously being made by an adult man.
Pirkle caps off his accounting of the reds’ torture practices with a tale of a huddled group of staunch Christian souls who were forced by their communist captors to sit in the freezing cold on back-less chairs for “seventeen hours” (Pirkle, true to the conceit that the episodes recounted by him all actually occurred in one communist country of the other, throws out a lot of very specific-sounding, but uniformly un-sourced, figures over the course of the film) while an affectless, amplified voice recited the following phrases in mantra-like repetition:
“Communism is good.
Communism is good.
Christianity is stupid.
Christianity is stupid.
Now, if that bit of dialogue sounds familiar to you, well, first off, you are obviously some kind of smirky, art-damaged, big city boho who is well beyond the help that Footmen is seeking to offer you, and, secondly, that is because it is by far the most well-known passage from Footmen, thanks to it being sampled for a track by the Bay Area based sound collage group Negativland.
Which brings me to a point that I feel needs to be made. I think that any review of If Footmen Tire You, What will Horses Do? written by a smug urban hipster type such as myself should necessarily be viewed with suspicion, because it offers such an individual far too many easy opportunities to ironically mock timeworn countercultural punching bags like “small town American values” and uncomplicated expressions of Christian belief. And to be sure, there are enough stern-faced, boxy-haired church ladies and Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts on display in the film to insure that the temptation for such mockery is very hard to resist — impossible, in fact, ifmy previous paragraphs are any indication. Still, it would be a grave act of dishonesty if I failed to confess to you that, on some level, Pirkle’s scare tactics actually get to me. And this despite the fact that I was raised in a staunchly secular household, never attending a church service once throughout the entirety of my formative years. One might think that such an upbringing would lead to me having a somewhat more detached and rational approach to spirituality, but in many ways it has had quite the opposite effect. Instead it has made me view spiritual practices that are mundane parts of many Americans’ lives as being possessed of an almost Lovecraftian otherworldliness, to the extent that those people might as well be taking part in some kind of crazy voodoo ritual for all the terror and mystery that their actions hold. It is only in recent years, out of family obligation, that I have had to attend actual church services, and on those occasions I have remained poised on the edge of my seat throughout, waiting for the inevitable moment when the believers will turn upon me, pointing and hissing like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
It is for this reason perhaps that, despite the larger portion of my consciousness being devoted to exactly the sort of skepticism towards hard-line Christianity’s claims that you might expect, there is also that tiny part of me that on occasion wonders, “What if they’re right?” And then thinks, “That would suck balls.” So I am not completely immune to the rhetorical flourishes of Estus Pirkle and Ron Ormond. This was made especially clear to me when I viewed one of the pairs’ later films, The Burning Hell, in which a bunch of smirky know-it-alls are shocked to find upon dying that — oh shit! — there really was a fiery eternal Hell filled with endless, unspeakable torment after all. Sure, I LMAO as I watched stiff non-actors standing amidst what looked like a field of burning tires, tearing their hair and lamenting about “why, oh, why didn’t I listen”. But, again, I would be totally lying if I didn’t admit that there was a little piece of me that paused to soberly reflect upon the possibility, thinking, “Boy, that would really blow”. That piece of me then went on to imagine myself in the same circumstances, rending my garments as the flames licked at my heels, screaming “Why didn’t I listen? My baaaaad!”
Anyway, once Pirkle has set the scene for us, Ormond introduces a parallel narrative of sorts with the story of Judy (JudyCreech). An obvious wayward soul, Judy is dropped off by her boyfriend — a guy with a wispy loser ‘stache — in the parking lot of the church where Pirkle is giving his sermon. Romeo bristles at the notion of going inside, protesting that he’s “a lover, not a Christian”, and Judy conspiratorially assures him that she is only doing so in order to “keep up appearances”. She then steps out of the car, buttoning her dress as she goes, and steps into the church. Once Judy is seated inside, we see her crisis of faith playing out on her face as Pirkle speaks, mostly by way of various degrees of lower lip biting. Over the course of the film, we will return again and again to Judy as she intermittently listens to the preacher’s words and flashes back to her poor elderly mother’s attempts to get her to read the scripture. I would say that Judy’s ultimate “come to Jesus” moment is something of an inevitability, but given the film she’s inhabiting, she is in all honesty just as likely to be mowed down by automatic weapons fire or disemboweled. So it’s safe to say that there is some small element of suspense surrounding the matter.
The straw that finally breaks Judy’s spiritual back comes in the form of an episode that Pirkle relates during the film’s closing moments — an event that, according to Pirkle, “actually happened in another country”. A kid carrying a portrait of Jesus confronts Scaif’s Commissar about the murder of his parents, an atrocity that the villain, in response, cheerfully acknowledges. He tells the kid that he is better off, because he now belongs to the state, and then throws the kid’s picture of Jesus on the ground and orders him to step on it. This kid, I have to admit, is kind of a badass — the kind who could conceivably give Christianity a good name among attitude-heavy twelve-year-olds across America — and in refusing he fixes Scaif with a pretty stirring look of righteous, steely-eyed defiance. In response, the Commissar produces a big knife and threatens to cut his head off if he doesn’t comply. The kid then turns those steely eyes of his heavenward and pledges to give his life for Jesus as Jesus did for him, after which we see his bloody severed head rolling across the lawn. This proves to be too much for Judy — as I imagine, true to the film’s intentions, it did for many of Footmen‘s devout viewers — and she jumps to her feet screaming, after which Pirkle leads her to the altar, where she tearfully accepts Jesus.
For those of you who intend to seek out If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? for your personal viewing pleasure, I have one word of warning — that is, of course, if you don’t consider all of the words I’ve expended on the subject so far words of warning. While the film indeed delivers all of the outrageous low-rent gore, hilariously amateurish acting, and general offbeat strangeness that whatever accounts of it you have read promise, what those accounts may have failed to prepare you for is Estus Pirkle himself. Put simply, the man’s style of oratory is far more insistent than it is dynamic. Perhaps he simply felt that injecting any level of flamboyance into his rhetoric would be ungodly. But, whatever the reason, the result is that a little bit of his hectoring monotone goes a long way, and over the course of Footmen‘s fifty minute running time, you may find yourself struggling against lapsing into a defensive coma.
In fact, the only break in Pirkle’s robotic harangue occurs, quite effectively, during the film’s fading final seconds. Films such as Footmen, as mentioned before, would typically be shown in small churches, and would be followed by an altar call, during which those audience members who had yet to do so, shaken by what they had seen, would step forward and, just as Judy had done at the film’s conclusion, accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. As a prelude to that moment, Pirkle looks into the camera as the closing music swells and, in a tone that is suddenly both gentle and beseeching, softly repeats the words “Won’t you come?” The effect is startlingly disarming, and, after having been hostage to the relentless, auctioneer-like stream of oratory issuing from Pirkle’s expressionless head for the previous near-hour, almost provocative of a Stockholm Syndrome-like reaction. Which is to say that, even as I sat there, sniggering imperiously at all of the unbelievable claptrap I had just witnessed, there was a tiny little part of me that found itself inching imperceptibly toward the screen.
Release Year: 1971 | Country: United States | Starring: Estus W. Pirkle, Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, Gene McFall, Wes Saunders, La Quinta Scaife, Jim Rose, Billy Kent, Jimmy Little, Carl Haselton, Joe Scaife, Nathan Blackwell, Max Cannon, Bell Kent, Bondy Kent, Greg Pirkle, Tim Ormond, Ron Ormond | Writers: Ron Ormond, Estus W. Pirkle | Director: Ron Ormond | Cinematographers: Ron Ormond, Tim Ormond | Producers: Estus W. Pirkle, Monnie Stanfield
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
Time after time, I’ve sat down to be disillusioned, or to wonder how I could have liked such lowbrow fare when I could have spent my time brushing up on classic works of literature, only to find myself hooting with glee and running about the room in unabashed glee as I witnessed some fantastical orgy of ninja gore or oiled-up barbarians. Think of it as my childlike sense of wonder, if you are feeling generous, or shake your head in sorrow as you realize that I did indeed completely stop growing mentally at age fourteen.
Still, one must assume that even I have my limits, and there must be a film at there that I loved as a kid and would not still love as an adult. I was told countless times by many people I trust that the 1979 fantasy film Arabian Adventure would be that film. Because make no mistake about it — I loved this film when I was it in the theaters. Looking back on it, I could remember very little. I don’t think I ever saw it again after that first time. All I could recall about the film was a genie, something about Mickey Rooney inside a giant golden clockwork robot, and magic carpet dogfights. Heck, I didn’t even remember that it starred venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. I have no idea why I didn’t remember him but did remember Mickey Rooney. I don’t think I was a big Mickey Rooney fan in my youth. In fact, I think I’ve only ever seen two Mickey Rooney films in my entire life.
Anyway, for years I snooped around, hoping to discover that Arabian Adventure had suddenly appeared on home video in some format that wouldn’t require me to shell out $30 for someone’s crappy VHS bootleg with a label hand-written in pencil. But for one reason or another, it always seemed to be MIA, and so I was left celebrating the merits of the film while all those around me who had seen it more recently made with the ominous proclamations of, “You’re going to be disappointed with that one, chief.” Impossible! I mean — seriously: magic carpet dog fights!
Finally, after years of waiting outside a temple, seated in the lotus position and refusing both food and water, ignoring the rain, the snow, the scorching heat, the jackals, the police telling me to move along, after all of that, one day I performed my hopeful little search on Netflix, and low and behold, there it was. Arabian Adventure! Needless to say, I had to bump certain classics, like Kickboxer IV (oh, the things I’ll do for Michelle Krasnoo…the things I’d let her do to me…), a little lower on the list, but it was worth it to move this long-awaited gem from my youth to the top of the queue. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. Would Arabian Adventure prove to be, as has been predicted by soothsayers and friends with my best interests at heart, a massive disappointment, forcing me to call into question everything I’ve ever held dear, permanently casting a gloomy shadow of resentment and melancholy over my childhood? Or would my seemingly indefatigable ability to pleased by damn near anything triumph, reinforcing the idea that I see the world through the rose-colored lenses of a child and also have the brain of a seven-year-old?
Well, I’ve rewatched the movie now, and let me say this: magic carpet dogfights.
Yes, it’s true; my bottomless lack of taste (I’m watching Navy SEALS as I write this) and sound judgment wins again! I enjoyed Arabian Adventure to no end, reveled in every clunky special effect, thrilled to scenes of guys gliding around on magic carpets suspended by wires, and looked with the kind eyes of an old friend upon the visage of Mickey Rooney running around inside not one, but three giant golden clockwork robots. And then there’s venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as the evil caliph Alquazar, doing his usual shtick and sporting a big ol’ mustache. And then there’s a kid with a monkey, a beautiful princess, a dashing prince, a scheming fat guy, some chick who lives inside a sapphire, Peter Cushing as the world’s least convincing Arab, and did I mention that this movie has magic carpet dogfights? Yes, I did.
And what makes my adoration of this film all the more shameful is that it has all these things, but doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. The prince and princess are boring. Mickey Rooney is irritating and seems to have been bitten by a radioactive community theater performer and thus been imbued with all the proportional over-acting and hamming abilities that come with such a position in life. The special effects,while ambitious, are rarely any good. The entire movie plays like a fan-made “greatest hits of the Arabian Nights” highlight reel. And none of that seems to matter to me.
So here’s the deal. The film begins with young Majeed (Puneet Sira) and his pet monkey arriving in a matte painting of the ancient Arabian city of Jhador, populated primarily by second unit stock footage of camels and guys sitting around in doorways. Majeed has arrived in the middle of sweeping events. People are plotting the overthrow of the ruthless Caliph Dracula (venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee), while Caliph Dracula himself is plotting to recover the mystical Rose of Elil, a sacred artifact that will, in some vague way, grant him the ultimate power to rule over the world, or something to that effect. Artifacts that grant you the power to rule the world are rarely clear on exactly how they plan to go about it. They are, in that way, very much like your modern politician — all full of promises and rhetoric, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, the promises tend to fall apart. But that’s small potatoes to worry about for a guy who has somehow managed to imprison his own soul in a fire pit and spends his free time taunting it. For its part, the soul spends most of its time being sort of petulant and whiny and generally making you understand why Caliph Dracula imprisoned it in the first place.
Unable to retrieve the rose himself, for it must be plucked by a pure and righteous hand, Caliph Dracula enlists the aid of dashin’ Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias), who has fallen in love with Princess Zuliera (Emma Samms) despite having never actually seen or met her, and who seems completely oblivious to the fact that Caliph Dracula is evil and enjoys crushing his subjects beneath the iron fist of his mad tyranny. But he looks damn good in his swashbuckling Arabian prince outfit. Majeed ends up in possession of a magic gem that contains a trapped sorceress (Capucine) who, grateful for him releasing her, grants Majeed three life-saving wishes. Through typical movie convolution, this results in Majeed suddenly appearing on the back of a magic carpet piloted by dashin’ Prince Hasan and Khasim (Milo O’Shea), a spy assigned by Caliph Dracula to accompany dashin’ Prince Hasan and stab him in the back (literally) once he has the rose. Needless to say, Khasim is vexed that this half-naked young rascal has suddenly appeared out of nowhere on their magic carpet, and so he spends the bulk of their flight trying to knock him off.
Their quest for the magic rose leads them on a variety of adventures that involve a murderous genie (big Milton Reid, sporting weird googly eyes), a trio of fire-breathing monsters that end up being controlled by Mickey Rooney, and a lake of guys who try to grab your legs. As far as trials go, I have to admit, I’ve seen more challenging. I mean, Hercules had to clean stables that hadn’t been cleaned in dozens of years, and dashin’ Prince Hasan has to defeat Mickey Rooney? That hardly seems fair — especially when Majeed does all the work. I mean, maybe the psychotic laughing genie would have posed a threat if he had been able to hit the broadside of a mosque with his magic firebolts, but he proves incapable of hitting a squirming fat guy all of five feet away — and then he gets defeated when dashin’ Prince Hasan tips over a bottle! That’s Scooby Doo quality adventure right there. The quests get more challenging when Khasim pulls his power play. Before too long, dashin’ Prince Hasan and Majeed find themselves leading a revolution, rescuing a princess, fighting with Caliph Dracula in a lake of fire, and engaging in magic carpet dogfights with Caliph Dracula’s all-carpet air force of guy’s who primary skill seems to be to wave their swords awkwardly at dashin’ Prince Hasan, while he waves his sword awkwardly at them, causing hem to fall off their magic carpets. Someone should look into seat belts or something for those things.
Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist — one of my absolute favorite movie sites on the web — said of Arabian Adventure, “It is hard to imagine any but the least discriminating of viewers — of any age — really enjoying this film.” And I can’t really debate her on this matter. Instead, about all I can do is admit that it has been my goal to live the sort of life and put forth the sort of opinions that would result in my eventual tombstone reading, “America’s Least Discerning Viewer.” My other choice for an epitaph was, “It Took a Dozen Texas Marshals to Finally Bring Him Down.” Anyway, I freely admit that pretty much all of the criticisms that someone could lay at the feet of Arabian Adventure stick with the tenacity of an extra-gooey Wacky Wall Walker fresh out of the gum machine capsule. None of these should come as any shock if you are familiar with the writer-director team who brought you this movie. Because the last couple of movies they brought you were just as bad or even worse (and yeah — I liked them, too).
Director Kevin Conner and screenwriter Brian Hayles are responsible for a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired fantasy adventure films: At the Earth’s Core, starring Doug McClure, Caroline Munro, and Peter Cushing (and featuring one of the single greatest lines and deliveries in movie history: “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!”), and the one-two punch of The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot, both starring just Doug McClure. Hayles and Conner (they toured with Seals and Croft, I think) also made Warlords of Atlantis, which stars Doug McClure but is not based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story . It does often get me confused when I think it’s War Gods of the Deep, which featured Vincent Price and Tab Hunter — and buddy, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure. Oliver Tobias, also, is no Doug McClure.
Anyway, the films of Conner and Hayles are almost universally reviled by everyone except, apparently, me. And I have loved every last one of them. Even The People that Time Forgot. Even Arabian Adventure, though it could have really used some Doug McClure. In fact, given that the wooden dullness of our prince and princess is one of Arabian Adventure‘s greatest weaknesses, the film could have been improved immensely if dashin’ Prince Hasan had been played by Doug McClure and Princess Zuleira played by Caroline Munro. But I guess Doug McClure was too rugged and Joe Don Baker-esque to play a dashing prince (since he specialized in playing cool Americans in British films), and Caroline Munro had already been an Arabian princess in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Still, man that would have been awesome, or at least more awesome than Oliver Tobias and Emma Samms — both of whom look the part but offer very little in the way of charisma.
As bad as Conner and Hayles’ previous movies may have been, at least each of them had something that could keep people from being totally cranky about watching them. Land that Time Forgot enjoyed the services of Doug McClure and features WWI German U-boat guys fighting dinosaurs, and that’s enough for me. People that Time Forgot enjoys the services of Doug McClure with a caveman beard and Sarah Douglas in expedition jodhpurs. And At the Earth’s Core? My Lord! It’s got Doug McClure fighting night immobile paper mache monsters, Caroline Munro in a loin cloth waving a knife around, and Peter Cushing in one of the most hilarious “absent-minded professor” roles ever. Plus, it has the line “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!” — which is bested only by Cushing’s line in Horror Express where, indignant at the suggestion that he could have been possessed by the monster stalking the train, exclaims, “Monsters?!?! We’re British!”
Arabian Adventure does not have the benefit of charismatic players like Munro, McClure, or Peter Cushing — which is an odd thing to say, since it features Peter Cushing. Cushing is one of a handful of “special guest stars,” which is a nice way of saying that they owed Conner some sort of a favor or something. Cushing appears in a bit role as a holy man imprisoned in Caliph Dracula’s dungeon, and as an Arab holy man, Peter Cushing is a very convincing 19th century British scientist. The other guest stars — Mickey Rooney and Milo O’Shea — have larger parts and even pass themselves off fairly believably as Arabs (by the standards of fat Irish guys pretending to be Arabs), but each one seems intent on outdoing the other in the field of hammy over-acting. I suppose that’s good, because no one else seemed all that interested in putting any effort into their parts. Actually, that’s not true. I firmly believe that Oliver Tobias tried really hard. But he’s the film’s Keanu Reeves. He’s earnest, good-looking,and really wants to do a good job; he just can’t. But at least the script gives him some chances to shine, even if he fails as an actor to rise tot he occasion. He gets to have badly executed sword fights, fly around on magic carpets, jump over stuff, and tip over a genie bottle. Poor Emma Samms is saddled with a character so thinly written that the poor actress was doomed to be boring before the first frame was ever shot. Her princess is a sheltered woman who has never left the confines of Caliph Dracula’s palace. She has nothing to do but walk from room to room, and eventually sit around and listen to Caliph Dracula’s imprisoned soul complain about being imprisoned. Eventually, dashin’ Prince Hasan rescues her. Or really, Majeed rescues her and dashin’ Prince Hasan happens to be int he same general area and of legal age, so what are you gonna do?
Speaking of which, although I apparently didn’t mind them as a kid, as an adult I usually hate movies starring children. I don’t care for children in general, so watching a movie about one just seems pointless to me. But young Indian actor Puneet Sira seems possessed of all the charisma and charm that is lacking in Samms and Tobias. It’s hard not to compare him to Sabu, the young Indian star of films like Arabian Nights and Thief of Baghdad. So let me compare him to Sabu. As a Sabu stand-in, he’s exceptional, and we should be thankful that Conner at least took the time to find a likable and talented child instead of just casting Sabu, then in his…oh. Umm, then in his grave. OK, backing away from whatever Old Man Sabu joke I was hoping to make…
Which leaves us with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Although his character is called Alquazar in this film, I prefer to refer to him as Caliph Dracula for two reasons. First, I know doing stuff like that irritates venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee (who I’m sure reads this site all the time) to no end, and any chance I have to irritate venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee is a chance I can’t let pass me by. Second, he basically gives the exact same performance he gave in Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Dracula AD 1972, and the Fu Manchu movies (they apparently let him keep the mustache from those films, because he has it on here), and honestly — most of the movies he’s ever been in. Don’t get me wrong — he does it very well most of the time, but it does tend to get a tad familiar. His character here is given very little to do other than wait around in his lair while his minion does all the hard work (a la Dracula AD 1972), so venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee doesn’t really seem to be giving it his all.
Eventually, he gets in a really clumsy battle with dashin’ Prince Hasan, then chases Majeed up a rock, but that’s about it. Oh, and he turns a fat guy into a frog. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it very much, and once again, I can’t help but think how much better this film would have been if they’d cast someone else — Vincent Price, for example. Oh, now there’s a movie! Vincent Price, Doug McClure, and Caroline Munro! If I had myself a magic sapphire genie, that would be my first wish. My second wish would be that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee wrote me an email about how my jokes hurt his feelings, and then he ends the email with a sad face emoticon. Of course, my third wish would be that George Clooney was my friend. We’re both Kentucky boys, after all. Since Doug McClure is, sadly, no longer with us, I’d let Clooney be in my remake of Arabian Adventure. I don’t know who I’d get for Alquazar. Luckily, Caroline Munro, now nearly 60, is every bit as hot and talented as she was in her 20s. Maybe I could cast Alec Baldwin as Alquazar. Or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee!
So you may be asking yourself how I can spend the bulk of a review talking about how crappy a film is, then use that as criteria for concluding that I love the movie. Hey, this is Teleport City, baby, and the scientific method simply does not apply. And yeah, Arabian Adventure fails on a lot of levels for a lot of people. But not for me, because I had as much fun watching it today as I had watching nigh those many years ago. The lack of charisma in the leads doesn’t bug me. The fact that venerated horror film icon is giving a “just collecting a paycheck until I can go on to better films like Howling II and An Eye For An Eye” performance doesn’t bother me. The weak effects don’t bother me. The film is childish and clunky, and I love it. I love the magic carpet dogfights. I love the crummy sword fights. I love all the opulent but obvious matte painting backgrounds.
Speaking of obviously painted backgrounds, now is as good a time as any to breach the subject of the special effects. In 1977, as you may have heard, Star Wars was released upon the unsuspecting masses, and whatever its merits as a film (and I’m not trying to seem edgy by being a Star Wars hater — I loved it then and I love it still today), there’s no real credible way to deny the profound impact it had on special effects. It represented a quantum leap forward, and while you can say that nothing was ever the same after that, the fact is that there were a few stragglers that came in post-Star Wars but with very pre-Star Wars effects. Sometimes this had to do with the effects supervisor. Sometimes it had to do with the budget. In the case of Arabian Adventure, I’m pretty sure it was both.
Like most sci-fi and fantasy films that came in the wake of Star Wars, Arabian Adventure billed itself as a Star Wars like special effects extravaganza. If Star Wars was like watching Harry Houdini make an elephant vanish, Arabian Adventure was like watching a clumsy kid try to pull off a trick from his Blackstone the Magician illusion set. It’s cute, even charming in its way, but also sort of awkward and embarrassing.
Special effects supervisor George Gibbs shoots for the moon and ends up a fair distance from his target. He was early in his career, having worked previously with director Kevin Conner on Warlords of Atlantis, and then doing some model work on Richard Donner’s Superman before moving on to this film. Hamstrung by a small budget and limited resources, I think he intended to rely heavily on the gee whiz quaintness of his approach and on the untrained eyes of young children. The most ambitious effects are the magic carpets, realized through a combination of rear-screen projection, hoisting guys around on wires, and then letting little plastic guys tear around scale models of the city. None of these work terribly well, but there is a charm to watching little action figures on flying carpets wobble about in between scale model minarets. The other big effects are the genie — which is simple superimposition and animation, and sahib Rooney’s giant monsters, which are miniatures that rely on forced perspective shots that are sometimes effective and sometimes make Majeed look like a giant.
Still, I always appreciate a crude effect, and Arabian Adventure is endearing in its unwillingness to live within its means. This film certainly didn’t kill Gibbs’ career, and he went on to create all sorts of wildly uneven visual or effects for everything from 1980′s Flash Gordon to Conan the Barbarian. Obviously, the got really good at his craft pretty quickly, and he went on to work on films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Brazil, Alien 3, and more recently, From Hell and Doom. His work in Arabian Adventure is without a doubt a throwback to effects that probably weren’t even considered all that good in 1969, let alone 1979, but like I said — they’re sort of cute. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked on the effects for this film went on to very successful, and in some cases award-winning, careers. It goes without saying that none of those awards were for Arabian Adventure.
I have a tremendous weakness (one of many) for fantastic romanticized visions of ancient Arabia, and as pedestrian as some may find it, Arabian Adventure manages to satisfy the kid in me. I mean, don’t misunderstand — this film is nowhere near the caliber of the old Arabian Nights film, or either the Douglas Fairbanks or Sabu versions of The Thief of Badhdad. And it’s not in the league of the 1960s Sinbad movies with effects by Ray Harryhausen. But as dumb Saturday matinee fare, I still enjoy Arabian Adventure despite the sundry flaws. It would make a perfect double bill with Sinbad of the Seven Seas starring Lou Ferrigno.
Release Year: 1979 | Country: England | Starring: Puneet Sira, Oliver Tobias, Christopher Lee, Milo O’Shea, Emma Samms, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Mickey Rooney, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Brian Hayle | Director: Kevin Conner | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Ken Thorne | Producer: John Dark
It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.
It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.
With a driving funk theme and blood-dripping title graphic, Khoon Khoon‘s opening credits clearly announce that the film’s director, Bollywood B movie maestro Mohammed Hussain, has changed with the times, moving on from the gee-whiz swashbuckling thrills of sixties efforts like Faulad, Aaya Toofan and Shikari to lurid subject matter much more in tune with the tenor of the seventies’ less restrained Indian cinema. What’s still intact, however, is Hussain’s tendency to hew very closely to Hollywood models in the crafting of his films. This is the man, after all, who helmed one of Bollywood’s earliest adaptations of Superman, and who based his successful Dara Singh vehicle, the aforementioned Aaya Toofan, on Nathan Juran’s “Harryhausen” pastiche, Jack the Giant Killer.
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
There are certain films that become associated with one indelible image. For example, it’s hard to think of North by Northwest without conjuring a mental picture of Cary Grant being chased by that crop-duster, or of Singin’ in the Rain without immediately seeing Gene Kelly hanging off of that lamppost. In the case of the Filipino action film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, the image that invariably comes to mind – for those familiar with the film, at least – is that of comely star Marrie Lee brandishing an imposing looking, quadruple-barreled, sawed-off shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple (thanks, El Santo).
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973′s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Black Caesar was initially conceived by writer/director Larry Cohen as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, he ended up taking the project to AIP, where it became hitched to the star of former pro footballer and emerging blaxploitation leading man Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. While I think that this was probably the best outcome for all involved, I have to admit to growing a bit misty at the thought that, had things worked out differently, I might now be reviewing a film in which Sammy Davis Jr. beats a white man to death with a shoeshine box. In any case, AIP had already struck black gold with 1972′s Slaughter and Blacula, and saw Cohen’s reworking of the classic gangster film formula for a black milieu as a suitable next step in their venture into the black action genre. From this point, it was only a matter of second-time director Cohen hitting the streets of New York with his camera and delivering the goods.
Made in eighteen days for less than half a million dollars, Black Caesar went on to become a big hit, and AIP were quick to demand that Cohen provide a sequel as soon as possible. Adding to the time pressure on Cohen was the fact that his star, Williamson, would soon be leaving the country for some shooting overseas, which meant that production had to begin more or less immediately. Unfortunately, Williamson was at the time stuck in L.A. — far from Black Caesar‘s New York locations — filming That Man Bolt for Universal, while Cohen was working five days a week to complete It’s Alive, the first of his reputation-making creature features, for Warner Brothers. The solution that Cohen came up with to this problem was to shoot Hell Up In Harlem on the weekends using his It’s Alive crew and equipment, trying all the while to cope as best he could with the fact that he had neither his main actor or anything close to a completed script on hand.
Now, if you were a religious person, you might look at the obstacles that Cohen and his crew faced and conclude that Hell Up In Harlem was a film made in defiance of God’s will. And if you were a religious person and a fan of Black Caesar, you might look at the finished product and conclude that you were doubly justified in that opinion. Still, the lengths that were gone to complete it, combined with Cohen’s “shoot first, ask permission later” guerilla filmmaking style, make Hell Up In Harlem just about as good an example as you could find of classic B movie, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, as well as a crystalline artifact of a long gone era in the American movie game.
While filming Hell Up In Harlem‘s many New York location scenes, Cohen employed a mixed bag of tricks in order to conceal Williamson’s absence, including frequently shooting from his character’s point-of-view. His primary ruse, however, involved the use of a double — always shown either from behind, at a distance, or with something obscuring his face — whose presence was later augmented by the insertion of close-ups of Williamson that were filmed in L.A., as well as a generous amount of post-dubbed Williamson dialogue. Cohen also managed to shoot quite a few of the film’s interior scenes in Los Angeles, relying a great deal on his Coldwater Canyon home as a location (Cohen’s wood paneled home office, in particular, shows up in a couple of different guises throughout), with the result that, once he was able to get Williamson to New York for some brief location shooting, those actors who had appeared in the Los Angeles scenes with Williamson, but could not make the trip back East, had to be doubled themselves. Given this patchwork approach, it’s a testament to Cohen’s ingenuity that the seams in the finished product are less obvious than they might have been. Nonetheless, it has to be said that, even when you don’t consciously notice them, they still contribute to the overall impression that there is something ineluctably “off” about Hell Up In Harlem –- and that’s without even considering those dialog scenes in which it’s all too clear that you’re watching actors performing monologues in completely different locations.
As far as the writing of the film went, Cohen basically decided to make up the considerable, unscripted portion of Hell Up In Harlem‘s story as he shot. In this case that meant that he not only structured the narrative to accommodate Williamson’s absence (of which the most absurd instance is the placing front-and-center of the character played by Julius Harris — the father of Williamson’s character, Tommy Gibbs, who was a comparatively minor presence in Black Caesar), but also around whatever locations became available at any given time, whichever of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances happened to decide they’d like to be in a scene, or just whatever off-the-cuff scenario struck the director’s fancy at the moment. Surprisingly, given Cohen’s background as a screenwriter, working outside the confines of a script proved to infect him with a serious case of directorial ADD, since much of Harlem‘s footage turned out to be of exactly the capricious nature described above, with the result that he essentially had to “write” the film in the editing room with the aid of lots of randomly inserted narrated exposition.
Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Hell Up In Harlem is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even I, a man who has managed to provide coherent synopsis of films watched on un-subtitled Hindi and Cantonese language DVDs, shudder at the thought of reigning its disparate narrative components into a recognizable structure. This is largely due to the fact that Cohen, whenever presented with an opportunity to shoot an improvised scene, seems to have invariably made that scene one involving Fred Williamson killing some anonymous actor or friend of the production who happened to be on the set that day. Such opportunities clearly arose quite often, with the result that Harlem consistently connects its plot points by way of countless scenes of our hero offing characters who we have not previously seen and will never hear mentioned again.
One of the casualties of this approach is the idea that Hell Up In Harlem is anything but a sequel to Black Caesar in name only. Black Caesar, after all, was a relatively sober effort — one that, with its grim story of an inner city gangster’s precipitous rise and calamitous fall, stood in contrast to most other films in the Blaxploitation genre, which had a tendency to present their heroes as invincible black supermen who always triumphed over adversity in the end. Hell Up In Harlem, on the other hand, by positioning Williamson’s character as simply the driving force behind a string of randomly connected, violent action set pieces, becomes exactly the type of film that Rudy Ray Moore and D’Urville Martin were parodying with Dolemite. Even Tommy Gibb’s trademark limp –- an injury sustained at the hands of the film’s villain at the beginning of Black Caesar, and a motivating force for Williamson’s character throughout –- is gone here, making it that much easier for Williamson to sprint back and forth from one nonsensical bit of mayhem to the next.
In this spirit, Hell Up In Harlem spends it’s opening act frantically undoing everything that Black Caesar established in its last scene. This is necessitated primarily by the fact that, in the overseas cut of Black Caesar, Williamson’s character ends up dying an ignominious death at the hands of a gang of vicious street urchins. Or, at least, so it would appear. Because, as we see at the beginning of Harlem, Tommy Gibbs has not, as we have been lead to believe, either alienated or caused to be killed every last one of his friends and associates, but instead still has a gang of loyal flunkies ready at the call to come to his rescue. Not only that, but Tommy’s formerly absentee father (the aforementioned Harris), whose sheepish overtures of conciliation were harshly rejected by Tommy in the first film, is also waiting anxiously by the phone and ready to pitch in. From here it’s just a matter of the gang getting Tommy patched-up, which turns out to be a simple matter of taking over Harlem Hospital at gunpoint — a scene that was essentially accomplished by Cohen and his crew, on very short notice and without shooting permits, taking over the real Harlem Hospital at camera-point.
It is exactly that practice of “stolen” location shooting, practiced by Cohen with neither a union crew or the benefit of permits, that, along with the improvised nature of the production as a whole, marks Hell Up In Harlem as an artifact of, not just a lost style of filmmaking, but also of an America that, in spirit, has long since ceased to exist. Often filming from a concealing distance and with one camera, Cohen and company here pull off things that, if attempted in a major city in today’s security-obsessed United States, would result in them being thrown in jail at best and taken down by a SWAT team at worst. These stunts range from having gun-waving actors run down the middle of crowded mid-town Manhattan streets to sending cars careening along city sidewalks — with, in that last instance, the only precaution being ropes hastily strung across doorways to prevent the innocent from straying into harm’s way. Of all of these, though, the one sequence that really seems to have originated from some strange yet familiar shadow Earth is one that was shot — if Cohen is to be believed, at least — without permission at LAX, in which Cohen stages a fight between Williamson and actor Tony King that takes place on a baggage carousel in front of a crowd of stunned and very real travelers. To top this off, the director then has his combatants run up the luggage shoot to continue the fight on the actual airfield, after which we’re treated to the sight of Williamson strutting around on the tarmac with an airliner taxiing just yards away. For those of us living in today’s locked-down society, scenes like that amount to a veritable pornography of unfettered access. And, whether you love or hate Hell Up In Harlem, you simply have to thrill to the spectacle of combined institutional innocence and individual chutzpa that they present.
Once Tommy Gibbs is again at large and in charge, Hell Up In Harlem introduces us to a new villain, corrupt District Attorney D’Angelo (Gerald Gordon), who, if I understood correctly, turns out to have been behind everything that happened in the first film. There is still a lot of talk about a pair of ledgers containing the names of on-the-take politicians that motivated a good deal of the first film’s action, but Tommy’s primary concern is with getting payback against those who brought about his downfall, which, of course, turns out to involve him and his gang randomly killing a bunch of unidentified people who are only notable for their complete absence from Black Caesar. Somewhere in all this, Tommy’s mild mannered dad ends up killing a couple of crooked cops in self defense, putting himself on the wrong side of the law as a result. The only proper response to this, of course, is for dad to officially become part of Tommy’s gang, a turn of events which somehow leads to him being put in charge of his son’s entire East Coast operation. “Big Papa” quickly grows accustomed to the pimping threads and lavish lifestyle that such a position entails, and we are soon treated to a montage of Julius Harris gleefully gunning people down that nicely bookends a similar montage of Fred Williamson that we saw toward the beginning of the picture.
To accompany all of this nonsense we have a soundtrack by Edwin Starr that literally provides a song for every occasion. Seriously, if Cohen had asked for a theme to accompany someone walking across the street, Starr would have come up with a song called “Walkin’ ‘Cross the Street” that consisted of nothing but him shouting the phrase “Walkin’ ‘cross the street” over and over again on top of a driving funk track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, until you consider that James Brown, who also scored Black Caesar, had already provided a score for Hell Up In Harlem that was written and recorded entirely on spec. Unfortunately, the execs at AIP had been unhappy with Brown’s soundtrack work on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off –- apparently Brown had a problem with timing his compositions to match the action on screen –- and rejected his Harlem score over Cohen’s objections, leaving Brown to release the work as The Payback, which is widely considered to be the last great album of Brown’s career.
Despite Hell Up In Harlem‘s many problems, I have to say that I think I prefer it over its predecessor. While it’s certainly true that Black Caesar is the more earnest and ambitious of the two, I don’t think that the abilities of Cohen and his cast were always up to that level of earnestness and ambition. Williamson, for instance, while undeniable blessed with a glaring surplus of charisma, gives an enthusiastic performance in both movies, but is seemingly incapable of giving a convincing line reading, with the result that Caesar’s level of melodrama is really not his friend. Leading lady Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is just a little too cozy with melodrama, and comports herself throughout much of her screen time in both films as if she were chained to the wailing wall. Factors like these, along with the rough edges of Cohen’s direction, combine to make Black Caesar a bit of a bumpy ride for fans of consistent narrative tone. By contrast, Hell Up In Harlem, with its frenetic opening deconstruction of Black Caesar‘s final act, lets you know from the get-go that it’s going to be a wild ride through crazy town, and never disappoints.
One way that Hell Up In Harlem gains a lot is if you simply appreciate Cohen’s random set pieces on their own terms without attempting to tie them in with any larger narrative, because the fact is that many of them evidence a crazy sort of amphetamine-edged inspiration. The most famous of these is the entirely pointless scuba assault by Tommy and his gang on a mob summit being held on an “unnamed island off the Florida Keys”. This sequence involves, among many other things, a kung fu fight between Williamson and a bikini babe, a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and middle-aged black women in maids’ uniforms smiling serenely as they gun down central casting goombahs who, if anyone had bothered to name them, would surely have to a man gone by either “Guido” or “Sal”. Another highpoint is a hit that takes place at a hotdog stand that leaves all of its victims with half-eaten hotdogs sticking out of their mouths. And of course let’s not forget the scene in which Williamson sprints across a crowded Coney Island beach to pole vault the sharp end of a beach umbrella into the chest of yet another unidentified and previously unseen character.
Hell Up In Harlem‘s final scene sees Tommy lynching D.A. D’Angelo with his own necktie while crowing about how he’s “the first whitey hung by a nigger”. This was intended by Cohen as a topper to the previously referenced final scene in Black Caesar, in which Gibbs makes his white nemesis wear blackface and sing “Mammy” before beating him to death with a shoeshine box. It fails of course, which is not surprising. From the sound of it, the scene, like much of Hell Up In Harlem, was made up on the spot, and owed its existence to Cohen just happening at that moment to make a visual connection between Gerald Gordon’s tie and a convenient tree branch. Still, the scene is a fitting conclusion, in that it so appropriately sums up the spirit of Hell Up In Harlem as a whole. It is at once off-the-cuff, ultimately pointless, and, at the same time, possessed of that fascinating aura denoting a thing that someone, at one very particular time, and for only one fleeting moment, thought was a great idea, even though it totally wasn’t.
And then someone rolled film, and it was too late to turn back.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: United States | Starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Mindi Miller, Al Kirk, Janelle Webb | Writer: Larry Cohen | Director: Larry Cohen | Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton | Music: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Edwin Starr | Producer: Larry Cohen
Reviewing the types of films that I do, I’ve become no stranger to mixed feelings. Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, for example, while leaving me less excited than other of Onar Films’ DVD releases, still feels like it should be a peak experience for me. After all, it’s a Turkish film that’s based on an Italian comic book that’s set in an imaginary America during the Revolutionary War. For someone as obsessed as I am with how the familiar gets refracted, refined and/or re-imagined through the lenses of different filmmaking cultures, you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more tantalizing recipe — unless, of course, you were to concoct a Thai movie that teamed Ultraman with a Hindu monkey god, or another Turkish movie in which Santo and Captain America join forces to fight a caterpillar-browed Spiderman. Neither of those two films, however, hold up a funhouse mirror to a well-tread episode of American history the way that Kaptan Swing does. And it is that strange depiction of my country’s forefathers’ struggle for independence that, more than anything else, makes the film come across to my tired Yankee eyes as being a product of a place oh, so very far from home.
It’s hard to imagine what the Turkish pulp cinema of the sixties and seventies would look like without the influence of the Italians. Not only did Turkey’s B movie brigade pick up pointers from the Italian film crews who flocked to their country in the sixties (thanks to it being a suitably exotic location for Eurospy and Peplum films that was both accessible and inexpensive to shoot in) but they also drew upon Italian comics — or fumetti — for some of their most enduring characters, most notably that skeleton-suit-wearin’ rogue Kilink. Less enduring, but nonetheless noteworthy is Kaptan Swing, based on the Turkish translation of the Italian comic Il Comandante Mark.
Il Comandante Mark was the creation of a celebrated trio of Italian cartoonists — Pietro Sartoris, Dario Guzzon and Giovanni Sinchetto — who worked under the collective name EsseGesse. Specializing in Western-style adventures set during the American Revolutionary War, they had their biggest and most long-lasting success with Captain Miki, a series begun in 1951. Captain Miki made his Turkish debut in 1955, in the pages of the children’s magazine Billy Kid, but his popularity soon warranted the creation of his own comic book, Tommiks, that same year. As time went on, other of EsseGesse’s fearless, Redcoat-fighting frontiersmen would follow Miki’s lead into the pages of Turkish comics, including Il Grande Blek (as Teksas), Kinowa (as Kinova-Tex) and, in 1966, Il Comandante Mark (as Kaptan Swing, but you knew that already).
As presented in the comic, Il Comandante Mark was a young child of French nobility who, after being shipwrecked off the North American coast by British warships, was rescued and raised by a tribe of Native Americans. Instilled with an unshakable sense of honor and justice, and trained in all manner of physical combat, he eventually came to be the leader of a loose anti-royalist militia called The Wolves, who together fight against the evil British Redcoats while defending the poor and downtrodden settlers from their cruelties. True to its comic strip origins, it’s a wonderfully un-nuanced conflict, a black and white portrayal of good against evil that’s ideal fodder for the Turkish pop cinema of its day, which typically only needed a loose starting-off point from which to stage an endless series of reckless physical stunts and wild, free-form brawls.
Following that model, Kaptan Swing, the motion picture, indeed has little more than a whisper of a plot. But, unfortunately, rather than that providing a framework for the usual wall-to-wall action, it instead frees up space for a great deal more than the usual amount of broad, comic relief shenanigans. In this case, that may be more of a problem with the source material than it is the fault of the filmmakers. EsseGesse were known for providing their heroes with a more than reasonable share of goofball comedic foils, and Il Comandante Mark was no exception, coming saddled with an expansively caricatured Indian sidekick called Sad Owl, a grizzled old prospector type called Mr. Bluff, and Flok, a funny looking dog (who is called “Puik” in the movie and given voice by an off-screen human actor making “ruff ruff” sounds).
By accounts, Kaptan Swing was a scrupulously faithful adaptation of the original comic, as can clearly be seen in how closely the costumes and the look of the actors match the appearances of the drawn characters. This is most likely a testament to just how popular the book was in Turkey at the time. And while such efforts are both admirable and surprising — especially given that they’re coming from a film industry that usually played pretty fast and loose with its source material, not to mention the copyrights protecting same — that holding sacred of the text here has the unfortunate consequence of insuring the presence of Sad Owl, Mr. Bluff and Puik in all of their pratfalling, compulsively mugging glory (and in the case of Sad Owl, in the person of a disconcerting Sid Ceasar ringer by the name of Suleyman Turan). As a result, Kaptan Swing comes off less like a comic book movie than a live action cartoon. Making matters worse is the fact that the filmmakers seem to regard the mere presence of these familiar characters as comedy in itself, freeing them from the onus of having to give them anything to do that could actually be considered funny. Having one of them greedily gnaw on a turkey leg while making a funny face or being bitten on the ass by the dog seems to have been considered suitably hilarious to comprise a generous portion of the movie’s running time, and if you have a problem with that, you’re probably going to find Kaptan Swing pretty tough going.
Of course, the reader should take my opinions on this subject with a grain of salt, because, while I’ve been known to enjoy a good comedy on occasion, I have a de facto dislike for the notion of comic relief. This is not only because it is almost never actually funny, but also because it always seems to appear in those films that least need it. For instance, when I’m watching a Bollywood film in which a go-go dancing Laxmi Chayya in a spacesuit heralds the arrival of flying saucers in India, or in which a brawny guy is beaten up by a Colecovision skeleton in a wedding dress, do I really need Johnnys Walker or Lever crossing their eyes and sticking their tongues out between bared teeth? Likewise, what comedic dimension could the height gags of Chucho Salinas or the squashed hobo hat wearing of Tin Tan possibly add to a movie in which a team of Mexican female wrestlers fight a ping-pong-ball-eyed mummy, or in which Blue Demon is presented as an expert on paranormal phenomena? I even object to the term “comic relief”, because the only thing it ever seems to relieve me of is the enjoyment of whatever movie I’m watching.
Anyway, all of this moaning of mine is not meant to underplay the fact that, to some extent, Kaptan Swing does indeed play as an action film. Leading man Salih Guney, a veteran of Turkish cinema at an early age who first made his name in juvenile delinquent films in the mid sixties, cuts quite a dashing figure, and handles all of his roughhousing duties with a satisfying amount of credibility. The measure of any male star in these old Turkish films is his ability to hurl himself heedlessly into the fray without the luxury of a stunt double, and Guney does not disappoint, demonstrating a swashbuckler’s ease with the blade as well as being handy with his fists. The scenes where he mixes it up with his sworn enemies, the malevolent Redcoats, are, to my mind, those in which Kaptan Swing most convincingly demonstrates its reason for being.
And speaking of the Redcoats, what magnificent enemies they are, resplendently sheathed in uniforms that consist of red long johns with baggy white Japanese schoolgirl socks pulled up to their knees, topped off with pointy felt hats that have shiny gold paper decorations and straw-like bright orange hippie wigs flowing out from underneath them. Their commanding officers are afforded a little more dignity, but still have to wear gray wigs that make it look like they have cats sleeping on their heads. The whole look is so gloriously absurd that I was instantly overcome with delight every time these guys showed up on screen, immediately forgetting whatever agonies I’d suffered at the hands of Sad Owl, Mr. Bluff and their stupid dog. I did some fruitless searching around to see if I could determine what the inspiration for this particular interpretation of period military attire was, but, whatever the case, the end result is that these soldiers look like a cross between overgrown elves and backup dancers in a grade school production of The Nutcracker. There’s definitely a concept at work there, but I’m afraid there’s a language barrier, an ocean, and thirty-odd years between me and any clear understanding of what it was.
The plot of Kaptan Swing, what there is of it, struck me as a bit odd, because it involves the apparent death of a character who has a major recurring role in the comic. That seemed like a pretty bold move — impossible coming out of Hollywood, where the potential for a sequel is always a consideration — but judging from my previous experience with Turkish cinema and its unpredictable ways, not an inconceivable one. As such, we see Mr. Bluff going off to meet with a clandestine shipment of supplies for the Wolves, only to be betrayed by the cowardly village miller — who is in cahoots with a bunch of mangy pirates — and turned over to the Redcoats. The British commander is desperate to uncover the Wolves’ supply route, and so has Bluff tortured and, when he won’t give up the information, executed by a firing squad… or, at least, as I said, apparently so. From this point, the rest of Kaptan Swing plays out as a revenge drama, with Swing and Sad Owl trying to find out who among the villagers is the traitor while clashing repeatedly with the evil commander and his vicious army of witchy-haired soldiers. What the pirates have to do with anything, I have no idea, but their dutiful accessorizing with all of the appropriate eye patches, hook hands and colorful scarves adds nicely to the movie’s eccentric sartorial stew.
In addition to his loyal crew of tiresome oafs, Swing also has at his side his busty perpetual fiance Betty, who is portrayed here by the winsome Gulgun Erdem, an actress who we last saw in Iron Claw, the Pirate, and who also appeared in the awesome sounding Superman vs. Fantomas, as well as many dozens of other Turkish actioners. At first it seems that Betty is only on hand to provide eye candy, as she spends much of the film’s first half dancing suggestively around the campfire for the benefit of Swing and his men and carting around an impressive pair of jugs. As the story progresses, however, Betty proves, in the best Turkish cinema tradition, to be quite a fighter in her own right, taking on a somewhat pointless undercover mission that involves her dressing as an Indian squaw and ultimately leading a climactic charge that saves the hide of the hopelessly outgunned Swing.
As far as technical execution, Kaptan Swing is pretty much standard issue for the hastily made Turkish pop films of its day. The camera work is mostly utilitarian, primarily concerned with simply making sure that all of the action remains in frame, but providing the occasional, composed-looking shot to startle you into the realization that the person behind the lens might actually have had some artistic aspirations. Director Tunc Basaran would have come to the project well prepared, having already directed a couple of Westerns, as well as numerous films adapted from other sources, such as the first Tarkan film and the notorious Turkish version of The Wizard of Oz. Like any Turkish director worth his salt, he’s adept at filming action, and would get a better opportunity to showcase that strength a couple years later in the sleazy and highly enjoyable superhero romp Demir Yukruk: Devler Geliyor (aka Iron Fist: The Giants are Coming).
I have to admit that violent costumed crusader movies like Demir Yukruk are pretty much my meat when it comes to Turkish films, which doesn’t predispose me to championing a less fanciful entry like Kaptan Swing. Though don’t get me wrong; it is fanciful. Unless things get far worse than they already are, this is a film that has precious little chance of ever being shown to a high school American history class. It’s just that I prefer my Turkish films to feature swinging masked heroes with scantily clad female sidekicks, also-masked sadistic villains, and just the one usual, only intermittently appearing comic relief character (hey, I’m not asking for miracles). Still, those Redcoats were pretty amazing. I wonder if there was ever a movie where Kilink fought them. Onar?