Nestled with irony between a McDonald’s and a casino is Prague’s Museum of Communism (only the KGB Museum has a more deliciously ironic location, next door to the heavily guarded U.S. embassy). It walks the thin line between being another tacky tourist trap museum (which I love) and an actual educational experience (which I also enjoy), with the over-arching message of, “Communism — that sure did suck.”
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Released in 1958, Return of Dracula comes many years after the Dracula craze in particular and the Universal monsters in general had been relegated to the past in favor of atomic terrors and science fiction. Long enough, I suppose, that someone was thinking it was time for a revival, or that they were feeling nostalgic about the old films. But a lot had happened both technically and stylistically to films in those intervening years, resulting in Return of Dracula having one foot in old style horror and the other foot in something more like the police procedurals and quasi-noirs of the forties and early fifties. It’s a cheap movie, low-key, and boasting no big stars or established horror film icons, which is probably part of the reason the movie was more or less forgotten. It’s not bad at all, though, and it achieves a fair amount of tension rather than scares thanks in large part to a likable heroine in Norma Eberhardt’s Rachel Mayberry and a menacing “monster” in Francis Lederer’s Bellac Gordal, better known perhaps by his older name: Count Dracula.
Dracula, forever harried by vampire hunters in his native country, kills an artist on a train and assumes his identity, immigrating to the united States and settling in with the dead artist’s relatives (who have never met nor seen a photo of their foreign-born relation). Living now under the name Bellac Gordal, Dracula does his best to adapt to suburban American life, attributing his curious demeanor and odd hours to being an artist and a European. All the while, however, he is laying the foundation for turning the quiet, dull town into the focal point of a new vampire empire. When the vampire hunters track him to the town, they have a hard time convincing rational, salt-of-the-earth Americans that these tales of vampires are more than nutty Old World superstition.
Although there is probably plenty of comedy to be mined from a high concept like “Dracula moves to the California suburbs,” this is not the movie in which to go looking for such comedy. Return of Dracula plays it straight, with a Dracula who adapts to his new surroundings with the proficiency of a creature that has had to adapt to new eras and new surroundings many times before. Part of what makes the horror work in this movie is the choice to avoid the yuks and explore, instead, the idea of Old World horrors seeping into the clean, ordered, and thoroughly modern world of the mid-American suburb. As a kid seeing this movie (which I was not), it must have been exciting to think that no matter how manicured the lawns and sterile the environment, there could still be a vampire lurking around the corner. The infection of such familiar and boring a setting with the affectations of ancient evil — ghostly figures, billowing fog, menacing shadows — makes for an effectively chilling juxtaposition of old and new.
I suppose given the era in which this movie was made, one could force a Cold War paranoia subtext into the mix: mysterious Eastern Europeans coming to threaten whitebread, wholesome America. That Lederer comes across less as a monster being pursued by monster hunters and more as a spy on the run also makes it easy to see a Red Menace theme beneath the vampire tale. At the very least, the difference in cultures is exploited as Dracula’s every quirk is attributed to his foreignness by his American “family,” who are welcoming and warm but also ignorant. The arrival of Cousin Bellac gives them — especially young daughter Rachel, just starting to become a woman — a taste of the exotic and non-conformist in sharp contrast to the familiar order around them. Bellac senses this and is able again to cover his tracks and his unfamiliarity not just with being an American, but with being a human, with the anti-authoritarian air of the artist, which only makes him more appealing to the dissatisfied Rachel. His attempts to set up a new vampire “hive” is tantamount to small-town American being infiltrated by an agent seeking to establish Communist cells. It’s also no accident, I would imagine, that Dracula assumes the identity of an artist, with circles of such creative and oddball persons being regarded as hotbeds of Socialism and Communist sympathy.
Dracula movies usually live or die on the merits of their Dracula. Francis Lederer takes a very weird, very different, and for me very successful approach to the legendary count. There is in his portrayal a hint of the “ancient monster awkwardly trying to mimic a human” that underlies Bela’s Dracula, but he is not doing an imitation of Lugosi. Far more than that, Lederer has the paranoid fidgeting and darting eyes of an early Eurocrime villain, like someone who might have wandered out of a Dr. Mabuse film or one of the early Hitchcock espionage thrillers. By all accounts, Lederer was not overly excited to be involved with the film (although not a star, he was a seasoned actor by this time), but whatever disdain he might have had for the low-budget production either didn’t affect his performance or did so in a way that actually benefits the film. He’s weird, disaffected at some times and overly passionate at others, consistently off-kilter and always creepy and threatening without resorting to the obvious.
On the other side of the coin is Rachel. Pure of heart, fresh-faced, giving and kind, yet also starting to question her surroundings. She is not as happy with her dorky all-American boyfriend as she could be. She aspires to be both an artist (fashion designer) and humanitarian (nurse). She is given all the personality tools she needs to be an easy seduction for the vampire/Communist spy as well as the one who can resist him. There is real tension regarding which way she will go. Norma Eberhardt turns in a good if somewhat stilted at times performance, and the fact that Rachel is a genuinely nice and warm character makes the danger looming over her in the living room much more effective. Modern horror has for quite some time depended too much on the assumed desire of the audience to see despicable people punished, which can have its moments I grant you. But I miss when horror would also create real tension by taking someone you like and putting them in a dangerous situation. For me, anyway, that’s a much more sustainable sort of tension (and a lot less irritating to watch than 90 minutes of horrible people sniping and bickering before someone just shoves a pipe through their face).
At the beginning of this article, I posited that a film like this got made because someone thought we were due for a resurgence in supernatural horror after years dominated by atomic age terrors. And they were right, even if it wasn’t Return of Dracula that sparked that revival. Director Paul Landres and screenwriter Pat Fielder were on a vampire kick. Before teaming up for Return of Dracula, they had also worked with each other on the previous year’s The Vampire. It’s not surprising that their vampire films would be very different takes from previous versions of the vampire movie. Landres’ experience was almost entirely in westerns and crime television, and Fielder was new at the game, with only one credit (he co-scripted The Monster that Challenged the World) to his name before he and Landres concocted their vampire tales. Their takes on vampires and vampirism were exceptionally interesting, but audiences weren’t as interested as Landres hoped. They wanted vampires again, just not his vampires. The same year Return of Dracula was released, England’s Hammer Studio released Horror of Dracula, starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as an animalistic, force-of-nature interpretation of Dracula. That film, with its more familiar take on the legend, brilliant color filming, exquisite period sets and costumes, shocking bloodshed and sexuality, overshadowed the comparatively low-key Return of Dracula. The classical horror revival happened then, but it happened Hammer’s way and in Hammer’s image.
While I love Hammer horror, it’s too bad Return of Dracula got buried and forgotten. It’s a deceptively fascinating and complex vampire-turned-thriller movie. Being of liberal and artistic leanings myself, I don’t necessarily agree with the message about swarthy Eastern European types infecting wholesome America with their socialist ideas, artistic history, and interesting suits; but I also don’t think this is a cut and dry “foreigners are dangerous” morality tale. After all, it’s the ignorance of the Americans that Dracula is able to exploit to cover his crimes. He plays on stereotypes and expectations. Similarly, it’s more Eastern Europeans who show up and convince the American authorities that something supernatural is in their midst. And the most annoying character is the most gee-whiz all-American boy: Rachel’s well-meaning but lunkheaded boyfriend. Whatever the case, Return of Dracula has a lot to offer. It is, as I said, more satisfying as a thriller than straight horror film, though its moments of horror are eerie and effective. The whole thing is infused with enough menace, paranoia, and lurking menace to keep it tense even when Dracula is just hanging out in his bedroom. Return of Dracula is well worth rediscovering, or if you are like me, discovering for the first time.
Release Date: 1958 | Country: United States | Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wengraf, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clarke, Jimmy Baird, Greta Granstedt, Enid Yousen, Robert Lynn, John McNamara, Norbert Schiller | Screenplay: Pat Fielder | Director: Paul Landres | Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie | Music: Gerald Fried | Producer: Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
Many hours into playing Fallout 3, with my character standing on a bluff watching the sun set behind the ruins of Washington DC while Inon Zur’s haunting score played in the background, I started contemplating the very nature of video games and when a video game becomes something more than what “video game” often connotes. I played Fallout 3 obsessively for hours on end, often without any direction — sometimes going for days with no interest at all in advancing the actual plot of the game, content to simply wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland listening to Bing Crosby and Gerharde Trede, exploring every point on the game’s expansive map, and occasionally gunning down cannibalistic punks and super mutants. I began to wonder if this video game wouldn’t be better classified as something other than a video game, or if the term “video game” needs to be radically redefined. Does something as complex and sprawling and open-ended as Fallout 3 deserve to be filed under the same monicker as, say, Space Invaders or Angry Birds or Street Fighter? Or even as more sophisticated but less complex modern games like the Halo series.
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
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 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
The Cold War produced a lot of great films, or at least a lot of enjoyable ones. It also produced some godawful dreck, though even some of that dreck was at least entertaining. Cold War paranoia films took on many forms. In the 1950s, there were a lot of those “realistic” atomic war movies that consisted mainly of a group of people sitting around in a bar discussing matters until an atom bomb fell and blew everyone up. The more creative films let giant red ants or some such creature stand in for the commies. Some of the more outlandish entries even had secret plots by the Chinese to tunnel under the Pacific Ocean and pop out in California ready for an invasion. During the 1960s, the Cold War sci-fi film gave way to straight-up espionage thrillers inspired by the success of the James Bond films that always involved the Reds trying to steal some terrible device we never should have invented in the first place. Luckily, there’s always a square-jawed G-Man on the case, ready to dish out some beat-downs and bed some Eastern Bloc babes. The best Cold War films of the 1960s were most definitely coming from Italy, Spain, and Germany. The Eurospy film was born, and it was probably one of the greatest achievements of the Cold War era.
When the 1980s came, Ronald Reagan rekindled the Cold War with a fire in his eye he’d not had since the days he was gleefully ratting out his co-stars in Hollywood and accusing them of being Commies during the Senate Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan made the escalation of the Cold War the primary focus of his eight-year administration, allowing education to falter and the economy to languish in disrepair. On the one hand, his crackpot brinksmanship seemed like it just might be the end of us all. On the other hand, he did bankrupt the Soviet Union and cause the downfall of European communism, thus ending the Cold War it seemed he was so likely to heat up. History is funny like that. In the midst of the rhetorical sparring between Reagan and his Russian counterparts, Cold War paranoia films enjoyed renewed popularity. This time we were often blowing up the whole world then driving around in dune buggies after the dust settled.
Although post-apocalypse films were the most noticeable and flamboyant, more than a few cloak and dagger thrillers slinked onto the screen as well. Unfortunately, a lot of those were geared toward kids and always featured a plucky young protagonist furiously pedaling his BMX bike away from pursuing Russian agents. I may be a lot of things, but a fan of insipid kiddy action films is not one of them. Even when I was a young tot, if I was watching an action film, I wanted blood and explosions, and if possible, ninjas and boobs. It was generally unlikely that I would get my requirements fulfilled by a movie starring Corey Haim or Henry Thomas riding their bikes to freedom. Luckily, a few films emerged that satisfied my appetite for movies far more adult than I probably should have been watching. I remember very vividly the night I first got to watch James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. My friend Dan (then known as Danny) had this older brother named Dave who liked to do typical big brother stuff like hide out in the woods and howl like a werewolf (or a regular wolf, I suppose) to get us scared. It rarely worked, and it was odd that he’d go to such extreme and goofy measures to spook us since we were far more afraid of him simply delivering a good-natured pounding to us.
When he wasn’t teaching us important things like how to endure an Indian burn or a red belly, he was a pretty cool older brother (or maybe it just seemed that way since I could always go home; Dan had to stay there and pray for the day his brother would have to go back to college). He was the one who let us hang out and watch The Soldier. While I remember the whole night with rather bizarre clarity, about the only thing I could remember from the movie itself was a scene where some guy sneaks into an apartment and tries to strangle some other guy with a wire. The other guy blocks it with his arm, but the wire still cuts through his sweater and causes a decent amount of blood to flow. I have no idea why that scene is the one I remember, but there ya go.
Since everyone my age builds their live around reclaiming their childhood and indulging themselves by purchasing every toy they were never able to get when they were ten, I figured it might be a good idea to track down a copy of The Soldier and give it another go-round. I mean, I remember that it was bloody and full of spies. That’s enough to warrant at least one more look. Not too long ago, I would have gone into this film with some degree of trepidation. Would it still seem as cool to me now as it did nineteen years ago? However, after watching countless films from my youth that I should have grown out of, I discovered that my tastes have, for better or worse, changed very little since then. I still like the most godawful juvenile crap, and that part of the brain that makes you outgrow cheap barbarian movies and corny sci-fi remains as undeveloped as the part that should have me buying a house and starting a family instead of worrying about completing my Michael Caine spy thriller collection and tracking down a Fidel Castro action figure. So given my short-comings when it comes to taste, I abandoned any misgivings a sane person may have harbored and dove headlong into the heart of this Cold War actioner. I wasn’t really disappointed either, but I rarely am. I mean, if Space Hunter and Death Stalker aren’t going to disappoint me, a film has to really be bad for me to regret wasting my time with it.
The Soldier stars Ken Wahl – fresh off his turn in 1981′s Fort Apache, The Bronx (but better known here for his role in The Taking of Beverly Hills) — as The Soldier, a CIA operative who is so tip top secret that only the director of the CIA (and maybe the President) knows he even exists. As you expect from such a movie, The Soldier is the guy you call when all other options fail, when the task at hand is impossible, so on and so forth. Maybe if they trained all their operatives this well, we wouldn’t need those “final option” guys, because the first option guys could actually get the job done. Maybe if the CIA stopped relying on twelve-year-old kids on bikes to outwit Russian spies, there’d be less need for The Soldier.
When we first meet The Soldier, he’s blowing away some terrorists in super slow-motion with ultra-wet bloody squibs. All while Tangerine Dream drones on in the background. So far, so good except for the fact that you can clearly see the squibs detonating and emitting a little puff of fire. Maybe they’re using some of those explosive-tip bullets. Of course, this scene has nothing at all to do with anything else in the movie. It just shows us that The Soldier is a bad-ass, and the movie has really over-filled its squibs – something of which I always approve. The actual plot kicks in when three terrorists – yep, three – hijack a shipment of weapons-grade plutonium that is being shipped on the back of an open-bed truck in a container clearly identifying it as weapons-grade plutonium, and with only one car (an Oldsmobile) to guard it. Oh, and a Southern cop somewhere else up in the hills. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never transported weapons-grade plutonium anywhere, as far as you know. Consumer grade for the kitchen, sure, but never weapons-grade. Nor have I ever been in the military in a position to be privy to the particulars of transporting such a cargo. Still, even with my ignorance fully fessed up to, I’m pretty sure they don’t do it in a clearly-marked open-bed truck with only two guys in an Olds to guard it. Surely they’d do something like hide it amid a convoy of heavily armed Piggly Wiggly trucks full of well-trained soldiers. And surely they wouldn’t stop for anything, even a topless woman hitchhiking or a broken down car. But the terrorists in The Soldier don’t even need the topless hitchhiker, because this truck will stop for dang near anybody.
When you only have a couple slow-witted guys guarding the deadliest substance on the planet, it’s no surprise that it only takes three terrorists to steal it. When the single cop finally shows up for support, he draws his gun and does the whole, “Freeze right there, mister!” routine. Now just as I’ve never been in the military, I’ve also never been a cop, but I’m pretty sure that even in today’s skittish anti-cop atmosphere it’s considered A-OK to come in with guns a-blazin’ when you’re approaching a group of men who you know gunned down two US soldiers, blew up a car, and are currently crawling around on top of the truck you know contains plutonium. No need to be diplomatic about things. Maurizio Merli would have immediately started kicking in teeth and bashing people’s heads with the hood of a car. Hell, he’d let you have it with both barrels blazing just for flipping off an old lady. Of course, I suppose I could be wrong. If anyone in the military would like to confirm that James Glickenhaus is correct, and we truck around nuclear weapons with an escort of two Plymouths (one of which disappears), then I’ll apologize, revise this review, and promptly move somewhere with a little more security when it comes to transporting the stuff that can blow up entire cities.
Now that they have the plutonium, the terrorists whip up an atom bomb and plant it somewhere in Saudi Arabia, demanding that Israel withdraw from the occupied West Bank. If Israel refuses, the terrorists will set off the bomb, thus contaminating over 50% of the world’s oil supply and thrusting civilization into a state of panic and anarchy. Israel refuses, which frankly seems sort of prickish. I mean, I know you’re all proud of holding onto a useless hunk of desert and all instead of just giving it to the people who live there, but this is the whole world we’re talking about. Couldn’t they just take it back later on? What’s so great about the West Bank anyway? Not wanting to see the world cast into chaos, the United States begins military preparations to force Israel out of the West Bank. Given our current relations with Israel in which we let them do pretty much anything no matter how adversely it affects us, this may seem sort of odd. Keep in mind, however, that the US and Israel were not always buddy-buddy. When Israel was carved out of the Middle East by European countries, it was populated almost entirely by refugees from Eastern Bloc nations. In other words, Communist nations. The US was supremely suspicious of Israel, which at the time seemed much closer to a Socialist nation than a democratic one. Anyway, what did we care? It was a problem for Europe and the Middle East to work out amongst themselves. It wasn’t until it dawned on the United States that Israel had a lot of strategic value as a base and as a place to test new weapons that we figured it might be worth buddying up with them. So now we have the mess we have today. If only we had a man like . . . The Soldier!
Not wanting to see the world torn asunder, nor wanting to see the US go to war with Israel, the CIA sends The Soldier in to do what he must do, however it must be done. Of course, if he gets caught, the US government will deny his existence, et cetera. You’d think after about the nine hundredth time someone heard that speech, they could just skip it. This isn’t his first mission. He knows the “deny any knowledge of you and your actions” spiel. If they just gave it to them the day they graduated from “super duper spy training” school and added, “And this applies to everything you do from here on out, starting . . .now!” they’d save everyone a lot of time. Meanwhile, over in Israel, a hot female Mossad agent is torturing Iceman. Seriously. Not Val Kilmer Iceman. I mean Iceman Iceman. Sure, it’s just a ruse to get someone to talk, but doesn’t anyone notice that the guy pretending to get tortured has simian-like features and a forehead that slopes like a Neanderthal in order to hide the blood packets the Mossad installed in it to make his interrogation and execution seem realistic? Palestinians may not be up on all the latest techniques from Stan Winston, but I think even the untrained eye can spot a guy with three inches of latex protruding from his forehead and making him look like some of your more involved Star Trek: The Next Generation aliens. About the only reason this sequence even exists is to introduce the chick, and the only reason she exists is so she can sleep with The Soldier later on for no real reason.
While The Soldier prepares for his mission by playing Konami light gun games, the terrorists pass the day eavesdropping on the CIA. After building a bomb out of a light bulb, the terrorist infiltrates CIA headquarters and plants the dastardly device in the office of the head of the CIA. Let me do this one more time: I’ve never been a member of the CIA, but I have been by their office in DC for a tour once a long time ago. I seem to remember them having security. You know, being the CIA and all. Yet this guy gets past all their security simply by throwing on a granny dress and a gray wig and pretending to be the cleaning woman. Wouldn’t security recognize the fact that she has man scruff and a wig that isn’t on properly? And wouldn’t they know who was and was not supposed to be cleaning the director’s office? Surely even the CIA wouldn’t fall for the old “the regular cleaning lady is sick, so I’m taking her place” bit. Actually, given what we’ve learned in recent months about how the CIA and FBI operate, I guess they could possibly fall for a trick involving a European terrorist masquerading as the lady from Mama’s Family.
Something I’ve always wondered is how terrorists always manage to get a job as part of the cleaning or maintenance crew at wherever they need to plant stuff for later on. Take Shiri, for instance. It’s one of my favorite action films, but how the heck did all the terrorists get jobs at the stadium they’d be attacking later on? Did they have a contingency plan in place just in case they were told that the stadium wasn’t hiring anyone? Why are there always just enough employment opportunities for the terrorists to sneak in however many people they need to do the job? Similarly, even if the guy from The Soldier had been masquerading as a cleaning lady long enough to bug the office, how did he get the job to begin with? I assume the CIA screens everyone heavily, even their janitorial staff. Didn’t they catch that this cleaning lady was actually a man who, until a few months ago, had been living in Poland or East Germany or something? It seems that no matter how screwed up the CIA may be, they’d at least catch that one.
So what I’m learning here is that The Soldier is slightly less believable and more bone-headed than even the most outlandish Eurospy films. I mean, I’m willing to accept a few plot contrivances to help move things along, but this movie is really pushing things. Luckily, it’s countering the colossally inept plotting with a lot of slow-motion shooting and blood-spurting bullet wounds. Just don’t mistake this for anything even remotely resembling intelligent regardless of how much the dreary Tangerine Dream music may make it sound like an arthouse experiment.
The Soldier eventually goes to meet up with Klaus Kinski at some ski resort for no real reason, at least not one I remember them telling us. If The Soldier had watched any movies before taking this assignment, he’d know that you can never trust Klaus Kinski. He’ll always betray you or crawl through the ductwork to watch you undress. Maybe The Soldier figured the guy did give the world Nastasia Kinski, so he’d give him the benefit of the doubt. How a guy as creepy looking as Klaus contributed to making Nastasia is as great a mystery as how a greasy little guy with a crappy haircut like Dario Argento could have had anything to do with the production of Asia Argento. Anyway, The Soldier and Klaus meet at a ski resort for no other reason than it’s a convenient place to have the ski chase and shoot-out that’s become required for all spy films since James Bond first popularized them. Seriously, how many spy films have ski chases and shoot-outs? Bond seems to have had one in almost every movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Heck, even next generation spy movies like XXX knew enough to have a ski chase. But at least they make some perfunctory attempt to justify it in the story. Here, they just go to the ski resort for no reason. And then Klaus Kinski immediately betrays The Soldier, whom he seemed to have been friends with up to about this point.
So they have a big ski chase, which is admittedly pretty cool. The Soldier even does a 720 while firing an Uzi. Unlike the real world, where this would be an incredibly idiotic thing to do that would result in you hitting no one while everyone was free to take potshots at you, in the world of poorly-conceived Cold War action films, you can do the same stunt in slow motion, allowing you to nail half a dozen fast-moving gunmen on skis while at the same time being able to completely dodge all their attempts to shoot you. Eventually, The Soldier is able to punch one of the gunmen, which causes him to confess the entire plot to The Soldier, revealing that it’s not terrorists at all who are behind the atom bomb threat. It’s the Russians!
Now wait just a minute here.
The Russians? Okay, I know it’s the Cold War, and the Russians are responsible for everything bad that happens, even the decline in ratings for Battle of the Network Stars, but come on! The Russians need oil, too. I know they have some of their own, but surely even Russia can’t benefit from casting the bulk of the world into a state of anarchy. I mean, it is going to affect them as well, like having unruly Eurotrash neighbors who smoke hasch and blast dull trance albums all night. This is silly even for Cold War Russians. And why are they putting on this whole stupid show with making Israel vacate the West Bank? Why do they give a rat’s ass? Are they pissed because so many Jews left Russia and moved to Israel? If Israel had agreed to pull out of the West Bank, would the Russians just go, “Well, we didn’t expect that. Guess we better go turn off that bomb like we promised.” What’s with the dog and pony show? Why don’t they just set the bomb off and be done with things? I’ve seen better plans hatched by the kids down the street who were trying to take over the Little Rascals fort, and all those plans involved dressing up like pirates and flinging Limburger cheese at each other.
In order to alert the CIA to the fact that it’s those dirty, no-good Commie pinkos behind the plot, The Soldier must break into a military base to use the phone. Why? Who knows. You’d think after all this time he’d have a better way to contact the one guy who knows who he is. For some reason, the head of the CIA is sitting in the dark in his office, and only turns on the lamp with the exploding bulb when it’s convenient to the plot. Now The Soldier is on his own, with no allies save for the crack team he assembles to help him pull off a scheme even stupider than the one dreamed up by the Russians. The first guy he recruits is “the black guy.” Since this movie was made before Ernie Hudson was a big star, the black guy is played Steve James, who played “the black guy” in every movie requiring a black guy before Ernie Hudson became the official black guy of Hollywood. Anyone who is a fan of crappy action films recognizes James, who’s probably best-known for his role as “Kungfu Joe” in I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka! or for carrying a load named Michael Dudikoff through some American Ninja films. James was almost always relegated to playing sidekick to some lead-footed white hero, which was ironic since James was a better fighter and actor than pretty much everyone to whom he was forced to play second fiddle. He was definitely one of the great fixtures of action cinema until his untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1993.
He’d already worked with James Glickenhaus in 1980 on the “‘Nam vet gets revenge” flick The Exterminator. In The Soldier, he’s the guy who sneaks in and does that attempted wire assassination to Ken Wahl I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of course, after some fighting, they just laugh and embrace, glossing over the fact that had The Soldier not reacted in time he would have been decapitated. And even though he did react in time, he still has an inch-deep gash in his forearm. Do people, even highly trained people, really do this “trying to kill my buddy as a good joke” thing? Rough housing is fine and all, but most people draw the line at attempted murder, even if it’s all in good fun. It’s like Kato constantly attacking Inspector Clouseau. Most people would just sneak up and give their buddy a wet willie or something, not try to slice their limbs off.
The Soldier assembles the exact same crack team that is assembled for every movie of this nature. There’s the black guy, the drunk, the chick, and the guy who doesn’t want to be there. Together, they hatch a scheme in which the rest of the team will commandeer a nuclear missile silo while The Soldier drives around Berlin in a Porsche for no discernable reason. The job of the guys in the silo is to threaten to nuke Moscow unless they drop this whole scheme with irradiating the Saudi oil fields. To show they mean business, The Soldier will drive fast and jump a sports car over the Berlin Wall. That’s their plan? First of all, taking over the missile silo is ridiculously easy. It must have been on the same base that ships nuclear materials in open-bed trucks with no armed escort. Or it’s the same base that can be infiltrated by a precocious bike-riding pre-teen who made his own clearance cards. Seriously, even though it’s adults doing the espionagin’, their plans are even more ridiculous than what any spy-thwarting youngster would have devised. I mean, we don’t want to lose the oil, so instead we’ll start World War III and destroy the whole world? At least the Russian plan could have resulted in Russia itself surviving and being a society where everyone wears burlap sacks and hoes the fields all day. I mean, they were pretty much there already. But The Soldier’s plan makes even the oil field scheme seem like a good idea. This is the kind of crap that probably sparked the events we saw in Red Dawn. I always wondered why the Russians would launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, and why they’d have a bunch of sun-loving tropical island boys from Cuba invade a small town in Colorado. Now we know they were pissed about the stupid crap The Soldier was trying to pull. The Cubans probably just wanted to see snow and shoot at C. Thomas Howell. Who doesn’t want to shoot at C. Thomas Howell?
Talk about a lunkheaded movie. When a stupid action film aspires to be nothing more than a stupid action film, it’s usually not bad. You know what you’re getting, after all. What’s far more entertaining, however, is when an action film tries hard to be smart and the effort just makes it ten times stupider than it would have been without the delusions of intelligence. Chimps could hatch better plots than Glickenhaus has concocted for this mess. Nothing makes any sense even by Cold War standards when lots of things countries did seemed to make no sense. Even Ronald Reagan, who damn sure had some fruitcake ideas, would have dismissed these schemes as a bunch of junk. Why would the Russians want to catapult the whole world into a state of total chaos? Oh sure, because they’re evil. Even Tom Clancy wouldn’t devise a plot that inane. And what about The Soldier’s plan to prevent it from happening? Why did he have to have his guys break in and take over the missile silo? All he does is meet up with The Russians in East Berlin and say, “We’re going to blow up Moscow if you blow up the oil,” and they take him at his word. They are terrified by the revelation that The Soldier now has a missile pointing at Moscow. Was it somehow a shock to the Soviets that we had missiles pointing at them all ready to go? Who did they think we were pointing them at? His whole plan is the brinksmanship equivalent of spending a million dollars to catch a guy who stole ten dollars. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that the crisis has been averted, you just sort of sit there and go, “That’s it? Really? Man, I’m glad the Cold War’s over.”
The film isn’t helped by the plodding Tangerine Dream score, which seems totally out of place in an action film. Moody synthesized new age music hardly communicates a sense of urgency, so even at the points where the film is well-paced and action-packed, it seems slow-moving and dull. Sometimes a score that seems contradictory to the onscreen action can end up working quite well. This is not one of those times. And speaking of dull, it seems like Steve James is the only one doing any acting. The concept of having more than one facial expression or tone of voice seems lost on Wahl, who glides through his performance as The Soldier with somnambulistic dreariness. Was he even aware of the fact that he was making a movie? Klaus Kinski is fine, as he always is, but he’s only in the movie for a tiny bit, long enough to justify listing him on the movie poster to snare any of the types of people who might be snared by Klaus Kinski’s name on the marquee. Everyone else turns in performances that could be called “below average” had Ken Wahl not set the bar so low. Compared to him, the other actors seem as low-key as Cesar Romero playing The Joker. Not that the script gives them much to work with.
With so many things going against this film, it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a miserable failure as an intelligent espionage thriller, but as a crappy action film it succeeds marvelously. There’s a lot of shooting, and when people get shot the blood really gushes. Ken Wahl (or his stunt double) gets to have a ski hill shoot out. He also gets to jump an expensive sports car over the Berlin Wall — score one for capitalism, baby! A lot of things blow up, and there’s one of those scenes where a fight breaks out in a cowboy bar and the band just keeps on playing as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary (I think that joke was old even in 1982). Although I feel there’s too much poorly used slow-motion (made worse by Tangerine Dream’s meandering synth score), at least there’s a lot of action, and some of it is even fairly exciting.
Despite making a number of action-oriented films, Glickenhaus just never got the hang of it. For his next movie, 1985′s The Protector, even Jackie Chan couldn’t help Glickenhaus figure out how to stage a compelling action set piece. That The Soldier has any action at all worth watching is a bit of a miracle, but it’s a welcome surprise. The ski chase is good, as are a number of bloody shootouts and car chases, though you’ll be left wondering what sort of lame Porsche is unable to outrun an Army jeep. The horrendously thought-out plot only adds to the charm. At least they tried to make something smart. They simply didn’t succeed. But they did make something that is more entertaining than it is disappointing. Better spy films have come and gone, but The Soldier has enough gratuitous violence and bad writing to keep it on the list of fond memories I’ve been able to relive. If you want your thrills delivered with brains and wit, you’d best look elsewhere. If you want them delivered with bloody squibs and asinine writing, then The Soldier just might be the man for the job.