Friday, August 19, 2011

Television Awaits...Ron Ely And TARZAN'S JUNGLE REBELLION



D. William Witney. Stars: Ron Ely, William Marshall, and Nichelle Nichols.


As Sergio's Leone's DOLLARS films and other operatically violent European westerns found theatrical success in the United States, it became obvious that the traditional American B-western was falling out of favor with audiences.

Political strife at home and an unpopular war abroad left cynical moviegoers hungry for a more pessimistic take on Manifest Destiny, and the early films of Leone, Segio Corbucci and Daminano Damiani provided it. The Mexican Revolution was a recurring motif in these imports, and was frequently viewed through a leftist political lens (some would even describe the P.O.V. of such films as Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL as Marxist).

Although he had just directed one successful Audie Murphy western (APACHE RIFLES) and would soon be prepping another (40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS) William Witney was well aware that the clock was running out on the genre to which he was so closely associated. Fortunately, he had long established a second career as a prolific and effective director of episodic television, so when the opportunity to create the pilot for a reboot of the classic TARZAN franchise for producer Steve Shagan  and NBC beckoned, Witney didn't think twice about signing on.

Given Witney's reputation as a gifted director of serials, the filmmaker was an ideal choice to helm  the new series. The new show reinvented Tarzan (effectively played by popular television actor Ron Ely) as a thoughtful, well-educated gentlemen, one who chooses to return to the jungle where he had been raised after growing tired of "modern civilization."

Under Witney's guidance, the pilot retained many of the iconic aspects of the classic TARZAN movies, including Cheeta, while excluding others (including, to the surprise of many, the character of Jane), and the snappy dialogue provided by writer Jackson Gillis (whom Witney had met while working on the THE WILD, WILD WEST) kept the action moving at a frenetic pace.

Gillis' clever storyline followed the search for a stolen idol among members of a mysterious African warrior tribe, a plot which Witney brought to life with the help of such soon-to-be famous genre staples as William Marshall (BLACULA) and Nichelle Nichols (STAR TREK).

The result of the Witney / Gillis collaboration, TARZAN AND THE BLUE STONE OF HEAVEN, so impressed the NBC brass that they chose to delay its broadcast and release it theatrically (through National General Pictures) as TARZAN'S JUNGLE REBELLION on September 6th, 1967 instead.  The movie would subsequently perform well as matinee fodder for months before being aired in two parts later in TARZAN's second season.

Following the release of TARZAN'S JUNGLE REBELLION, Witney would team up with Audie Murphy for 40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS and Gillis would go on to write for such shows as COLUMBO before penning a pair of well-received novels. Steve Shagan's career would follow a similar path, as the prolific writer/producer would receive an Academy Award nomination for adapting THE VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED for the screen before publishing such popular novels as SAVE THE TIGER and CITY OF ANGELS.

Despite Witney's input and participation, TARZAN would last only two short seasons. Once he hung up his loin cloth, Ron Ely joined his former collaborators on the literary front, a move which saw him publish two detective novels, NIGHT SHADOWS and EAST BEACH. Ely would retire from the screen in 2000, after slyly spoofing his persona with Gena Lee Nolin on the TARZAN-esque SHEENA TV series.

 Well-made throughout, TARZAN'S JUNGLE REBELLION coasts like a rollercoaster car on an even track, delivering the classic pacing, action, and humor of Witney's classic serials on a small-screen budget.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hero, Hero: Audie Murphy, Kenneth Tobey, and 40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS


D. William Witney. Stars: Audie Murphy, Kenneth Tobey, and Laraine Stephens. 

A fifth grade dropout from an extremely poor American family, Audie Murphy enrolled in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of World War II, a career choice that saw him become the most decorated American soldier of all time.

After the war, a TIME magazine cover celebrating his service caught the eye of James Cagney, who recognized his charisma and brought the handsome Texan to Hollywood. The result was a film career launched by Jesse Hibbs' TO HELL AND BACK, an adaptation of Murphy's 1949 autobiography that found initially reluctant actor portraying himself in a riveting account of his Army experiences.

Of his 43 theatrical releases, over thirty would be westerns, an impressive track record that would nevertheless become problematic as the genre began to fall out of favor in the latter 1960s. A thoroughly traditional and conventional B-western, 40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS looked positively archaic as it trailed Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy into theaters.

Filmed in Red Rock Hills and Agoura Hills California and released by Columbia Pictures, 40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS (1967) was the one of the final westerns for both Murphy and director William Witney, who earlier shot the war hero-turned actor in 1964's well-received APACHE RIFLES. Regrettably, lightning failed to strike twice, and this promising second collaboration was undermined by a by-the-numbers screenplay that nearly ruined the action with self-conscious narration.

As Witney's prettily-photographed story begins, a rag-tag Arizona cavalry division, under siege from all sides by the Apache nation, is expecting a shipment of repeating rifles desperately needed to defend the tiny outpost of Apache Wells, home to both the military and a hardy group of homesteaders.

For reasons that are never quite clear (despite reams of dialogue and narration that needlessly repeats what we've already witnessed) the impending shipment of weapons drives a wedge between different factions within the calvary. As conflicts boil over, Murphy steps up as Captain Coburn, a man's man whose romance with a settler's daughter (soft-spoken, plush-bodied Laraine Stephens) leads him to mentor her inexperienced younger brothers (Michael Burns and Michael Blodgett) after the family patriarch is unexpectedly killed.

But the internal strife within the Apache Wells community continues to rise as Corporal Bodine (portrayed by the film's other "name" star, Kenneth Tobey of Howard Hawk's THE THING), decides he has other plans for the guns and begins fomenting a spirit of mutiny among his beleaguered fellow officers. A vengeance minded  ex-Confederate warrior with no love in his heart for the straight-laced Coburn, Bodine double-crosses the captain and leaves him for dead.

As the film approaches the third act, Witney wisely moves the action to California's picaresque Red Rock Canyon (a scenic, remote location and an accurate double for the imposing Arizona desert) as a heroic Murphy guards the pass to Apache Wells alone, with just a cache of powerful repeating rifles by his side. Witney's enormous experience in crafting well-orchestrated action is on display throughout this sequence, and composer Richard LaSalle offers able sonic support.

Widely distributed on VHS, 40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS hasn't enjoyed a high-profile release on DVD, although Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has made Witney's full, 96 minute director's cut available for viewing through Amazon Instant Video It can also be purchased for download;jsessionid=5uovep5kj1pa.

In addition to the film's rousing third act, other assets on display include the scenic, 1:85 photography by Witney and and talented cinematographer Richard Marquette, and a deliciously over-the-top performance by screen vet Tobey, who really seemed to light up at the chance to play a villain. But by 1967 the handwriting was on the wall - the traditional American B-western was dead, thanks to the explosion of operatically violent Spaghetti Westerns being imported from Europe.

It was a change in public taste that wouldn't be lost on the undefatigable Witney, who though already well into his fifties, would reinvent himself as director of entertaining blaxploitation and prison pictures in the 1970s before returning to the genre one last time for his heavy-hearted 1982 swan song QUELL & CO.

Tragically, Audie Murphy would grace the screen just one more time (in 1969's A TIME FOR DYING) before losing his life in a plane crash at the age of 46. In recognition of his astonishing career in combat, Mr. Murphy's remains were buried, with full U.S. military honors, at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Jim Brown And Christopher George: I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973)


D. William Witney. Stars: Jim Brown, Christopher George, and Paul Richards.

Devil's Island...

Many films have been made about this legendary political prison six miles off the coast of French Guiana, South America, and William Witney's scrappy but energetic meditation on the subject may well be the most notorious, as it was rushed into theaters by producers Gene and Roger Corman in September 1973 to take advantage of the avalanche of publicity surrounding Franklin J. Schaffner's identically-themed PAPILLON, which saw release a month later. It was a sly bit of distributor sleight-of-hand, and I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND successfully cashed in the bigger film's pre-release advertising.

Needless to say, PAPILLION's producers were none too thrilled with the move, and the Corman brothers soon found themselves squaring off against them in court. Despite the obvious similarities between the two films, Roger Corman was able to charm his way out of any liability, pointing out that Witney's film was an adaptation of a novel about the island's infamous history by respected author Richard DeLong Adams, who adapted it for the screen specifically for Witney and the Cormans. In light of these claims and others, legal actions were subsequently dropped, leading Roger to famously quip in his autobiography that "I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND represented one of the few times that logic actually prevailed in a courtroom."

Based on the true story of Henri Charriere, more famously known simply as as "Papillon," (French for 'butterfly' and a reference to Charriere's tattoos), Schaffner's film chronicled a petty criminal's fate as he was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the hellish penal colony. Starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, the epic production garnered lavish praise from critics and earned McQueen a Golden Globe nomination for his sensitive portrayal of Charriere.

Critics of the day were less kind toward I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND, with Leonard Maltin calling it "an insult to Witney buffs who know the director's work."

Yet while the film's unusual (for Witney) level of explicit violence can shock audiences upon a first viewing, it also compliments Adams' plausible and brutal prison scenario, and gives a real weight and gravitas to the sense of hopelessness writ large over his screenplay.

From the first scenes, I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND immediately and believably immerses the viewer in the nightmarish existence that the inmates of Devil's Island are forced to endure. The French authorities mete out impossibly harsh sentences for even the most minor of infractions, resulting in unconscionable deaths and a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia that disgruntled prisoner Lebras (Jim Brown) can no longer abide.

An acclaimed athlete, Brown was at the top of the game when he took on this assignment, having impressed the critics in DARK OF THE SUN before churning out such enjoyable actioners as 100 RIFLES, SLAUGHTER, and EL CONDOR. He tears in to I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND with style and charisma to spare.

After enduring copious amounts of brutality by the guards and exploring some surprising detours into Marxist ruminating, he and Christopher George (THE RAT PATROL) team up with Richard Ely and James Luisi to execute an escape which is desperate at best and clumsy at worst. With Major Marteau (a seriously over-the-top Paul Richards) relentlessly pursuing them from the isle to the mainland and freedom, the stage is set for several tautly paced set pieces. It's here that Witney gets to shine, capturing the action with unusual camera angles and employing rapid-fire cutting that gives this violent melodrama energy and provides a shot-in-the-arm to some sequences (including a stop at a leper colony and a swim through shark-infested waters) that feel cribbed directly from PAPILLION.

The acting is solid throughout; while this is a Jim Brown film - and he certainly dominates each scene he appears in - Christopher George makes a solid impression in his well-written supporting role. As the film's voice of  reason, he's thoughtful and believable, turning in a performance that compares favorably with the work he'd done over the previous three years for John Wayne in CHISUM and THE TRAIN ROBBERS.

Long unavailable on home video, I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND has been issued on DVD by Blax; it's a solid release, with crisp visuals presented in their original 1:85 aspect ratio. The location filming (Witney chose the sandy beaches and steamy jumgles of Acapulco as stand-ins for French Guiana) is one of the film's strengths, as the tropical visuals contrast vividly with the decadent horrors on display. No real extras to speak of, but the quality of the transfer alone makes this one of the best Witney DVD releases currently in stores.

Blending the epic reach of PAPILLION with the visceral punch of Jim Brown's best work, I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND is a key piece of 1970s exploitation cinema, and one that proves that William Witney was willing to reinvent himself as an artist in order to stay relevant as audiences tastes of 1970s began to change.

Monday, May 9, 2011



D. William Witney. Stars: Trina Parks, Roger E. Mosley, Dick Miller and the Dramatics.

When Quentin Tarantino began championing the work of Western auteur William Witney some ten years ago, he was fond of pointing out “how cool it was” that a man who’d made his bones directing Roy Rogers and Bela Lugosi serials ended his directorial career with this deliciously surreal Blaxploitation comedy.

But while it made for good talk show patter, the anecdote wasn’t entirely accurate; Echo Bridge Entertainment have since unearthed the man’s real swan song, a quiet 1982 post-Civil War Western with Skip Homeier and Cherie Lunghi called QUELL & CO. (recently retitled SHOWDOWN AT EAGLE GAP for its latest DVD release). Featuring Witney himself in a small role, the film was a fitting, if unspectacular, conclusion to the filmmaker’s 50 year, 143 film career.

But while DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (AKA GET UP AND BOOGIE) may not have been Witney’s final film, it was certainly his most unusual. Produced by his frequent collaborator Gene Corman (with whom he had made the previous year's I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL's ISLAND) and written by HIT MAN scribe George Armitage (now a respected mainstream commodity thanks to neo-noirs like GROSSE POINT BLANK and THE BIG BOUNCE), the film deftly mixes cool Stax soul sounds, frantic serial pacing, sci-fi gadgetry, broad physical humor and a few stabs at social commentary into a barely coherent but always entertaining cocktail.

Perhaps best known for her role as “Thumper” in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, Trina Parks provides the heart and soul of DARKTOWN STRUTTERS. She steals every scene she’s in as Syreena, the leader of a black all-girl motorcycle gang that unites with a rival group (led by MAGNUM P.I.’s Roger E. Mosley) to find her missing mother, Cinderella. The ensuing search not only reveals Cinderella’s whereabouts but also exposes, among other things, a diabolical fast-food magnate's plot to clone black leaders with a candy-colored “baby-making machine...”

Witney may have directed nearly 150 pictures by the time the script for DARKTOWN STRUTTERS landed on his desk, but the veteran filmmaker brings Armitage’s outrageous scenario to life with energy and verve to rival any twenty-something USC Film School grad. While no stranger to science fiction (he shot such chillers as DR. SATAN’S ROBOT before bringing Jules Verne’s MASTER OF THE WORLD to the screen with Charles Bronson and Vincent Price), he wisely pushes the gadgetry (sonic cannons, futuristic police cars, etc.) into the background and puts a welcome emphasis on comedy and characterization.

So, instead of dazzling viewers with high-tech thrills, the Strutters’ turn heads with their outrageous 70s fashions and tricked-out, fiberglass-bodied motorcycles, Syreena’s decidedly fey brother shows off his bitchin' smooth kung-fu moves at every opportunity, bumbling cops led by Corman stalwart Dick Miller chase the girls relentlessly, Roger E. Mosley reveals the charisma that would soon make him a household name, legendary Stax recording artists The Dramatics put on a concert for Syreena in their prison cell, and the fast-food king clones an adult version of himself – in diapers.

Incredibly, these disparate elements work together, at least within the context of the candy-colored universe created on the screen. And for this, special mention should be made of the inventive production design by Jack Fisk, a gifted technician who would later take his art to even more dizzying heights in Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

A key piece of Blaxploitation, DARKSTOWN STRUTTERS remains frustratingly misunderstood and obscure. Producer Gene Corman's brother Roger even bungles the film's history in one of his official memoirs, claiming the picture was shot in the South while locations, landmarks, street signs and even the film's dialogue reveal it was lensed in and around downtown Los Angeles and Culver City.

Unfortunately, the movie has proven to be depressingly hard to find on home video. At the time of this writing, the closest thing to a “legit” DVD release has come from East West DVD, whose budget edition is cursed by poor sound and color and may very well have been sourced from an old VHS tape.

But until a definitive version is released, I’ll actually recommend the barebones East West disc, so go ahead and tuck a copy next to I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND and QUELL & CO. on on your "preferred viewing" shelf.

Because your world will be a happier place once this supremely twisted Blaxploitation oddity becomes a part of it.

Originally published by

Friday, April 8, 2011

The End Of The Trail: The Ragged Glory Of QUELL & CO.

QUELL & CO. (1982)

D. William Witney. Stars: Skip Homeier, Madison Mason, Cherie Lunghi, and Rockne Tarkington.
For this writer, any examination of William Witney's 1982 swan song QUELL & CO. starts not with a particular actor, writer, or filmmaker, but with the work of pioneering American sculptor James Earle Fraser. A well-known numismatist, Fraser produced his best-known work, the Indian Head or "Buffalo" nickel, in 1913. But it's 1915's haunting "End Of The Trail" that, symbolically at least, seems to encapsulate  QUELL & CO.'s world-weary cynicism and tired romanticism.  

The son of a famed railroad engineer who assisted the major rail companies of the early 20th Century in expanding their reach across the American West, Fraser was exposed to frontier life at an early age, becoming sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans as they were displaced further west or, worse, confined to reservations. Such memories were captured in many of his most famous works, including the haunting "End of the Trail."

A dark depiction of "ragged glory," "The End Of The Trail" has inspired chroniclers of the American West for decades, tempering the otherwise idealistic views of iconic western author Zane Grey and even providing the cover for the 1971 album SURF'S UP by the Beach Boys (whom Witney had gotten to know while directing his 1965 musical comedy THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, in which they appeared).

And just what does a surf-rock album have to do with America's most prolific director of serials and westerns? Well, by the Seventies, the halcyon glory days of the Beach Boys were but ancient memories of a forgotten age. Bandleader Brian Wilson, the sonic architect of the group's distinctive sound and writer / producer of their greatest hits, was spiraling ever deeper into a drug fueled Belladonic haze, forcing other members of the band (most notably younger brother Carl Wilson) to take over the creative reins.  Songs about  "honeys," hot rods and hot nights were being replaced by music with a more world conscious - and world weary - edge. Many pundits have suggested that the image of a disillusioned warrior whose people have been marginalized to the edges of society must have struck a sympathetic cord with the band, and this same concept of an epic struggle against the expansionist white man is writ large over the dusty Texas plains of QUELL & CO. too.

As Witney's final picture opens, trouble is simmering in post-civil war Texas as tough-as-nails ex-army officer Quell (Madison Mason) and his of group of honest, hardworking but poor homesteaders stop off in the dusty  one-horse town of Eagle Gap on their way to claiming their new land and life. Not long after they arrive it  becomes apparent that tyrannical land baron and all-around cheap hood Kirk (western and sci-fi icon Skip Homeier) rules the territory with an iron fist, and the peaceful settlers soon find themselves engaged in a struggle not only for their freedom but for the lives of those being abused by Kirk's henchmen. The malevolent mogul's torture of the poor frontiersmen raises the ire of Quell and his ragtag, justice-dealing posse, who despise Kirk's manipulative efforts to bankroll his way to fame and greater fortune at the expense of the poor. The stage is thus set for an apocalyptic showdown on the dusty Texas plains as Quell and his men seek to bring Kirk down in a rain of bullets.

 As Quell, Madison Mason carries the show with the same quiet intensity he's exhibited in everything from 70s staples like POLICE WOMAN to contemporary efforts like Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS. But he's overshadowed by the gifted Homeier, who imbues Kirk with charisma, intelligence and unexpected flashes of sympathy. Homeier had first worked with Witney a quarter century earlier, in 1957's STRANGER AT MY DOOR, and  together these two old school pros collaborate to create one of the more carefully-shaded villains in the Witney canon.

But acting choices aside, the most surprisingly thing about QUELL & CO. is just how willfully obscure the film has become in the years since its release. The director's most high-profile apologist, Quentin Tarantino, has routinely (and mistakenly)  touted 1975's surreal blaxploitation opus DARKTOWN STRUTTERS as the filmmaker's swan song, a perception Witney himself didn't help dispel when he failed to even acknowledge the U.S. / German co-production's existence in his otherwise exhaustive autobiography. It's an omission  that becomes even more puzzling in the light of the self-referential touches the director litters throughout the film, from the "western trio" format that echoes the structure of his excellent "solo" western directorial debut THE TRIGGER TRIO, to his own cameo at the end of the film as the beleaguered sheriff who quietly sends Quell on his way while slouching in his saddle with a wry grace that again echoes the poignant romanticism of "The End Of The Trail."

Released under its original title on Europe, QUELL & CO. remained unavailable on disc in the U.S. until 2006, when Echo Bridge Home Entertainment quietly issued it on DVD under the more "exciting" title SHOWDOWN AT EAGLE GAP. An acceptable but unspectacular transfer, the disc is marred only a clumsy title-card insertion that nearly ruins the opening credits.

Nevertheless, the DVD offers viewers the opportunity to catch up with one of the last of the old-school "traditional" westerns. And for fans who admire William Witney and know his work, that's enough.