Friday, May 4, 2012
Angels, Chrome & Hot Leather: Biker Movies From Hell Part 2
WAR IS HELL: SEX, DRUGS & DISTURBED VIETNAM VETS
The Vietnam War was often times a plot device, or an integral script addition utilized to give numerous biker pictures some additional motivation outside of the traditional gang ransacking a town, or waging war against a rival gang.
The 'Nam template was perfect for this kind of film especially since folks at home were seeing the war unravel before their eyes on television; at least the portions of it the media wanted you to see. When those who managed to come home did so, they weren't met with open arms and respect. They were either spit on, or frowned upon. These brave soldiers came home "dead" inside bringing a "disease" back with them; a sickness that hindered them going back to normality upon their reintegration with society. These vets shared a common solidarity with their biker brethren and this is sometimes a focal point in these movies, but predominantly it's a highly exploitable plot point. Then there's the hippies.
The hippie and biker subcultures, despite their obvious differences, had some parallel threads shared between them. Neither were confined by the restrictions of home, preferring to travel from one place to the other and enjoying the vast expanse, beauty and splendor of America.
Hippies were essentially drifters prone to protests (especially the war in 'Nam) and those that weren't rebellious kids from rich families were vagabonds who thought everybody else should take care of them. When they weren't smoking weed and spreading their dogma of 'Make Love, Not War', they were spreading free love and various venereal diseases during what became known as 'The Summer of Love' in 1967.
This explosion of alternative lifestyles was also terribly ironic as America endured an incredible amount of violence through race riots and vicious murders at the hands of Charles Manson, a despicable character who believed he could start a race war between the white and black ethnicities. Reportedly, Manson, at one time, attempted to hire a motorcycle gang as body guards for himself and his Family! The figure of Manson also provided a plot device to varying degrees in biker movies, some of which were discussed in part one.
Like the hippies, bikers were of a similar nomadic order, although they tended to take care of themselves and didn't give a shit about those outside of their circle. In these movies, there's definitely hippie hoggers, such as the bewilderingly bizarre, beyond obscure J.C. (1972) about the one and only Jesus Christ (no shit) coming back to Earth as a (bad actor) biker and leading a drug fueled crusade against "the establishment", or the supreme, the elite governing body in control. It's an awful film, but straddles the line between unintentional hilarity and avant garde. Racial disharmony is also addressed here and some goofily orated speeches by Jesus combined with an almost Mansonesque conviction.
For the most part, bikers and hippies are two different countercultures with some similarities, but with obvious differences; mainly, one side loved their country and the other did not. Racism was also a major topic in biker flicks such as BORN LOSERS (1967), THE SAVAGE SEVEN (1968), THE LONERS (1972) and THE BLACK SIX (1973). If it wasn't racism between whites, blacks and Indians, there was gross prejudice within a single ethnicity based simply on an individuals associations, or the way they looked.
Vietnam Vets, as well as bikers, were often discriminated against for their dress and chosen profession. This sort of discrimination still goes on today. For those who didn't serve, those who fought and died maintained a great deal of respect from bikers, not to mention that the most famous order of biker clubs, the Hell's Angels, exploded sometime after WW2.
In the movies, when the vets returned home, they are either angry, or desire to fit back in with the life they left behind and frequently this involved riding their chopper cross country and getting into trouble along the way. These were sometimes the most interesting even if the films didn't always explore the full potential of the inner turmoil felt by war veterans.
One of the most brutal of these was THE NO MERCY MAN from 1973. It was a rare lead role for Steve Sandor, who usually took supporting roles in exploitation pictures with an occasional lead thrown in.
Here he stars as Oli, a disturbed Vietnam veteran who's recently returned home to his farm and not only must cope with trying to reintegrate himself in society, but also deal with a gang of sadistic carnival biker thugs led by BLACK SAMSON's Rockne Tarkington. This gang (included among them is trash cinema cult fave Sid Haig!) of cutthroats goes about terrorizing Oli's hometown and having had enough, Oli finally snaps and strikes back with the help of some of his war buddies.
Bearing quite a bit in common with the huge box office success of WALKING TALL (1973), the biker conventions with their Vietnam backdrop and pseudo hippie machinations are clearly in evidence. Steve Sandor, an incredibly photogenic, and decent actor, never went as far as he should have whether in exploitation or mainstream cinema. He had only a few roles of some significance. Among these were as an ex-con biker wacko in THE ONLY WAY HOME (1972), the gullible private detective who falls for Tiffany Bolling in BONNIE'S KIDS (1973) and also the lead hero in Cirio H. Santiago's post nuke flick STRYKER (1983).
The biker genre possessed the greatest opportunities to delve into the isolation and outcast status embraced by so many who came away from that jungle hell as changed individuals. The wide open expanse of mountains, desert and oceanic terrain were perfect scenic backdrops to counterbalance the societal alienation embraced by the counterculture. This reflection of civilizations decline was something EASY RIDER (1969) did extremely well and so few before or after it would come close to attaining.
Some of the films already discussed feature a Vietnam framework, but other similar pictures include the rowdy 1968 Drive In flick from Bruce (SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES) Kessler, ANGELS FROM HELL. Tom Stern plays Mike, an angry man recently returned home from Vietnam. He immediately sets out to reassemble his old gang with the intention of forming a massive chain of biker clubs. Mike butts heads with other hog huggers and also the town sheriff played by exploitation maverick Jack Starrett. Like so many of these movies, real bikers are used for added authenticity. ANGELS FROM HELL is yet another example of AIP Drive In filler.
Lead star Tom Stern was also among the tough guy cast in Andrew McLaglen's war picture, THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE (1968). He also co-starred with biker flick colleague Jeremy (HELL'S BELLES ) Slate in the hugely enjoyable and entertaining biker picture, HELL'S ANGELS '69 (1969) which concerned two criminals wishing to rob Caesar's Palace in Vegas. They join a biker gang and use them to unwittingly act as cover while they rob the casino. The Hell's Angels realize they've been duped and go after the two brothers in what amounts to a heist caper wrapped around Biker genre conventions.
This is a fun little movie that detours from the norm in what amounts to OCEAN'S 11 (1960) with Hell's Angels and some rowdy stunts. Misogyny frequently rears its ugly head here such as a scene where an angry hog-master sells his motorcycle mama (Connie Van Dyke) for a pack of cigarettes!
It also features a diverse cast including Motown's first white songstress, Connie Van Dyke, whom you may remember as Dixie in the Burt Reynolds country croonin' road movie W.W. & THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS (1975). Steve Sandor, in a supporting role, plays Apache, one of the Hell's Angels. Character actor, G.D. Spradlin, who plays the sheriff here, directed Sandor in the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT styled killer biker movie THE ONLY WAY HOME in 1972. The Oakland Hell's Angels are also among the main cast of HELLS ANGELS '69. The films promotional materials heavily promoted the Hell's Angels being the stars of the movie.
While the war raging in 'Nam was the focal point of Tom Stern's character in ANGELS FROM HELL, returning home an embittered, unhinged man, the next movie used the war as the basis for its story and even managed some political subtext amidst all the flying fists, bodies and bullets.
The amazing THE LOSERS (it's often listed as NAM'S ANGELS) exploded onto Drive In screens in 1970 and is easily one of the best, most accessible biker movies of the entire cycle. It has a simply wonderful plot brimming with exploitation excellence. That the CIA would enlist a motorcycle gang to rescue a captured Presidential advisor from the Red Chinese nestled within the jungle hell of Cambodia is ridiculous in the extreme, but prime beef plotting when it comes to a trash fans meaty menu. Biker king William Smith leads the pack as Link. Our expendable heroes eventually trick out their hogs with some deadly attachments including machine guns and armor plating.
Jack Starrett both directed and plays the captured, and unscrupulous government advisor our gang are assigned to rescue. While Starrett is obviously interested in escapism, the script by Alan Caillou (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS) manages to balance the action and rowdy, uncouth behavior with some timely, yet blatant political themes. The explosive finale makes it worthwhile and Starrett consistently showed he had a great eye for shooting action sequences. He was one of the best directors of low budget Drive In fare during the 1970s and was a pretty good actor to boot.
THE HARD RIDE from 1971 is yet another AIP movie, but this one is a startling departure from the typical biker flick shenanigans. Burt Topper's movie forsakes the tropes of the genre to place the accent on drama with some slight social subtext.
Robert Fuller is Phil, having finished his tour in 'Nam, he returns home with the body of his friend, Lenny, who happens to be black. Lenny's last dying wish is for Phil to find his biker buddy, Big Red (an Indian), and sign over his prized chopper, "Baby", to him. A side story involves Lenny's white girlfriend, Sheryl (played by THE WILD RIDERS Sherry Bain). It's this section of the film that ultimately takes up the bulk of the screen time as Phil and Sheryl get closer to one another. Meanwhile, a rival gang led by Grady (played by frequent exploitation stalwart William Bonner) want both the girl and the tricked out bike for themselves.
If anything, THE HARD RIDE benefits greatly from cinematography that successfully captures some choice locales as our two lovers-in-making travel around atop Lenny's magnificent chopper. Backed by an incredibly easy on the ears 'Road Movie' soundtrack (featuring one half of The Righteous Brothers!), these riding scenes are saved from total monotony. The film ends on a bleak note that fits well within the Vietnam War machinations of director Topper's script.
CHROME & HOT LEATHER (1971) is yet another biker film that uses the war in 'Nam to set its story in motion. This time, it's a soldier who comes home only to find that his girlfriend has been killed in a highway accident caused by a gang of bikers. He gets a few of his war buddies together and they form their own gang and go after The Wizards, led by T.J.; yet another juicy role played to devilish perfection by William Smith. As usual, Smith outshines everybody else in the cast including lead Tony Young, who barely registers a pulse. Probably the best thing about CHROME & HOT LEATHER is its cast. There's a gaggle of exploitation and pop culture greats on hand here.
Peter Brown was a popular face on television westerns such as LAWMAN in the late 50s and one of the main stars of LAREDO, which also starred William Smith. Larry Bishop played biker roles in THE SAVAGE SEVEN (1968) with Adam Roarke and also in ANGEL UNCHAINED (1970), a star vehicle for big screen tough guy Don Stroud about bikers and hippies working together to battle it out with unruly rednecks. Wes Bishop, who frequently worked with director Lee Frost on other pictures like THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972) and THE BLACK GESTAPO (1975), has the role of the town sheriff here. Fans of CHARLIE'S ANGELS will spot an early, and quick appearance by Cheryl Ladd during the opening of the film. Music fans will wanna 'Get It On' and do the 'Monster Mash' upon spying Marvin Gaye and Bobby 'Boris' Pickett among the cast as well.
ROAD HOGS, HIPPIES, MAGIC CARPET RIDES AND.... CASEY KASEM?!
Over the course of this article, connections have been made between the two countercultures of bikers and hippies, and also the lingering strands that further connect the two with the war in Vietnam and also the Manson Family murders. Both events were devastating times in American history--one a vicious, horrific turmoil going on overseas; the other, an equally savage, calculated and cruel massacre that figuratively stained American soil with blood. With so much change, both innovative and cataclysmic, erupting in the United States during the 1960s, it's no wonder that the biker and hippie lifestyles would be adapted to controversial, historical affairs.
Hippies and bikers, as well as the drug culture, were often engulfed in a cinematic menage a trois. Both sides worked together in the above mentioned ANGEL UNCHAINED (1970) and in the biker psychedelia of FREE GRASS (1969) wherein Russ Tamblyn attempts to smuggle marijuana across the border via motorcycles. Top 40 radio sensation Casey Kasem plays a drug lord in cahoots with Tamblyn. The lovely Lana Woods is on hand as Richard Beymer's girlfriend. Beymer reluctantly agrees to act as a driver for Tamblyn's character, but he's betrayed and left for dead while the villains make off with his girlfriend. This then leads to the obligatory revenge.
Bill Brame, who directed Bruce Dern and Kasem again (as a white slaver!) in THE CYCLE SAVAGES (1969), handled this one. Music king Kasem must have been fascinated with the biker genre as he featured in a few of them and almost always as a villain of the most despicable sort. He had a minor biker role in THE GLORY STOMPERS (1968), and after playing drug kingpins and running white slave rings, he finally got to play the leader of a cycle gang in WILD WHEELS (1969) where he and his motorcycle maniacs battled for the beach against a bunch of surfers on dune buggies! Seriously. And now, the Biker King approacheth.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 3...