Monday, May 21, 2012

Johnny Firecloud (1975) review


Victor Mohica (Johnny Firecloud), Ralph Meeker (Colby), David Canary (Jesse), Christina Hart (June), Frank DeKova (White Eagle), Sacheen Littlefeather (Nenya), Richard Kennedy (Ned), George 'Buck' Flower (Wade), John Goff (Newt)

Directed by William Allen Castleman

"How long is it since we hung an injun?"

The Short Version: There's no time to pass the peace pipe around in this high caliber racist revenge picture that follows in the footsteps of other similar flicks like BORN LOSERS (1967) and WALKING TALL (1973). This country fried DEATH WISH sees a Native American Vietnam vet doing a savage war dance on the town big wheel bigot, Colby and his five cronies who terrorize, rape and murder his people. Political statements typical of the era creep in on a few occasions, but racial slurs, degradation, floggings, and gruesome violence drown them out every time. The strangely compelling verbal stand-off of the final scene may end up confusing some considering everything that's transpired before it.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Johnny Firecloud returns home from his tour in Vietnam only to be harassed by the police and humiliated and hated by the local town cretins led by the brutal, racist rancher, Colby; a man who holds the entire town and the law in his money pocket. The bigoted Colby hates Johnny for having a relationship with his daughter, and upon his return home, racial tensions boil over into a miasma of rape, sadistic violence, death and revenge.

Seeing David F. Friedman's name among the credits immediately lets you know what you are about to see is going to be anything but subtle.

The same man who produced numerous nudies, several Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, the awful SHE FREAK (1967) and the controversial ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1974) got behind this savage tale of Red Man Revenge. JOHNNY FIRECLOUD is in the tradition of WALKING TALL (1973) with a dash of BORN LOSERS (1967), two major league box office champions of the Drive In days.

Noticeably glossier than the usual Friedman film, the $220,000 budget gets some extra mileage out of its scope photography, a script peppered with good and gritty 70s style dialog, and some good gore effects. Among the gruesome highlights is a man being NAVAJO JOE'd, a scalping, death by bag of rattlesnakes, another has dynamite strapped between his legs, and one poor sap buried up to his head for the vultures to pluck out his eyes. Beneath the surface, and almost lost amidst all the hate-speech and depravity, is a slight message regarding American Indians that was a heady topic during the early 1970s.

At least since the late 1960s, tensions with Native Americans had swelled right along with all the other chaos going on during that defining decade. Not even taking into consideration the bloody turmoil and countless corpses that resulted from the centuries long American Indian Wars, racial tension reached dangerous levels in the early part of the 1970s. Racism was a major topic of contention during this time and throughout the 70s including a few news-making cases of racially fueled hate crimes.

The American Indian was also the subject of a number of movies and TV commercials. One of the most (in)famous examples of this was the 1971 'Keep America Beautiful' commercial with Iron Eyes Cody; which featured the image of tears running down his face amidst Americans polluting the environment with trash, bustling cars and also thick, black smoke emanating from an ominously chocking display of factories.

JOHNNY FIRECLOUD does little to temper animosity with its scenes of extreme prejudices and sadism. It also shows which side of the fence it's on (message movie vs. exploitation picture) by not featuring any actual Indians among its principal cast.

However, there are a moment or two where a flicker of a political statement arises, but then descends the waves of bigotry and moral perversion. In its slight defense, the ending is surprising in its philosophical civility, when it's expected to go balls out topping its bloody banana split with a viscera flavored cherry. Also surprising, the script takes a serious look at homosexuality during a time when it was fashionable to poke fun of it.

Sasheen Littlefeather about to get "railroaded".

In keeping with its controversial subject matter, the filmmakers even brought activist Sacheen Littlefeather on board in a supporting role. She gained a good deal of notoriety for accepting Brando's THE GODFATHER (1972) Oscar on his behalf along with a 15 page speech written by him. This speech protested the treatment of the American Indian in movies and television, including the 70 some odd day standoff at Wounded Knee that began in late February, 1973. Incidentally, the site of this stand-off was the locale of a previous massacre that took place in 1890.

Whether this film came along at the "right" time is debatable. 20th Century Fox was on board as distributor, but according to Friedman, only in overseas markets (the opening card is the famous Fox logo). Possibly with everything going on at the time, they were a bit nervous to make waves. Aside from the ending, the entire picture is awash in feelings of hatred. Even the advertisements were steeped in as much negativity as possible to get people into theaters. So screamed the poster artwork, "Redskins no longer bite the dust... they just eat dirt!"

Revenge movies have always been popular, and the 70s saw more than their fair share of them. As stated above, this one occasionally strives for something more than just blatant exploitation thrills although the frequent nudity (such as the gratuitous scene shown at right), ethnic degradation and gory shenanigans (courtesy of Joe Blasco) aim to keep the picture squarely within the Drive In and sleaze pit realm. That's not a bad thing, mind you. There's also a great group of exploitation thespians and even a couple big names not normally associated with this sort of picture.

The cast is good much of the time, but mostly when the performances call for heated, and or insensitive conflict; of which there's quite a lot of yelling, screaming and gritting of teeth.

Victor Mohica, a big, strapping man of Puerto Rican descent, gets some great tough guy lines here and hammers home the post Vietnam anxiety with his slasher style rampage during the finale when he goes suitably apeshit after the wave of injustices he suffers through.

Some viewers may recognize his face from numerous TV shows and possibly from VICTORY AT ENTEBBE, one of two 'Entebbe' movies from 1976.

One of Mohica's best moments here is when he gets his hands on Colby and strings him up in his barn. Dangling barely off the ground, Firecloud dick punches him and lashes him with a whip resulting in Colby flinching in pain while trying to keep from hanging himself! It's actually a satisfyingly hilarious scene, and if not interrupted by a shotgun toting hillbilly, we'd of likely seen more dick punching and back lashing followed up with more of Meeker's head turning red from the ever tightening rope around his neck.

Speaking of Ralph Meeker, he will likely always be best known for KISS ME DEADLY (1955), but trash fans will know him best from the likes of FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and a brief bit in WITHOUT WARNING (1980). Like many once big name actors, he found a home in a trash barrel towards the end of his career.

He plays quite the bigoted sadist here as Colby, a rich rancher who holds the town in the palm of his hand. Meeker (like the film itself) plays the character much like those seen in countless westerns, and does a damn good job, too. Colby works outside the law and uses his money to keep the civic authorities comfortably in his shirt pocket.

Speaking of westerns, anybody who's ever watched BONANZA has probably seen David Canary on the show in the role of Candy, a ranch foreman. His character was something of a replacement after Pernell Roberts departed the show in 1965. Canary appeared in a handful of seasons, left the show, then came back again till the end after Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright) passed away in 1972. His role of the sheriff in JOHNNY FIRECLOUD is possibly the best out of the bunch given how strong the character is scripted for a movie of this sort.

David Canary has a heated exchange with Richard Kennedy after stopping a brutal barroom brawl.

According to Friedman (in an incredibly energetic and fun commentary track), Meeker wanted to play the sheriff, but Canary pulls off the character extremely well. Struggling with maintaining his homosexuality as a closely kept secret, Sheriff Jesse begrudgingly asks "How high?" when Colby tells him to jump. The sheriff shares an uneasy bond with Firecloud since both men were in the army, although Jesse was dishonorably discharged for his sexual orientation. It's this portion of the script that rises above the bountiful exploitation trappings that dominate the bulk of the movie.

With the participation of Sasheen Little-feather, viewers may think the filmmakers were going for some sort of political statement. If that was the intention, it gets lost amidst all the hate-mongering and speeches of standing against the abuse of power.

Littlefeather's performance is incredibly bland during her few minutes of dialog. The rest of her role involves her being raped and brutalized by five men in a disturbing sequence where her painfully obvious breast enlargement puts in a more memorable performance. Above you'll see exploitation perennial, George 'Buck' gettin ready to fuck in a grim gang rape scene.

This scene could have been a powerful scene in more capable hands for a movie that was gunning for a serious look at the Native American plight during this time period. Instead we get delirious camerawork that zips and zooms over a child scribbled assemblage of the alphabet, a poster that says "See the scenic wonders of your United States"(!) and closes out on a close up of Abraham Lincoln. It's still a disturbing sequence, embracing the trashiness of the whole affair captured by a cameraman who may or not have put back a few beers prior to shooting it.

Richard Kennedy (the guy laughing in the ten gallon hat at far right)

One of the villains is Richard Kennedy, whom 70s exploitation fans will instantly recognize from the first two ILSA movies. He was the General who liked being pissed on in the first and the comic relief doctor from the second who ended up unknowingly eating a human eyeball (as opposed to a sheep's eye) and having a male slave boy sent to "entertain" him. Kennedy had a (un)healthy career in trashy movies during the 70s, much like this next fellow.

Exploitation regular, John Goff (left) and an almost unrecognizable, beardless George 'Buck' Flower (right)

Another ILSA alumni is George 'Buck' Flower. He was a Nazi doctor in the first, and a Syphilis infested peasant in the second.

Flower has been in dozens of Drive In flicks including numerous horror pictures and 'Danger In Dixie' style movies. This is made all the more surprising that he also had supporting roles in family fare such as ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE (1976). One of his best remembered roles was as the recurring character of Boomer in the family classic series, THE WILDERNESS FAMILY (1975)!

Even more shocking is that in JOHNNY FIRECLOUD, Flower actually had a bag full of snakes placed on his head (not the rattlers seen in close up); you see one of the slithery reptiles escaping the bag as Firecloud affixes it around his body.

The score is nothing to write home about, which is basically the only major blotch on the movie. Nothing spectacular, just typical 70s beats and WaWa sounds. Outside of a couple pieces, it never quite fits the onscreen action. A suitable score would have added an extra dimension to the film.

I first saw JOHNNY FIRECLOUD via the old Prism big box tape. It's been available on other VHS labels, too, including one that sold the film as REVENGE OF JOHNNY FIRECLOUD with artwork not in the movie.

At times, this brutal tale of Injun Justice shows signs of violent exuberance, occasionally engaging, but mostly a typical entry in the revenge flick sweepstakes. Recommended, but some might be left wondering what happened during the contemplative final scene. Possibly there was hope for JOHNNY FIRECLOUD 2?

This review is representative of the Something Weird DVD paired with BUMMER (1973)

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