All movie fans are familiar with the core films from the 1970’s; “The Godfather” films, “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “The Exorcist” and “A Clockwork Orange” to name a few.
Beneath the surface of the known, and even below the layer of cult driven films (hello “El Topo,” “Dark Star” and “Vanishing Point”) are titles that have been lost only to find their path to survival through ancillary sources like late night television syndication, bootleg copies and re-mastered release on DVD and Blu-ray.
The science fiction genre has prime examples of these forgotten gems: movies like Peter Fonda’s time travel ecological disaster flick “Idaho Transfer” (1973) or noted graphic designer Saul Bass’ only venture into feature length filmmaking, the 1974 ants-take-over-mankind thriller “Phase IV.”
But the most unique film to emerge from this era is a newly restored version of the post-apocalyptic satire “Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited.”
As World War III rages in America, a group of female terrorists brainwash a raw youth (Bill Paxton in his first leading role) to assassinate the Minister of Prostitution in a quaint town in Wales.
In 1975 the original director of “Taking Tiger Mountain” Kent Smith and Paxton went to Morocco to lens the film, got arrested for illegal filming, bribed their way to freedom, and went to Wales to complete the film in the village of Llandeilo and surrounding areas. The 1973 Getty kidnapping inspired the plot, but once they resumed production in the UK the story became something altogether different.
Tom Huckabee and Paxton were friends from high school and made 8mm films together. “I had graduated and drove out to meet Bill in L.A,” says Huckabee in a phone interview with BylineHouston.
“He had graduated the year before and was out there doing really well. ‘Come on out the water’s fine.’ He had just gotten back with Kent from Wales. I inherited Bill’s job working for Kent because Bill was already working on Jonathan Demme’s ‘Crazy Mama,’” says Huckabee.
Paxton while obviously known for his status as an actor worked on a multitude of positions in the film industry. For “Crazy Mama,” a Roger Corman film, Paxton was a set dressers. On another Corman film, “Galaxy of Terror,” Paxton worked as set decorator and met James Cameron, who would later utilize Paxton’s talents in everything from “True Lies” to “Titanic.”
To emphasize how crucial Paxton’s contributions are to the space-time continuum of the cinematic experience he also directed the revered cult music video “The Fish Head Song” by Barnes and Barnes.
“Bill was never a production assistant, he just hit the ground running,” says Huckabee. “A week later the work print arrived from the lab in London. I saw the footage and was impressed.”
Paxton ended up moving to New York. “Kent was trying to raise money to go back to Wales to shoot more of the film,” recalls Huckabee who a few years later leased the film from Smith and edited an hour-long cut of the footage while in his final year at University of Texas film school in Austin.
Huckabee gathered fellow students and shot some connecting sequences at the main UT soundstage. Most notable is an opening scene with the radical female scientists who have taken Paxton’s character and changed his sex and then changed it back, all the time brainwashing him so that the elapsed months seem like mere days.
“They used psychedelic drugs, isolation, electro shock and other bizarre methods,” says Huckabee. “Misogyny was pitted against militant misandry,” says Huckabee.
The women are part of an organization named S.C.U.M.
“The Society for Cutting Up Men was based on the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. She tried to assassinate Warhol,” says Huckabee. “She was selling the SCUM Manifesto on the street in Xerox form. When I rewrote the story I made it dialectic with the philosophy of Solanas. She’s like the Machiavelli of feminism.”
Other opening scenes have Paxton on a television screen, sometimes nude while going through his sexual transformation identities. “That footage is from another unfinished film that Bill and Kent had started,” says Huckabee.
There’s graphic sex in “Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited” that goes further than current art films attempting to be bold.
A fellatio scene in one particular lascivious sequence was not faked. Yet it’s not a stretch when you consider that mainstream movies in the 1970’s contained similarly libidinous footage. Compare 1973’s “Don’t Look Now” and the Bowie-starrer, 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
“Taking Tiger Mountain” follows a specific narrative. Paxton has gone to the small village to get close to his target and liquidate him. But the entire film unwinds like a fever dream. All throughout we hear voice-over narration that comes from Big Brother speakers hung throughout the town. Smith and Paxton had shot the film without sound.
At one point the off-camera radio voice announces that the civil war in American is responsible for the execution of rebels Shirley MacLaine, Richard Dreyfuss and John Stockwell, the latter a CIA asset who wrote a whistleblower book about the agency. “Those lines were written by Paul Cullum,” says Huckabee. Cullum was a journalist friend of Huckabee and his byline will be familiar to Texas Monthly readers.
Other surreal elements in the story’s dystopian future would be at home in the writing of William Burroughs.
“Burroughs was famously ambivalent about women, an intellectual misogynist,” says Huckabee.
One day during the editing process Huckabee realized that William Burroughs was across the plaza at a book signing.
“He was kind of in a hurry, he only had an hour to watch the film and we were fast forwarding it but when we got to the sex scenes he asked to slow it down,” says Huckabee. Burroughs gave a verbal agreement to use the material from his novella “Blade Runner (a movie),” (which technically has nothing to do with the Ridley Scott film although the title was purchased for that purpose).
The village contains a variety of unusual characters and situations. One scene has Paxton in a dream sequence lying to the roof of a building whilst his innards are pecked and chewed by a vulture.
“The vulture was eating animal guts that were stuffed into Paxton’s shirt,” says Huckabee. “They had some padding for the sheep guts that were placed on his chest. There is footage in the outtakes of the bird flying off into the air and them coming back and approaching Bill.
“It’s the most dangerous thing he ever did,” maintains Huckabee. “I doubt many stunt man would’ve done that.”
Huckabee’s version of the film was released in 1983 and played at Landmark Theatres. The distribution fell on deaf ears so to speak until now.
The new version, “Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited” is available in a Blu-ray version from Vinegar Syndrome, a distributor that excels in restorations of cult films from the last half of the previous century.
“One of the main things I did in the new version is set decorate the movie in post-production,” says Huckabee. “I wanted to tart up the town.”
There’s the digital addition of pictures on the walls of the interiors. There’s also a reproduction of Édouard Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1862) that appears on the roof of a prominent house where Paxton often walks past.
“There’d been nudes all the time in painting but they were allegory or mythological and this is the first time a naked woman and clothed man was presented,” says Huckabee.
The disc release has both versions of the film, as well as a short film Kent made on 16mm where he went back and found the actors who’d worked on the film and documented them.
“He actually made a short called ‘Interviews with Welshmen,’” says Huckabee.