TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN – not to be confused with Tsui Hark’s THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN – is a surreal post-apocalyptic experimental black and white art film, shot in 1975, screened in 1983, and never released on video until Vinegar Syndrome’s recent blu-ray. It’s most notable as the first performance by the late great Bill Paxton, who is the lead as well as the production designer.
Like many people, I’m sure, I most associate Paxton with his funny whiny guy roles, especially Hudson in ALIENS. Game over, etc. And he stayed strongly associated with James Cameron as not only the lead in the present day section of TITANIC, but the real life friend who told Cameron, emerging from an actual expedition to the Titanic wreckage, about the 9-11 attacks (as seen in the Imax documentary GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS). They both came out of the Roger Corman school – Paxton worked as a set decorator on EAT MY DUST, BIG BAD MAMA and GALAXY OF TERROR, where the two first met. Though we all know Paxton ended up making it as both a leading man in blockbusters and a reliable character actor, remember that he directed the 1980 novelty music video “Fish Heads,” the 2001 supernatural religious thriller FRAILTY, and the 2005 golfing drama THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED. He was a filmmaker. But as a 19 year old working as a set dresser for the educational films of Encyclopedia Brittanica Features he befriended director Kent Smith (writer: MASSAGE: THE TOUCH OF LOVE; composer: VENEREAL DISEASE: THE HIDDEN EPIDEMIC), who thought he’d make a good star for an independent movie.
Paxton plays Billy Hampton, an American combat veteran brainwashed by a group of all-female scientists in post-nuclear-war Wales and sent on a mission to assassinate an old colonel. He thinks he’s just going to have a good time in the prostitution mecca of Bendovery, but he’s programmed to find this guy Major Whitbred and fly into a violent rage when he hears his story about conquering a mountain inhabited by tigers. I like that these women are so positive this asshole will tell him the tiger story. Always the god damn tiger story.
Much of the movie chronicles Billy walking through quiet, desolate Wales, with virtually no humans around. There are a couple little kids who come up and hassle him. There are a couple weirdos who sit on a bench and talk to him, offer him drugs. He stays in a little inn where an old lady propositions him, but he turns her down. He does have sex with a young, beautiful one, during which he flashes to having sex with what I thought was a boy. I misinterpreted it to mean he was struggling with being gay, but later he actually meets and has sex with that person from the flashes, and she’s just a woman with short hair.
In addition to being low on plot or events, it’s constantly disorienting. Because it was filmed without sound, the talking often comes from some character outside of the frame. And honestly I think I’d have a hard time following what they’re talking about anyway. On top of that, many scenes are accompanied by dystopian radio news broadcasts, sometimes noisily overlapping with the dialogue. But the voice acting is very good, sounding professional and bland as they discuss the U.S.-Israeli Cold War and the unrest and apartheid in America. There’s something about the Manson-Lincoln Clan, and the Catholic Church executing Shirley MacLaine and “comedian Richard Dreyfuss.”
From the sounds of it Billy was lucky to get out of the States. Refugees are pouring out, but President Calvin asks other nations to “send back the boat people to the punishment of the sea.” Meanwhile, “representatives of the lateral nations of Exxon, Dow Chemical and Shell Carbide announced today they have issued formal petitions for asylum with the Emirate of Texas,” which we also hear is where most of the film industry is located. But it’s hard to go to movies because there are always riots. They say there are extreme feminist terrorists trying to eradicate men to restore the balance of the sexes – I guess that’s supposed to be who sent Billy. In between all this scary shit there’s also a brief report on a guy named “Jaws” Nielsen winning a gum chewing competition. Congratz, Jaws.
At the beginning he has long hair like a rock star. He puts on lipstick and smiles. When he goes on his mission he wears a button up shirt with a big collar and a vest over it. In one scene, a vulture perches near Billy. In another, he (or someone else?) lays on the ground with a severed pig’s head covering his face. You know how it is. You go out, you get some shots of some stuff, you put it in the movie.
The other actors are listed on the end credits, but the opening credits and packaging just says “Starring Bill Paxton and The Townspeople of Llangadog, Llandovery, Llanelli, Gwynfe, Llandeilo and Bethlehem of South Wales.” I get the impression that the titleistical tiger mountain speech is just some interesting old guy they talked to who told that story and then they based their plot around it.
I first heard about TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN from david j. moore, who wrote about it in his guide to post-apocalyptic film, World Gone Wild. He can tell you about the time he saw Paxton going the opposite direction on an escalator and blurted out the title of the movie to get his attention. It’s a funny story that takes on new meaning now that I’ve seen the movie. Right at the beginning the scientists are watching video of Billy totally naked. Next thing you know he’s naked humping a bed. Then he’s walking around naked with a hard-on. In the first sex scene the woman is supposed to be going down on him and her hair is artfully blocking what’s supposed to be going on, like you’d expect. But then suddenly oh wow, he’s really– oh geez, he has a– well yeah, it’s in her mouth. Huh. Did not know the star of THUNDERBIRDS and TWISTER had a BROWN BUNNY is his past.
I guess that’s why it had to be Vinegar Syndrome, who got their start doing pristine restorations of ’70s XXX movies. Despite that little bit of hardcore sex, the overall feel is arty, not smutty. It’s a perfect transfer of beautiful widescreen black and white photography, in interesting locations. Though completely different visually, something about the nightmarish future and dizzying sounds reminded me of THX 1138.
I suppose it’s not that surprising that this was originally planned as something entirely different. According to an interview in World Gone Wild, it was loosely scripted as a film about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty! Director Smith purchased ten hours of black and white short ends left over from Bob Fosse’s LENNY and headed to Morocco with Paxton, but they got arrested upon arrival and decided to relocate to Wales. But they never put the footage together, and several years later another director named Tom Huckabee (later a producer on Paxton’s TRAVELLER and FRAILTY) asked if he could take a shot at turning it into something. An article in the Austin Chronicle seems to indicate that the nude scenes at the beginning are from a different project, “‘an erotic portrait’ of Paxton called ‘D’Artagnan.'” He loosely edited what he considered the best footage before coming up with the post-apocalyptic story and paying William S. Burroughs $100 for permission to use ideas from his novella Blade Runner (a movie)* on the radio broadcasts. Another writing credit went to Paul Cullum, a friend and newspaper columnist they knew from the University of Texas. He was later the music supervisor for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION.
The Vinegar Syndrome release includes interviews with Huckabee and TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN REVISITED, a whole different version that he entirely re-edited. They don’t say much about original director Smith, except that he may not have been happy with it because it wasn’t the movie he set out to make. I can’t say I understand the movie or necessarily recommend it to normal people, but it’s very interesting that it exists, and I have great respect for Vinegar Syndrome and anybody involved in digging up, restoring and providing information about oddities like this.
*Yeah, the movie BLADE RUNNER came from Philip K. Dick’s short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but the title was taken from the Burroughs story, which was actually written as a treatment for a movie adaptation of a book called The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse. Originally the “blade” referred to scalpels, because a “bladerunner” was a smuggler of black market medical supplies in a world where only eugenically qualified patients could receive legal healthcare. But co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher suggested it to Ridley Scott because it sounded cool.