The other day, my wife asked me a dead-simple question: "What's your favorite book or story of all time?"
Of course, I couldn't pick just one. But after thinking a while, I did manage to narrow the list down to only three. My favorite story of all time is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." If I'm forced to pick something novel length, then it's a toss-up between David Morrell's First Blood and Glendon Swarthout's The Shootist.
What's telling, especially for a guy with "SF/Fantasy Writer" in his bio, is that none of my answers is even tangentially SF or Fantasy.
That's because—as I realized somewhat recently—I don't actually like SF or Fantasy all that much. What I really like is Action/Adventure. I just don't mind if my Action/Adventure has magic or ray guns in it.
That said, I don't want to hammer on my growing disillusionment with SF and Fantasy (even the supposedly "pulpy" classics). What I want to talk about today is something else I realized about my answer, particularly the two novels.
Of my three favorite stories of all time, two are directly related to a pop culture transition that happened in America in the 1980s, one more obvious in retrospect than it was in real-time.
I'm talking about the complete shift from Cowboys to Commandos as our "default" pop cultural heroes.
Backyard Bradleys and Saturday Morning SEALs
Maybe it's tough to remember with the rise of superhero media and the resurgence of Star Wars. But once upon a time, kids in America were obsessed with all things G.I. Joe. Toy shelves were absolutely crammed with Hasbro's pint-sized, plastic commandos and their intricately designed vehicles. The cartoon played on a practically endless loop in syndication, spawning an animated movie. Real life celebrities like Sgt. Slaughter and Joe "the Refrigerator" Perry joined the franchise with figures modeled on their likenesses. Slaughter even voiced himself in the cartoon.
And of course, let's not forget the comics. Marvel's G.I.Joe actually ran longer than the toy line did, owing mostly to writer and Vietnam vet Larry Hama's rather sophisticated treatment of the subject. To this day, it's rightly regarded as one of the best tie-in comics ever produced.
G.I. Joe mania was a surprisingly long-lasting and robust trend, driving other toy companies to cash in with their own military-themed figures. Mattel put out GUTS, beefed up, cooler versions of the traditional plastic army men. Galoob made figures based on The A-Team, both in 3.75 and 6-inch scales. Coleco put out toys for Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a kids' cartoon (lol) spun off from one of the most successful R-Rated action franchises in history.
What, you didn't know there was a Rambo cartoon?
Ruby-Spears' Rambo was clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of G.I. Joe. Aimed at the same audience (and with the same goal of selling toys), it featured a similar set-up and premise: an elite, secret counter-terror organization, called on to fight a group of evil militants with a catchy name (S.A.V.A.G.E. instead of Cobra).
Needless to say, this pop-cultural saturation colored the actual-cultural landscape.
There was barely a TV in my old neighborhood that wasn't tuned in to the Joes or Rambo on any given afternoon. Our connected back yards were turned into one massive, constantly-evolving plastic battlefield. Whenever we played in the woods or at the local playground, we invariably fell into some variation of "war" with sticks as guns, pretending to be G.I. Joe characters, A-Team members, or characters from the various action movies we'd caught on cable.
And yes, folks, we saw a LOT of those.
Bottom line, if you were a typical kid in the 80's, there's a good chance the relatively new (but so very old) archetype of the Invincible Super-Commando ruled your imagination.
It was different for my father's generation.
My dad, my uncles, and everyone in their generation grew up with John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. The western gunfighter was the hero of the day, and though "war" was an ever-present game, kids were just as likely to play variations of Cowboys and Indians. There was a pop-cultural mythology to draw from with the Gunfighter, and with public boogeymen like Geronimo and the Dalton Gang.
By contrast, there were few, if any, named soldier-heroes in their fiction. Certainly not characters as towering as the ones found in Westerns. That might be because WWII was still fresh in the public consciousness. Sure, John Wayne played in war movies, notably The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day. But while his characters were always square-jawed and tough, none were as invincible as his cowboy heroes.
If you think about it, that's only natural. My dad's generation knew men who'd fought at Iwo and Normandy. And while they certainly looked up to and respected these men, seeing them up close—and so soon after the action—reduced them to human scale in the popular imagination. The mythology of the war hadn't had a chance to grow up around them, and it wouldn't for another decade or so. They weren't Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" yet. They were just immediate family, friends, and neighbors.
This extended even to the bonafide heroes of the war.
Never mind that Audie Murphy did more in real life than most fictional commandos ever will. The fact he was still a living, flesh and blood man made him appear less mythical than other folk heroes like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Ironic, because First Blood author David Morrell has stated in interviews that he partly based his original conception of Rambo on Murphy. The idea of a troubled war veteran at home was one of the pieces that took hold of his imagination, and inspired him write one of the greatest thriller novels of all time.
From Printed Page to Silver Screen
Note: this section contains mild spoilers for the books and films discussed.
First Blood was published in 1972, and introduced the world to Rambo. If you're familiar with the 1982 film of the same name, then you're familiar with the plot. Drifting Vietnam vet and Green Beret Rambo is hassled and hustled out of town by a local sheriff. He bristles at this treatment, and begins pushing back, until it escalates into an explosive moment of violence at the jailhouse. Escaping into the woods, Rambo must evade the largest manhunt in state history, led by the same sheriff.
Much like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, if you're only familiar with the Hollywood treatment of the character, then you don't really know him. The novel's Rambo is much more of a sympathetic villain than a hero, and the movie's villain, Sheriff Teasle, is far more heroic and admirable in Morrell's book.
Naturally, the Stallone film made significant changes. The script turned a morally complex struggle into a more straightforward story of an underdog being harassed by the authorities. The movie's body count is much lower (just one, and it's an accident; a fact most people forget in the wake of the uber-violent sequels).
The biggest change, of course, is that Rambo survives the movie's climax, whereas Morrell's book gives him a tragically fitting end.
Along with Kurt Russell's performance as Snake Plissken in 1981's Escape from New York, Stallone's version of Rambo helped usher in the 80's era of Action Movies. While both Escape and First Blood are somewhat sedate, cerebral films, the decade's box office would come to be dominated by an archetype that blended Russell's rough, cool, demeanor and Stallone's raw physicality.
The Action Movie tough guy, typified by Stallone's performance in the First Blood sequels, Schwarzenegger's Commando, and anything starring Chuck Norris, was usually a military or ex-military badass.
Whereas traditional, John Wayne-type war movies emphasized the camaraderie of the platoon, the Action Movie commando was usually alone, fighting hordes of disposable enemies with nothing but his rippling muscles, a machine gun, and maybe a little karate. If he was lucky, he had a team, but they usually didn't survive through the third act, necessitating the Action Hero squaring off against the villain mano-a-mano (or tank to helicopter, in the case of Rambo III).
The Shootist was published in 1975, and it deals with the death of the last great gunfighter of the American West, J. B. Brooks.
In the novel's opening, we learn that Brooks, a larger-than-life figure in his youth, and a man who always lived life on his own terms, is dying of prostate cancer. He decides he doesn't want to go out in bed, wracked with pain and too feeble to stand. So he looks for an opportunity to die the way he lived: on his feet, facing life head-on, with his guns in hand. In the process, he befriends a middle-aged boarding house proprietor named Bond Rogers, and her young son Gillom.
It's a deeply moving story, one dealing with themes of modernization, violence, and facing death with dignity. It's as much about the death of the West itself as it is about the death of Brooks.
The Shootist was made into a movie in 1976, the last to star legendary actor John Wayne. Criminally underrated, and sticking close to the source material, the film was a fitting swan song to Wayne's career, one he spent playing the type of characters J. B. Brooks used to be before sickness and old age caught up to him.
In addition an aging Wayne, the film features performances by classic Western film stalwarts like Jimmy Stewart, John Carradine, and Harry Morgan. The movie also opens with a montage of scenes from Wayne's earlier Westerns, under Gillom Rogers' narration describing J.B. Brooks' life and career.
Simply put, this film—arguably even more than the novel—unfolds as if it knows it's saying goodbye to an era of mythic storytelling, one that dominated the American psyche since the age of the dime novel. Like Brooks himself, it's trying to be the last of the "heroic" Westerns, going out on its feet, on its own terms, with guns in hand.
From Six Shooters to Uzis
Looking back, you can't readily blame the influence of blockbuster action films for trickling down to inspire G.I. Joe. The "classic" G.I. Joe toy line debuted in 1982, the same year as First Blood's cinematic adaptation, and the 80's Action Movie as a defined genre wouldn't really get going for another couple of years. Direct inspiration simply wouldn't have been possible.
Rather, there was just something in the social zeitgeist of the time. The Miracle on Ice gave everyone a proxy for victory in the Cold War. Reagan was in the process of re-building our military, creating a budgetary arms race that eventually spent the Russians into submission. The economy was good. Americans felt good about being Americans again.
It was this overall zeitgeist that fueled the creation of both the 80's G.I. Joe line, and the 80's Action Hero.
It's hardly surprising. If the "Tough Cop who Doesn't Play by the Rules" is the hero we can associate most with the 70's (via Dirty Harry), then it's easy to see why America was eager for a change. There's a gritty, grimy realism to those old 70's cop thrillers. And while the "Rogue Cop" archetype may be good for audience catharsis, he also serves as a stark reminder of an overall corrupt and lethargic system. After all, Dirty Harry was at least partly a response to public anxiety about the police being unable to catch the Zodiac Killer.
The 80's Action hero, with all the flash and boom of special effects behind him, is another animal entirely. Even when he's nominally a cop (or, as in the case of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs, a commando turned cop), the Action Movie hero took on the bad guys with guns, explosions, and a macho swagger his nihilistic 70's counterparts couldn't match.
These weren't stories of lone men doing the right thing against an uncaring system. They were stories of men at war against the Bad Guys.
And they were winning.
That said, the mano-a-mano fight at the end of a typical 80's Action Movie has far more in common with the classic Western's high noon showdown than it does anything in a traditional war movie.
Whereas classic war movies give us stories of valor in the face of uncertainty, the 80's Action Movie gives us stories of strength and courage against easily identifiable villains. Faceless Japanese soldiers aren't enough here. The evil Russian officers in Rambo III and the corrupt ex-soldiers in Commando are Black Hats, just as surely as the outlaw Liberty Valence was. The audience jeers at them the same way a wrestling crowd jeers at a heel, and they're paying good money to see them shot down in the climax.
The 80's Action Hero is, in effect, an updated gunslinger, transported from the dusty streets of Dodge City to the jungles of the South America, the deserts of the Middle East, or the high-rises of Los Angeles.
In a way, Regan was the most fitting President we could have had at the time. In a decade where an updated gunslinger dominated our pop culture, who better to serve as leader of the free world than a former Western movie star?
Riding off into that Saigon Sunset: Commandos to Capes
The disillusionment of Vietnam is arguably what killed the "heroic" Western. The movie most often given credit for ending the genre is Pekinpah's The Wild Bunch, with its gritty, graphic violence. Pekinpah himself wanted the climactic massacre to feel more like a firefight on a hot LZ than a showdown, and few would argue that he missed the mark.
Westerns after The Wild Bunch just weren't the same. Any filmmaker trying make a Western had to rely on grit, deconstruction, and revisionism to be taken seriously. From 1969 on, the bright, hopeful Western was largely a thing of the past.
Similarly, the Post 9/11 era killed the Cinematic Super Commando. While "straight" Action Movies had already declined somewhat in popularity by the late 1990's, the fall of the Twin Towers and the wars in the Middle East made it impossible to take a John Rambo or a John Matrix seriously anymore.
After all, it's hard to buy into Invincible Super-Soldiers mowing down waves of terrorists when simple, roadside bombs are sending planeloads of real soldiers home in flag-draped coffins. The IED and the insurgent have reduced the larger-than-life, cinematic Super-Soldier to human scale. With the war in Afghanistan entering its 20th year this fall, it's doubtful the old archetype will return to popular consciousness any time soon.
If the Cowboy Gunslinger was my dad's generational hero, and the Invincible Super-Commando was mine, then the current one is undoubtedly the Comic Book Superhero. He provides the same kind of escapism that Westerns and Action Movies used to, complete with the easily identifiable Black Hats and the mano-a-mano showdown.
Time has marched on, and our default heroes have traded in their Uzis and camo for superpowers and spandex, just as surely as they traded in their six-shooters.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to that question my wife asked me a few days ago, and my answer.
I find it fascinating that two of my all-time favorite books are a Western about the death of the last Gunslinger, and a thriller about the first modern Super-Commando (even if he is arguably the bad guy). I didn't read either of them until later in life, well after I'd already been immersed in the existing archetypes of both genres.
When I first read Morrell's book as a teen, I was shocked by its departure from what I—and everyone else in my generation—thought the Rambo character was. The Shootist I only read last year. Like Morrell's book, it's grittier than the film it spawned, refusing to flinch from the ugliness and the regrets carried by a man who has outlived the bad times. It takes the mythical Gunslinger typified by Jack Schaefer's Shane, and reduces him to human scale.
Two books. One that explores the passing of the archetypal hero from my dad's generation. The other, inadvertently, giving birth to the archetypal hero for mine.
I suppose it just means I'm a product of my generation, in one way or another. And that while each generation will have its larger-than-life heroes, sometimes the most memorable stories are the ones that take those titans, and simply examine them as men.
This Tweet from writer Alexandru Constantin crossed my feed a little over a month ago, and like all good truth bombs, it's been stewing in the back of my mind ever since:
I'll have a great deal more to say on this subject in the coming weeks, because it touches on more than I can really drop into one single blog post without rambling.
Suffice to say, plenty of folks in my Twitter timeline have been talking about Westerns this past month or so.
I suspect there's a good reason for that.
With much of the country living under lockdown orders, restricted to "essential" travel only, and having to abide a government-mandated list of new social protocols when out in public, it's not hard to see the appeal of stories about rugged loners living by their own rules. Nor is it difficult to see the appeal of books and movies that dwell on the majestic beauty of wide open spaces.
Above all, Westerns are stories about personal freedom. After so many weeks being told where we can and can't go, how close we can and can't get to people, and what businesses we are and aren't allowed to patronize anymore, who can blame viewers for looking to John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Yul Brenner for a little cathartic release? Sure, the sound of a booming sixgun and the sight of a dying cattle baron or two might not get us out of lockdown any quicker.
But damn, will it feel good.
That said, here are a few suggestions as to where to start looking at the quintessential American Fantasy.
I first read this novel by Jack Schaefer back in middle school, and have probably watched the classic 1953 film version over a dozen times. It's one of my father's all time favorite movies, and every time we watch it together, he repeats Shane's taunt to the villainous Wilson (Jack Palance) out loud during the climax: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
The story of a wandering gunfighter who temporarily finds peace after hiring on for a season with the Starrett family, Shane is pretty close to being the most archetypal of all Westerns. Both the film and the novel are awfully close to perfect in terms of execution. Themes of manhood, life on the frontier, family, and coming-of-age all come together in this tale. Book or movie? Take your pick. I heavily recommend both.
If you only ever see—or read—one Western, make it this one. You'll be richer for the experience.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance
I watched this movie a few weeks back at Alexandru Constantin's recommendation, and it immediately become one of my top Western films. Directed by genre titan John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is about a young tenderfoot lawyer named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), and his arrival in the town of Shinbone. After being brutally victimized by the titular Valance (Marvin), Stoddard attempts to get the locals to organize a legal response through the marshal. But local tough hand Tom Doniphon (Wayne) scoffs. He knows the only law out west comes from the barrel of a gun. And as far as he's concerned, it's in Stoddard's best interest to learn how to use one before Valance comes back.
The rest of the film is a well-told drama about clashing world views: Stoddard and his steadfast belief in law and order, and Doniphan and his conviction that bullies like Valance only understand one thing.
While most Westerns play with themes of civilization versus lawlessness to some degree, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance arguably handled the idea better than any of them. In fact, it just might be the genre's final word on the subject.
After Shane, I consider this film an absolute must-see.
Elmore Leonard is mostly known for his crime fiction, but he got his start writing pulp Western novels. Hombre is routinely mentioned among fans as one of his best. Published in 1961, it's the story of John Russell, raised among the Apache, but traveling among the white men. When the stagecoach passengers he's riding with realize that Russell's odd ways and mannerisms come from his "savage" Apache upbringing, they refuse to ride with him. They demand he ride up in the boot, next to the driver.
Their fortunes turn quickly, however, when the stage is overtaken by outlaws. Stranded in the desert with no horses, one canteen, and only two guns, the passengers—none of whom regarded him as good enough to share a space with white folks before—are forced to follow him if they want to survive.
More than just a tale of desert survival, Hombre is a story about pride, honor, and doing the right thing, as well as being a tightly-paced chase story. John Russell denies the bandits their money early on, which gives them cause to pursue the stagecoach survivors to the bitter end.
Honestly, Leonard's slim little book is probably one of the best jumping-on points if you want to sample the genre's written works. Faster-moving than Shane and containing none of that book's family drama or coming of age themes, fans of thrillers and mysteries will find a relatively easy transition here.
The 1976 film version starring John Wayne was the last movie the Duke released before passing away. It also reunited Wayne with his costar from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Shootist tells the story of an aging gunfighter dying of terminal prostate cancer.
This simple set-up, however, allows for an incredibly rich and powerful tale.
Set in January of 1901, just after Queen Victoria has died, The Shootist is a story about a modernizing West that no longer has a place for men like gunfighter J. B. Books (Wayne). Automobiles, electricity, and streetcars have come to Carson City, Nevada, alongside the carriages and horses.
And it's to Carson City that Books has come to die. With his diagnosis finalized by his old friend Dr. Hostetler (Stewart), and his days numbered, Books takes up at a local rooming house run by the widowed Mrs Rogers (Lauren Bacall). There, he sets about getting his final affairs in order. He also decides he doesn't want to go out in a stranger's bed, wracked with pain.
If the right people knew he was in town—and on his last legs—maybe the great shootist would have the opportunity to go out on his own terms: standing on his feet, with his gun in his hand, facing down the bad men one last time.
The Shootist is also the story of Books' relationship with the people of Carson City, especially Mrs Rogers and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). More than anything, it's the story of the siren song violence has over the young and the untested. The book goes into this theme in far more detail than the film does, and with much more satisfying results.
I'll have more to say on the subject in a future post, when I compare The Shootist to Eastwood's Unforgiven. For now, let's just say that if you want a less revisionist take on the same themes, The Shootist is the story you're looking for.
The film and the book also contain some sharp observations on the nature of violence and gunfighting, including one of my favorite lines ever given to a Western character when discussing his trade: "It isn't being fast. It is whether or not you're willing. The difference is, when it comes down to it, most men are not willing. I found that out early. They will blink an eye or take a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't."
My personal favorites of all Westerns are the Fargo books written by Ben Haas under the pseudonym John Benteen. The reason being that they're just so damned fun. Haas conceived soldier-of-fortune Neal Fargo after watching Lee Marvin's performance in The Professionals, and reading Fargo's physical description makes it obvious: Campaign cover concealing prematurely white hair, cropped short. Weathered face. Long Jaw. Craggy nose. Solid chin.
Fargo is as much a man's man character as you can get in fiction. He's only interested in fighting, women, and money, and when he has too much of one, he gets restless for the others. Best described as "Conan with a shotgun," the books take place across a 10-15 year spread in the early 20th century, following Fargo as he takes contracts in places as near as Texas, and as far away as the Philippines.
There were 22 Fargo books, of which Haas wrote 17. The one I read most recently was Phantom Gunman, in which Fargo is contracted by a mysterious oil baron to find—and kill—Billy the Kid. Of course, everyone knows Billy the Kid has been dead for over 30 years. Fargo thinks it's a put-on. But the $15,000 payday isn't a put-on. Neither is the deadly-serious gunman who just happens to show up in Lincoln county on the same trail as Fargo. Could there be some truth to the rumor after all?
Like any good pulp series, you can read the Fargo books in any order. While I haven't read the entire series, I've read several, and I haven't encountered a bad one yet. It is worth noting that Haas didn't write Sierra Silver, Gringo Guns, or Dynamite Fever. Many fans who have read the entire run say the writing quality on these three volumes is noticeably different.
So, why Westerns? Or more accurately, why Westerns now?
Like Alexandru says, they are the quintessential American fantasy. There's always been something powerful about the tough loner with a personal code, about a man who ranges the wide open spaces when and where he pleases. That's always been a part of the American fantasy, and I think that's a part of the fantasy we need more than ever right now.
But more than anything else, Westerns are fun. With all that talk of deep themes and stuff up there, what sort of gets lost is how much fun you can have—and how much comfort you can get—from a simple story with real good guys and real bad guys drawn in larger than life terms. A good, old fashioned shoot-em-up, coupled with a little romance and melodrama. Where the bad guys wear the black hats, and the good guys where the white hats.
Maybe that's part of it, too.
The Western gives us heroes, and it gives them to us unapologetically. The genre doesn't have to hide them in layers of irony, self awareness, or self deprecation.
Some might say that's unsophisticated or one-dimensional writing.
I say horse shit. While the daily news cycle is a never ending trash fire, you can keep your chronically depressed, fatally flawed "heroes." I sure as hell don't want to read about someone working through their personal issues right now.
Give me a larger-than life Tom Doniphon, a Shane, or a Neal Fargo. Give me a rat-bastard of a villain, a tense standoff, and a cacophony of roaring guns. Give me something to escape to, damn it. Give me some action, some adventure, and some heroes.
If that's too tall an order for other genres, then pardner, maybe it's time to saddle up and head back to the Mythic West.
I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
Since I've picked up a few new followers in recent weeks, a brief word of introduction: this is a regular column on the blog, where I do in-depth reviews of post apocalyptic films and books. Here's a quick link back to my general mission statement, and another one for my overall rating criteria.
Now for my regular readers, a fair bit of warning. Today's entry is a bit on the trippy side. We're not dealing with Road Warriors, Rampaging Wrestlers, or Rodents of Unusual Scientific Acumen. We're not even dealing with the late, great Rutger Hauer.
Today, we're taking an electric slide into the animated side of the apocalypse. And we're doing it with a healthy side of funky guitars, WWII stock footage, and rotoscope.
I'm talking about Ralph Bakshi's 1977 cult science-fantasy phantasmagoria, Wizards.
The film opens with a live-action shot of a large leather-bound book. The camera slowly pans down the title page, as the feminine narrator's soft, soothing voice croons out the words for us.
Then, to make sure we don't get bored with all the fancy book learnin', we're immediately treated to a shot of the entire goddamn world exploding!
It's at this point, Wastelanders, that snark and humor completely fail me. What follows is one of the most exquisite and beautifully realized opening sequences in the entire apocalyptic genre. Combining pen and ink artwork by Mike Ploog with live-action background effects like smoke and lava, the narrator delivers the history of the post-holocaust earth.
According to the story, five terrorists set off a nuclear blast that plunges the earth into a worldwide atomic war. For over 2 million years, radioactive clouds keep the world in darkness, driving nearly all human life to extinction, and turning most survivors into hideous mutants. In these scorched and poisoned lands, radiation causes each birth to be a new disaster in a never-ending chain of mutation.
But in the good lands, fairies, elves, and dwarves awaken from their long sleep, and begin bringing life back to the planet.
Millions of years later, Queen Delia of the fairies gives birth to twin wizards, one good and one evil. Avatar, the good wizard, spends his childhood around his bedridden mother, trying to keep her entertained. Blackwolf, the mutant wizard, never visits, and spends his time torturing other creatures. When the Queen eventually weakens and dies, the two brothers fight for control of the fairy lands, but Avatar wins and Blackwolf goes into exile.
But before he leaves, Blackwolf throws out an ominous warning. "The day will come, my brother, when I will return and make this a planet where mutants rule."
I should point out this "history" sequence clocks in at around three and a half minutes. It's a testament to Bakshi and his crew that it never quite feels that long. In fact, the only reason Bakshi and company manage to get away with this kind of gratuitous info-dump opening is that they paired it with some truly stunning visuals.
At any rate, the story begins 3000 years later in the irradiated wasteland of Scorch, with Blackwolf issuing orders to his assassins to begin destroying the leaders of the free states. We're then treated to a succession of merciless killings across the hauntingly psychedelic landscape, as the action follows one assassin in particular, the stoic and brutally effective robot, Necron 99.
The action then cuts to the deep forest, and a pair of mounted elven scouts. They're taking a short rest and allowing their animals to graze, but the lead elf—Weehawk—says they need to push on. Avatar must be warned of what they've seen.
Just then, Necron 99 ambushes them, killing Weehawk's partner. Weehawk attempts to escape, but it's no use. At last, he's forced to throw himself at Necron in a desperate, kamikaze-like fury, launching them both over a cliffside and into the river below.
Meanwhile, back in Montagar, a sort of war council is going on. Avatar, the President, and the President's half-fairy daughter, Elinore, are all waiting for the elf scouts to report in. The President wants to arm the free states against the growing threat of Blackwolf, but Avatar urges against it, pointing out that science and technology were both outlawed millions of years ago.
Avatar tells the President and Elinore that he spent years searching out his twin brother, trying to learn what ever became of him. He knows that Blackwolf has been trying unsuccessfully to mold the mutated creatures of Scorch into an army. Balkwolf's frustrations have been driving him to dig deeper and deeper into the past, searching for the secrets of warfare among the ancient, pre-holocaust ruins.
Tales have reached Avatar of new war machines being built in Scorch, and of a great and ancient power that will enable Blackwolf to control his armies.
"What do you know about war?" Avatar asks them. "About bombs that could turn a planet molten and liquid? To think it could start again, ten million years after the last one..."
Just then, a burst of gunfire takes the President in the chest. Necron 99 has arrived, unseen by everyone. Avatar reacts, frying the robotic assassin with a blast of magic. At the same time, Weehawk bursts in through the door, sword drawn and ready to fight. But it's too little, and far too late. The President of Montagar is dead, and Elinore's cries fill the night.
Meanwhile, in Scorch, Blackwolf steps out onto the castle balcony to address his soldiers, calling them the "leaders of tomorrow's master race." He tells them the time has come to share the ancient secret of war, the key to creating hysteria and fear.
He then uncovers the secret relic he's found: an ancient movie projector, which he uses to play an old, Nazi-era propaganda film against the sky. German army marching music swells. Swastika flags flap in the breeze.
Below the balcony, the mutants stare, awestruck. The new uniforms they're wearing, Blackwolf's new war machines. The new weapons. All of it looks like the strange old images in the sky.
The movie whips the mutants into a frenzy. Battle footage from WWII joins the propaganda reel. Explosions. Gunfire. Artillery. Soon the mutants are screaming and chanting "seig heil," and clamoring to get to the front.
In East Elfland, an army is already manning the trenches, preparing for Blackwolf's invasion. We get a short exchange between an older elf and young recruit, the standard war movie trope of the scared private confiding in the old veteran. The old veteran reassures him that the last time Blackwolf invaded, the evil wizard lost over a million men. He says the goblins and mutants look mean, but they're cowardly, they always run when met with resistance. This time will be no different.
Blackwolf's armies approach, and the elves prepare to meet them. But just as they get into range, the wizard activates the projector. As soon the propaganda film begins playing, the elves stop and stare at the sky, frozen in abject horror at what they're seeing. The mutant army steamrolls into them, pouring into the trenches and slaughtering the defenseless elves in droves.
Back in Montagar, Avatar reads Necron 99's thoughts, learning of the existence of Blackwolf's movie projector. He says that it must be destroyed, and that the robot assassin—who he renames Peace—can lead them to it.
"I'll reason with him when he wakes up," Avatar says. He urges the others to go and prepare for the trip.
Weehawk spends the night saying goodbye to his tribe, and instructs them to name a new chief if he does not return. Elinore holds a funeral for her father. Then she promises the fairies that she will avenge his death, and that when she returns it will be as a full-fledged fairy, one ready to take her place as the Queen of Montagar.
As far as Avatar's reasoning with Peace, whatever he said must have been successful. Come morning, the ex-robot assassin has agreed to help lead them to Blackwolf's projector. But before the group sets off, Avatar offers Peace a final word of warning:
"You let me down, you hurt my friends—especially the broad—I got stuff planned for you that will take 20 years to kill you. And you'll be screaming for mercy in the first five seconds."
This is our first real hint that Avatar is more than the simple, kindly bumbler we've seen since the end of the "history" portion. There are some fangs beneath that bushy red beard, Wastelanders. Sharp ones.
For their part, Weehawk and Elinore aren't quite ready to trust their former enemy, either. Weehawk even goes as far as reassuring Elinore that he plans kill Peace the second the ex-assassin shows them the projector.
Preparations complete, our four heroes mount up, and they're off.
Meanwhile, back at Scorch, Blackwolf is attending his pregnant mistress. He's asking if the birth will be soon. She says it will. He says she is young to be queen—a statement which draws a look of shock from the girl—but if she delivers him a son, she will help to rule the planet.
The mistress tells him she doesn't want to rule the planet, that just their kingdom is enough. But this seemingly innocent statement sends Blackwolf into a rage.
"Enough! Enough for mutants to stay in their place, huh? Live with radiation so our bodies crawl with hell? We will live in the good lands! My son will grow where there isn't death in the very waters we drink, and the air we breathe!"
He then asks the wise men whether his son will be born mutant or human, to which the wise men reply "mutant." Blackwolf turns away in disgust.
"The next one won't be," he says coldly.
As he stalks off to attend to the business of his war, the mistress runs after him, crying and begging him not to have their child killed.
Back on the trail, Weehawk warns the others that Peace is taking them through the mountain fairies' domain. He urges them to go around. But Avatar and Elinore overrule him. They can't afford to lose time, Avatar says, and the fairies may have useful information. But according to Weehawk, the fairies and the elves are bad-blood cousins.
True to his warning, this direct route gets the group in trouble. This misadventure sees Elinore captured by the mountain fairies, as well as seeing the rest of the group separated, lost, half frozen, and—in Weehawk's case—nearly eaten by a monstrous spider.
However, the group successfully reunites after this ordeal, and resumes their journey toward Scorch. But unexpectedly, they run into an elf patrol armed with guns like the ones Blackwolf's army carries.
Back at the elves' camp, they learn the patrol is a part of a larger army, under the command of General Abdul. Abdul—an old friend of Avatar's—tells them the guns are captured Scorch weapons. Now, with weapons to match Blackwolf's, Abdul plans to sail across the sea and attack Scorch directly.
Avatar, still hoping to avoid all-out war, tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail. General Abdul is convinced the only way for elvenkind to survive is to take the fight back to Blackwolf's doorstep. And the warriors following him agree.
Late that night, a demon attacks the camp, attempting to take over Peace's mind. Avatar successfully fights the creature off, but it almost appears to be a decoy, as a tank comes speeding at them along the beach.
As Peace raises his rifle to protect the others, Elinore stabs him in the back with her sword, killing him. She then jumps into the tank, which immediately speeds away. Avatar chases after it, calling her name, but the tank disappears into the distance without so much as firing a shot.
In pre-dawn darkness, General Abdul's ships begin crossing the sea for the attack on Scorch. Avatar stands alone on the deck, lost in a depression and muttering to himself. Weehawk stands away, speaking to General Abdul. He says that Elinore's betrayal has broken the old wizard's heart.
Weehawk takes charge of the mission, practically forcing Avatar along the rest of the way, dragging the old wizard to shore ahead of the rest of the fleet. He still intends to sneak inside the castle, find the projector, and destroy it before Blackwolf can use it again.
The two sneak their way into the lower city of Scorch. There, the mutants have wholly adopted Blackwolf's propaganda film, as we see mutant officers in full Nazi regalia. We hear audio recordings of Hitler's speeches being broadcast over loudspeakers, and captive fairies being forced to sing songs in German. The mutants have even begun referring to Blackwolf as "the furher."
Avatar, still in a deep depression, finally snaps. He attempts to beautify some of the lower city with his magic, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the war. This draws the attention of some mutant officers, and forces Weehawk to take action. In a lightning fast, three-on-one battle, the elf warrior kills the mutants, before being blindsided and knocked down by one of Blackwolf's little toadies. The toady then claims victory, and scurries off to claim rewards and praise from Blackwolf.
Avatar, looking on the bloody aftermath of the fight, comes partly to his senses again. He at last realizes what kind of bloodshed the world is looking at if the two of them don't finish the job, however distasteful it's going to be.
Following the trail of Blackwolf's scurrying little toady, Weehawk and Avatar make their way into the castle. As they walk, Avatar commends the elf warrior.
"You know, the world owes you much, kid. Even if we don't take another step."
Meanwhile, General Abdul's fleet pulls to shore. The alarms goes up, and Blackwolf's army takes the field to meet them. Another set-piece battle begins, but with the heavily-armed elves on the offensive this time, it's an even match.
Then the ancient film projector begins rolling. Once again, the sight of the ancient propaganda film horrifies and paralyzes the elves, leading to a shift in the battle, and Blackwolf's forces begin to gain the upper hand.
Back in the castle, Avatar and Weehawk find Blackwolf in the throne room. They agree to split up, with Avatar confronting Blackwolf, and the elf warrior seeking out the projector.
On his way through the castle, Weehawk finds Elinore. In a rage, he leaps to kill her for betraying them, but he's stopped at the last moment by Blackwolf's mistress. Grieving her mutant son's death, the mistress says there has been too much bloodshed, and begs him to stop and think before he swings his sword.
In that moment, Elinore explains that Blackwolf took over her mind and possessed her when they were on the beach. He made her attack and kill Peace. She had no choice. Weehawk realizes he must run back to the throne room and tell Avatar, before the old wizard throws his life away.
Meanwhile, Blackwolf urges Avatar to give up. "Brother, there is no need for me to destroy you. Surrender. Surrender your world."
But Avatar, snarky as ever, only gives his twin brother a round of applause. He then begins loosening his sleeves in the classic "nothing-up-here" motion typical of performing stage magicians.
"I ain't practiced much magic in a long time. But I wanna show you a trick mother showed me when you weren't around. To use on special occasions like this."
He then produces a 9mm Luger pistol from one of his sleeves, and shoots Blackwolf in the chest.
As Blackwolf dies, castle begins to crack and crumble around them. Avatar tosses the pistol away, ready to just be buried along with his twin. Right then, Weehawk runs in with Elinore, screaming that she's no traitor, that she was possessed. The three of them run for their lives, barely escaping as the castle falls behind them.
With the projector destroyed, the mutant army collapses into a disorganized rabble. Most scatter and run. The elves mop up the few resistors. There is some brief celebrating, but mostly the elves are eager to return home.
Outside, Weehawk asks Avatar and Elinore if they are ready to ride for Montagar with the others. But Elinore says tells Weehawk he will ride home alone, and rule as king. She plans to start a new kingdom somewhere else with Avatar.
A word of caution, Wastelanders. If you grew up on a diet of anime and newer, post-90's western animation, don't look for lavishly detailed or choreographed fight scenes. The battles in Wizards are stylized. But they're done in a style that really has no other equivalent, except maybe in Bakshi's other fantasy works.
Even then, I'd venture to say Wizards stands completely apart.
Bakshi combines live action newsreel footage with rotoscoped and hand-drawn animation, the latter using creatures with a distinct "head shop" aesthetic.
The collage-like result is a bunch of elves and mutants swinging swords at each other while Adolf Hitler screams in the background, artillery explodes, Messerschmitt fighters soar through the air, and rotoscoped warriors from movies like Zulu and El Cid stalk through the battlefield like otherworldly wraiths.
In sum, it's not really a depiction of a battle. It's more like a weird, psychedelic hallucination of one.
It's also a wonderfully effective and ballsy move on Bakshi's part. The Battle of Helm's Deep it ain't. But damn if it also doesn't capture the confusion and disorientation of the modern battlefield better than it has any right to.
Fact is, as unconventional as they are, the battle scenes in Wizards are a genuine artistic achievement, and the movie would be worth the price of admission for them alone.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Hardly any, but Wizards earns a free pass here for plot and world building reasons. Millions of years have passed since the apocalypse, so it's unlikely there'd be any standing ruins left from modern-day society. If anything, the opposite is true. Scorch aside, the world has grown into an exotic and lush place in the wake of its destruction.
The one notable exception is in the short and somewhat heavy-handed "religion" sequence. The inside of the temple is filled with kitschy remnants of 20th century American culture: cola signs, pinball machines, juke boxes, and an old Oscar statue.
Naturally, none of it offers any salvation when Blackwolf's troops come calling, which is precisely the point. Neither do the two goofball priests, who would much rather spend their time engaged in hours' long ceremonies than in helping the needy prisoners right outside the temple's doors.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
I mean, sure, it's basically just Mordor with the serial numbers filed off. But so what? If you're going to go with an expansionist dictatorship ruled by an insane magician at the heart of a blasted wasteland, it's best to wear your inspiration on your sleeve. Bakshi—who went on to animate a Lord of the Rings adaptation a year later—does so here with pride, and the movie doesn't suffer one iota for it.
If anything, Bakshi leans into Tolkien's anti-industrial metaphors even harder.
If Montagar and East Elfland have returned to a state of pastoral, almost tranquil wilderness, Scorch has bypassed the early industrial revolution entirely, to become a full-on, mid-20th century industrial power, with 1940's-style assembly lines turning out planes and tanks for Blackwolf's coming blitzkrieg.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
Nada. Granted, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine the mutants of Scorch would have some among their decadent pastimes, but the story never suggests or hints at it.
Barbarian Hordes -
The mutants of Scorch definitely qualify. In fact, one of the film's biggest plot points is that they're such a barbarian horde, they're utterly incapable of fighting as a cohesive unit until Blackwolf rediscovers the secret of 20th century propaganda.
And frankly, it's the fact that Wizards takes this "war for the mind" approach to building the enemy horde that makes it stand out from most of the genre.
Where so many films made in the wake of the gasoline crisis of the '70s focus on things like physical shortages and civil unrest to create the wasteland hordes, Wizards really feels more like a belated product of the 60's.
Hell, there's barely a wasteland here, let alone a wasteland horde. The world of Wizards is a hodgepodge of hippie counterculture, Cold War paranoia, and environmentalism, filtered through a weatherbeaten old copy of Lord of the Rings.
This isn't the Lord Humungous promising his followers gasoline and human chattel, folks. This is Mordor meets MK-ULTRA. This is about what the people in charge can make you think. What they can make you believe. And by extension, what they can make you do.
Heady stuff. And sadly, never more relevant.
Badass Warrior Women -
The Half-Fairy Queen, Elinore.
The half-fairy queen, Elinore. And no, I'm not being snarky.
While she doesn't do much in the way of actual fighting, Elinore shows plenty of grit in swearing to avenge her father's murder, and in undertaking a dangerous quest into an irradiated hellhole to dismantle the enemy's doomsday weapon. When she believes she's cornered by assassins on a frozen mountaintop, she's more than willing to face the them head on with her sword drawn and a battle cry on her lips.
Does she get quite as many chances to prove herself as The Blood of Heroes' scrappy, tough-as-nails underdog, Kidda?
No. But let's be real. If I start judging every Badass Warrior Woman in the genre by that criteria, this category will probably have to go away altogether.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
This being an animated feature, we can expect Wizards to deliver the goods when it comes to mutants. And it does, with the caveat that most of them conform to the "head shop" aesthetic mentioned in the Violence entry. It works just fine, provided you don't mind your slavering, inhuman beasts bent on murder and conquest to look like they'd rather be chilling somewhere with a bag of 'shrooms.
While most of the mutants in Wizards serve as the film's off-brand orcs, special attention should be called to the subplot involving the Blackwolf and his young mistress.
Blackwolf—himself a mutant—has gotten his mistress pregnant, and apparently not for the first time. He's hoping for a pure-blooded child, and he consults the wise men for an augury. They inform him the child will be born a mutant, and the mother immediately begins pleading in vain for its life. But Blackwolf has already written the child off as worthless, and is already telling himself that "the next one won't be."
Which means for all his bluster and rhetoric about seeing the mutants as "tomorrow's master race," Blackwolf clearly holds mutant life—even his own, one suspects—more cheaply than he does pure human life.
It's an interesting dichotomy. One that adds a bit of dimension to Blackwolf.
Right out of the gate, Wizards won me over by using one of my all-time favorite storytelling tropes: the return of magic in the wake of an apocalyptic event.
It's a trope that's largely fallen out of favor in the last forty years, thanks to the gradual segmenting and separation between science fiction and fantasy. I groused a little about this subject a couple of months back, when I talked about the awesome, science fantasy weirdness found in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Expanding on that post slightly, 1977 can be seen as something of a watershed moment when it comes to viewing science fiction and fantasy as two separate genres. Not only was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons published, bringing an already popular game to an even wider audience, but Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara also appeared, proving the economic viability of the Tolkien clone. The explosive, runaway success of both products can almost be seen as a "twin Big Bang" event, one that largely drove "pure" fantasy to form its own separate publishing category.
Ironic, considering that both Shannara and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are almost certainly post-apocalyptic science fantasies.
All this is to say that Wizards, being released in 1977, managed to hit the market just before this kind of wild genre-mixing went out of style. And man, does it ever show.
We've got wizards shooting lightning, orcs flying fighter planes, and lizard-imps working computer consoles. We have mutant armies with machine guns and tanks battling elf armies with bows and arrows, while giant pterodactyl-birds screech through the sky.
It's a glorious, post-apocalyptic fantasy kitchen sink, rendered in funkadelic 70's color with every animation technique Bakshi and company could find the time or budget for. Simply put, this movie is a feast for the eyes, folks. One I heartily recommend to all fans of animated storytelling.
That said, the film isn't entirely without flaws.
There's a certain disjointedness to the narrative. Some pieces of the film never quite feel like they come together to serve the coherent whole. The scenes in the mountains are unevenly paced, and the later "betrayal" and reveal about Elinore come a little too close together to have any real emotional impact. Likewise with the separation and reunion of the traveling party. Both are obviously attempts to ratchet up the tension as we near the film's climax, but both end up falling a little flat.
Speaking of the climax, Avatar's willingness to use a gun against Blackwolf was undoubtedly one of the film's biggest and most satisfying payoffs. Bakshi shows us that for all Avatar's ideals about magic versus technology, and his genuine desire for peaceful solutions, the old wizard understands that sometimes there are no easy or clean answers. Sometimes a violent solution is necessary to stop a truly evil threat.
Avatar tosses the gun away at the end, clearly feeling like he's irrevocably dirtied himself by using one of the ancients' death machines. It's a very human reaction, and one the audience immediately empathizes with.
Admittedly, the idea of an apocalyptic fairyland is one that's stuck with me ever since first seeing this film, probably because it's just so damned weird. But looking at my outline for my current work in progress—and at the few chapters I've already drafted—I'm just now seeing how deeply that idea took root.
I'm seeing my post-holocaust world with its re-born magic. I'm seeing my gun-toting elves and my illusion-casting fairy. I'm seeing my warlord obsessed with digging into the technological secrets of the past. I'm seeing my killer robot with the--
Hmmm... A few surprises should be left on the table, I think.
The thing is, Wizards has long been a favorite of mine. I've always been a fan of the amazing visuals, the science-fantasy genre mixing, and the wide range of animation styles Bakshi plays with to tell his story. But I've never realized until now what an influential film Wizards is to me.
And for that, Mr. Bakshi and company have my deepest and heartiest thanks.
The Rad Rating:
While part of me feels like I should give Wizards a lower score for not having a tighter and more carefully structured plot, the other part of me feels like doing so would be missing half the point. Wizards is at least as much a purely visual experience as it is a traditional animated movie.
If you don't believe me, go back and watch that opening "histories" segment again. But do it with the sound on mute. See how much of the story you manage to pick up just from Mike Ploog's wonderful pen and ink illustrations, and the carefully selected background effects.
Bottom line: although it sports some undeniable some flaws, Wizards is a genre-defining classic, one that arguably represents the high-water mark of apocalyptic animation in the West. It's a criminally underrated film, one that's never quite gotten the wider recognition or the audience it deserves.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week, we're taking our first dive into the venerable (and batshit-bonkers) pastapocalypse genre.
In case you've never heard the term, pastapocalypse films were low-budget Italian b-movies, specifically aimed to cash in on the runaway international success of Mad Max. Studios churned them out by the dozen, often mixing in elements of other popular genre films. Sometimes the results were surprisingly good, as with Enzo G. Castellari's Escape From the Bronx or the half-genuinely-awesome Raiders of Atlantis.
Today's entry is not one of those films.
Wastelanders, I owe you all a preliminary apology for this one.
Welcome to Bruno Mattei's 1984 scholck-stravaganza, Rats: Night of Terror. Spoilers ahead.
The movie opens with a text crawl and voice over, along with grainy stock footage of a desert. And right away we're off to a bang-up start, as the movie manages to turn less than a minute of exposition into a painful slog. I'm quoting it here in its entirety, gratuitous ellipses and all:
"In the Christian Year, 2015, the insensitivity of man finally triumphs and hundreds of atomic bombs devastate all five continents...
Terrified by the slaughter and destruction the few survivors of the disaster seek refuge under the ground...
From that moment begins an era that will come to be called "After the bomb," the period of the second human race...
A century later several men, dissatisfied with the system imposed on them by the new humanity, choose to revolt and live on the surface of the Earth as their ancestors did...
So, yet another race begins, that of the new primitives...
The two communities have no contact for a long period. The people still living below ground are sophisticated and despise the primitives, regarding them as savages...
This story begins on the surface of the Earth in the Year 225 A.B. (After the bomb)..."
Leaving aside the fact that two whole continents appear to have been obliterated before the 2015 atomic war, the stage is now set. We can jump right into a rip-roaring, nail-biting, edge of the seat--
Umm, credit sequence?
An upbeat synth-rock score kicks in as our heroes, a gang of truck and motorcycle-mounted "new primitives," casually joyride across the wasteland. Scary, jagged-edged letters flash across the screen, offering the only reassurance this isn't a movie about a team of plucky, down-on-their-luck dune racers.
The music winds down just as our heroes come to an abandoned village. They cut the engines, dismount, and select a random building to explore.
That building turns out to be a bar, one containing a nest of rats and a large store of food. As the bikers are celebrating their discovery, one of the women wanders to a nearby bed. The large, human-shaped lump underneath cover—which no one else apparently noticed at all—is moving.
She pulls back the covers to reveal a swarm of rats chewing on a bloody corpse. She then proceeds to respond exactly the way a tough, hardened survivor of the post atomic wasteland would respond.
Her scream brings the others over. The women naturally join in on the screaming, and the men stand there looking like the director forgot to give them any guidance whatsoever.
After a good twenty seconds of uninterrupted screaming—I'm not exaggerating, I went back and fucking timed it—their leader, Kurt, yells at everyone to stop it. Assessing the corpse, he comes to the conclusion that someone came here before the bikers, fought for control of the supplies, and was murdered. A genius observation undercut only by the massive pile of untouched supplies less than ten feet away.
The bikers then decide to explore the rest of the building, finding more rats, a few more corpses, and a basement grow house with a functioning water purifier. They also find what appears to be a master control panel and computer, although they don't know what it is or what it's for. The gang's resident "genius," Video, manages to turn it on mostly by accident. Causing the words TOTAL ELIMINATION GROUP to flash on screen.
Rather than taking this an an ominous warning, the bikers decide it's just referring to the dead bodies they already found. After all, what further danger could there possibly be in a corpse-strewn hideout loaded with suspiciously untouched supplies?
Hauling the bodes outside, Kurt torches them with a flamethrower. The bikers then settle in for a night in the communal sleeping area. Everyone has a bed except Lucifer and Lilith, who are loudly and passionately sharing a sleeping bag. Kurt eventually gets annoyed enough to send them out to the building's disused kitchen.
Once there, Lucifer and Lilith finish their tryst, but Lucifer storms off angrily when Lilith refuses him a second go-round. While Lucifer drinks in the bar, Lilith zips herself back up in the sleeping bag.
At the same time, another of the bikers, Noah, is studying the grow room in the basement. He realizes the rats are getting into the water purifier. He tries to get them out before they can infect the clean water. Just then, a literal rain of rats drops onto him from above. He screams his head off, but either nobody hears him or nobody cares.
Meanwhile, Lucifer ends up drunk and stumbling around in the street. He falls part-way through an open manhole cover while chasing his dropped liquor bottle, but manages to catch himself against the ladder.
But before he can climb out, a literal rain of rats hits Lucifer in the stomach, pouring off of what I presume must be the second floor of the nearest building. No indication is given for how they leaped all the way to the middle of the street, mind you, but fuck it. Rain of rats it is. Lucifer falls the rest of the way down into the manhole, and gets eaten.
Back inside, a sole, solitary rat chews its way into the sleeping bag alongside Lilith. She feels the teeth chewing on her, and frantically tries to escape the confines of the bag. But the zipper is stuck.
Yes, Wastelanders. You read that right. "Trapped in an already ripped sleeping bag" is actually a plot point in this movie.
Springing from their beds at the sound of Lilith's screams—because fuck Noah, apparently—the bikers grab their weapons and dash to the next room. But by the time they get there, it's too late. Lilith is dead, and that single rat from her sleeping bag is now crawling out of her open mouth.
Sadly, the shock barely has time to register over the sounds of the women-bikers' screams. Noah stumbles out of the darkness, covered in rats and bleeding profusely. Kurt responds by blasting him with the flamethrower.
Why? Because sometimes, leadership means torching an injured and terrified friend in front of all his buddies, damn it!
In short order, the surviving gang members realize the tires on their motorcycles have been chewed through, trapping them in the village. Kurt then decides the best thing is to go back into the building where two of their number have already been killed.
At this point Duke, another of the bikers, challenges Kurt's leadership. No one agrees to follow him, which is a shame, since he's the only one with the sense to realize that barricading themselves inside the rat infested building is a stupid idea.
Turns out it doesn't matter, though, since the bikers actually forget to barricade a fucking window. And as you might guess, a literal rain of rats spills through it to swarm over one of the women. The rest of the bikers manage to get them off her and escape into the sleeping room, but she's covered in bites. They realize they'll need to clean them or she'll get infected.
Kurt decides they need to get to the water reservoir in the basement. He also decides to leave Duke—the only member of the gang who's openly challenged his authority—to guard the women while the rest try to retrieve the water.
This goes about as well as you can imagine. Long story short, the water is polluted and useless, the rats swarm the bikers and take one of them down, and the survivors are forced to run for their lives. Naturally, Duke betrays them, refusing to open the locked door, and they're only saved by the quick thinking of Chocolate, one of the women that stayed behind with Duke. She actually manages to weaponize another female biker's reflexive, hysterical screaming by yelling "Look out, Myrna! A rat!"
I swear, folks. I've seen snuff films that hate women less than this movie does.
Anyway, Myrna's hysterical flailing and panicked screams manage to knock Duke out of the way, and Chocolate unlocks the door to save everyone. Myrna pleads with Kurt to spare Duke's life, which he does, despite the fact that Duke just attempted to murder half of the gang.
A short while after this bad decision, they hear a man's scream. They think it's Taurus, the man who didn't make it back from the failed water expedition. Kurt and the others go out in search of him, but find the adjacent room filled wall to wall with rats. They also see no sign of Taurus. Kurt begins to wonder if the rats are smart enough to try and trick them out into the open.
They decide to walk into the trap anyway, leaving Diana—the injured, feverish biker woman— behind. Kurt says she'll be safer alone, a statement in no way backed up by their experiences so far.
The rats let them get out to the main bar area, where the bikers find Taurus standing with his back facing them. Kurt spins him around, exposing Taurus' dead, bloody face. The women (of course) scream. Taurus falls over, and his body begins to bulge and swell. Then rats literally explode out of him, flying at the bikers through the air.
At this point, Myrna and Duke make a break for it, running for one of the trucks, which everyone suddenly remembers they have. At the sound of the engine cranking, the rest of the bikers give chase. A brief shootout erupts, and then a standoff, in which Duke holds Myrna and the truck hostage with a live grenade. It ends when the rats show up, causing Duke to drop the grenade, destroying the truck and blowing them both to pieces.
The survivors make their way back to the control room from earlier in the movie. On the way, they discover Diana, the girl who'd been rendered delirious by the rat bites. She'd regained enough of her lucidity to slit her own wrists. They don't have time to mourn her, though, because a literal rain of rats pours down the chimney.
Inside the control room, the bikers find Lilith's body, still wrapped up in her sleeping bag. The rats apparently dragged her in there, in a bid at psychological warfare. Note that this also suggests the room is neither secure nor safe, but that fact doesn't seem to occur to any of the surviving bikers.
As they drag Lilith's corpse out of the room and lock the door, Chocolate finds a recording device they didn't see last time. They get it to play, and listen to the last recording of a scientist engaged in something called "Operation Return to Light.
According to the scientist, the entire expedition is dead, wiped out by the rats. He says the rats were once underground dwellers, pushed to the surface as men migrated underground to escape the nuclear war. The rats survived on the Earth's surface, mutating, growing stronger and more intelligent, eventually taking mankind's place.
The scientist warns anyone who finds the recording that their only hope is to stay in the control room, and wait for the rescue team from someplace called Delta 2. The bikers realize there are still other people like them under the Earth, and that there just might be some hope left.
Just then, the rats begin to break through. Kurt tells Chocolate and Video to barricade themselves behind the computer console. He and Deus, the other surviving biker, will try and hold the door.
At the same time, a group of silent, mysterious men in yellow contamination suits emerge from the sewer tunnels. They begin methodically sweeping the streets and spraying poison gas.
Back at the control room, the door finally gives way. A literal rain of rats falls on Deus and Kurt, and as Chocolate and Video watch, both men are devoured. Chocolate begs Video to kill her. Before he can do it, the rats begin to leave. Video realizes there is gas coming in through the door. He quickly puts two and two together, realizing the men from Delta 2 must have arrived to rescue the dead scientists.
They make their way to the street, passing out from the fumes, but rapidly coming to with the men in the contamination suits surrounding them. As Video and Chocolate are thanking them, the one in the lead removes his mask, revealing the face of a giant, mutated rat.
It's an Italian horror film. Even money says they spent more of the budget on gore effects than they did on things like "safety rigging" and "standby medical personnel" for the stunt sequences.
Plenty of rat-chewed corpses get graphic close-ups, and there are two sequences involving rats ripping their way out of dead bodies—once with explosive results.
On that note, a special call-out has to be made here. While nothing as graphic as Cannibal Holocaust's infamous "tortoise scene" occurs here, some of the shots will leave animal lovers unsettled. Mattei wasn't shy about throwing live rats at his screaming, thrashing actors, or keeping them near his flaming stuntmen.
I didn't pick out any obvious injuries or deaths among the film's furry costars. But consider yourselves forewarned.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
For a micro-budget pastapocalypse movie, Rats: Night of Terror actually makes a respectable showing here. Yeah, the abandoned village is in suspiciously good shape. But it's suitably moody and atmospheric. Mattei manages to make it feel abandoned.
Credit where it's due. In a movie that does so much wrong, the set design stands out as something it manages to get right.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
None in evidence. In fact, the recording from the dead Delta 2 scientist is the only evidence of any kind of society, dystopian or otherwise.
Of the film's many weaknesses, this might be the biggest. Without any rival groups of humans to fight, there's frustratingly little for our mostly interchangeable bikers to struggle against. The movie is trapped into trying to paint the rats as a formidable and fearsome threat.
Unfortunately, this has the side-effect of making the bikers look like complete idiots.
I suppose some drama could have been milked from showcasing their struggle to find supplies, but that ship sails in the second or third sequence, when they find a giant stash of food, a functioning greenhouse, and a nearly-endless supply of purified water.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None, but I can't really say the film suffers for it. It's a simple survival tale, with a tight focus on a single gang of rovers. Sports, bloody or otherwise, would have made the story meander worse than it already does.
On the other hand, maybe a little athletic activity would have helped these guys, considering one of them died of "not being able to open a sleeping bag."
Barbarian Hordes -
The main characters, at least according to the lore the film shovels onto us in the opening crawl.
If so, then good news! The apocalypse of Rats: Night of Terror must not be so bad. Any atomic wasteland these guys could survive has to be pretty much devoid of any real dangers.
Kurt's biker gang is the sorriest bunch of barbarians to ever pillage a wasteland. Their juvenile banter and vapid characterization makes them come across more like a roving band of detention hall middle schoolers than a group of hardened survivors. They display all the survival instincts of a Hell-bound snowball, splitting up and wandering off alone at regular intervals, leaving their transportation and weapons out in the street, and not bothering to post any sentries while the rest of them sleep.
Also, they manage to get outwitted and overpowered by a pack of semi-intelligent rats.
Badass Warrior Women -
You'd think a movie featuring four punked-out post apocalyptic nomad women would have at least one tough enough to earn a nod here.
Wastelanders, you'd be wrong.
All of the women in this movie spend their time screaming at the sight of the rats, freezing in panic, and waiting for the barely-competent men to save them. It might not be so jarring if I didn't just watch The Blood of Heroes. But man... Kidda and Big Cimber would break these girls in half.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
The "regular" rats are the example with the most screen time, being the product of nuclear radiation. But the prize here goes the ridiculous, giant human/rat-things from the ending scene. I don't normally like to repeat myself with screencaps, but seriously...
Just look at this fuckin' thing:
What can I even say about this movie? It almost feels like a cheat to say Rats: Night of Terror defies analysis, but damn if I'm not tempted.
George A. Romero is as obvious an influence here as George Miller. Rats could almost be seen as Mad Max meets Night of the Living Dead, featuring the least intimidating bikers culled from Dawn of the Dead's b-roll footage.
As far as antagonists go, the rats just aren't intimidating. This is doubly true of the Mutant Rat Man at the end. Rather than a snarling, terrifying monster, it looks like the lovable host of a PBS children's show. When your big monster reveal would be more at home on Reading Time With Randy Rat than in an atomic wasteland, you messed up big.
On that note, the "twist" ending makes no sense.
Moments before the big reveal, Video asks the Mutant Rat Men if they're from Delta 2. The lead Mutant Rat Man nods his head. The implication is that the scientist on the recording was also a Mutant Rat Man.
That more or less squares up with the opening crawl, which indicates there are two races of man, now. And the Mutant Rat Man scientists being attacked and devoured by the "regular" rats also makes sense, given the movie goes through great pains to remind us over and over again how territorial rats are. Repeated hints are dropped that rats can smell when an "outsider" rat enters their territory, and the scientist on the recording mentions the rats only started attacking them when they removed their environmental protection suits.
But if that's the case, who the hell came in and poisoned the Mutant Rat Man scientists? The last lines on the recording are clearly "They're here! Their poison! Ah..."
So were the scientists on the recording supposed to be humans, then? Was the Mutant Rat Man just being an asshole when he indicated they came from Delta 2?
Whatever the intention, I'm pretty sure I'm giving this more thought than the writer or director did.
The Rad Rating:
Rats: Night of Terror just barely avoids the lowest possible rating. Some creepy atmosphere and set design are the film's only major saving graces. The action always moves, which is probably another point in its corner, all things considered. But the action is nonsensical at best, and highlights just how incompetent and useless the "heroes" are.
As such, stakes and tension are nonexistent. The only real tension you can milk out of this one is wondering if any of the rats were injured or killed in real life. And that's frankly the kind of "thrill" most viewers can do without. Myself included.
Bottom line, if you're in the mood for Italian b-movie awesomeness, there are plenty of other pastapocalypse films out there. Nearly all of them are more deserving of your time and attention than Rats: Night of Terror.
Give this one a miss, Wastelanders.
Until next time.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.