WHAT IS REDSPLOITATION?
From around 1950 to 1970, the American movie-going public was conditioned to see Native Americans in one light: savages with n insatiable appetite for white scalps and white women. There was no use taming the reds; the only solution was a Winchester rifle. In John Ford's classic western The Searchers, John Wayne's Ethan would rather shoot his own daughter than allow her to play house with the hated Comanche. This abuse carried over into real life too. For years, filmmakers made a cost-effective habit of transporting natives from their reservations to use as extras, paying them in alcohol and tobacco. It wasn't until revisionist westerns like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue came along that Natives graduated up to "not that bad." They were still portrayed in a negative manner, certainly, but now the Anglos shared some of that sinful spotlight. Later on, Hollywood started making films intended to invoke heavy sympathy for Native Americans including Last of the Mohicans and Academy Award rapist, Dances With Wolves. Somewhere in the grey area between the noble savage and the savage-savage lies the Redsploitation film. These gems of schlock cinema feature Natives getting off their knees and kicking white ass all over the West. The majority of these films follow a rigid formula: one hour of abusing the Native protagonist, and one hour of the Native protagonist murdering every white person who appears on screen. And like all great exploitation films, they're ridiculous in the best sense of the word. Apply your warpaint and ready the horses... it's time to unbury the hatchet. THE RANSOM (1977) Television director Richard Compton's The Ransom (aka Maniac! and The Town That Cried Terror) features an all-star cast of alcoholic character actors. The most drunk of them all? Hell-raiser Oliver Reed. The self-proclaimed "Mr. England" plays Nick McCormick, a hired gun commissioned to get rid of an Indian who's ransoming a well-to-do town for a million dollars. If the mayor doesn't pay up, the Indian will start murdering residents. The Indian goes by the traditional Native name "Victor" and is played by German-Canadian actor Paul Koslo. Makes perfect sense. McCormick gets help from local tracker named Tracker, played by James Mitchum (son of the god Robert Mitchum). There's not a ton of violence in The Ransom, but you will cheer when the annoying mayor is killed (spoiler alert). The only evidence that Victor is an actual Indian is that he is really good at swimming and hiding. In fact, he's so good at hiding that he's off-screen for about 2/3 of the movie. This one might be strictly for Redsploitation completists. SCALPS (1983) Fred Olen Ray's Scalps is not to be confused with the 1987 Scalps. That one is boring. Ray's Scalps tells the tale of six archaeology students who head out into the desert (evidently doesn't matter which one) to dig up Indian artifacts. Despite warnings from an old Indian with tremors about the evil Black Claw, the students continue their dig. And so, one of the students becomes possessed by Black Claw. We know it's Black Claw because a lion-puppet representing his spirit keeps popping up now and again. Buffalo or bison I could see, but I'm pretty sure there were never any lions in the midwest. Anyway, the lesson here is don't go digging for Indian artifacts. Their spirits hate it. THUNDER WARRIOR TRILOGY (1983 - 1987 - 1988) Italian genre artist Fabrizio de Angelis' first feature film would turn out to be the first shot in Redsploitations' most epic trilogy. In the first installment, Navajo brave Thunder (played by Italian stud Marco do Gregorio) returns from an undisclosed location (in my head it's Nam) to find his Navajo tribe in distress. Local builders are threatening to erect an observatory on a sacred burial ground, which is fucking crazy because it's an observatory. Thunder initially takes the non-violent path of protest and politely sits down in the lobby of the sheriff's office. But after he's thrown out and dragged through the desert by surly construction workers/amateur astronomers, Thunder goes to war. You'll know when he goes to war because he takes his shirt off. Thunder jumps through the window into a sporting goods store and steals a bow and arrow, bypassing the guns completely. Then he bullseyes a bunch of cops, causes some car accidents, and hides out in the desert. In the end, violence saves the burial ground. Bafflingly, Thunder Warrior was recently rereleased on DVD under the title Drug Traffikers. In part II, Thunder is a deputy sheriff for the same department that treated him as a subhuman in the first film. Pretty sweet comeuppance until he's framed by a corrupt cop for dealing heroin to the Natives and sent to prison. The guards treat him in a similar manner as the local cops, so Thunder decides to bust out. Step one: grab a guard by the nuts and steal his gun. Step two: steal a car (that's inside the yard for some reason) while dodging bullets. Step three: hit the well-placed jump at the end of the yard and soar over the prison walls. Step four: jump through the window of a sporting goods store. Step five: run past the guns. Step six: steal bows. Thunder also grabs some highly-effective explosive arrows that look like skewered dildos. One shot blows up the whole police station! Why do we even make things like that?! Thunder Warrior III is the worst of the bunch. We find our beloved brave squaring-up against geriatric mercenaries who take out a whole reservation--including Thunder's young pal Little Crow. I couldn't pick up any kind of motive behind this mass slaughter other than that they're Indians. There are only two real highlights in III: Thunder comically shoots the hat off a merc and he bunnyhops a cop car on a dirt bike. Frabrizio's trilogy is entertaining as hell albeit lacking in actual Native American anything. No lore, no magic, not even any tactics. Thunder's basically a more attractive version of Rambo. The trilogy also features Bo "Walking Tall" Svenson as the morally confused sheriff. SAVAGE HARVEST (1994) This shot-on-video flick from Eric Stanze (I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss on Your Grave) is a double-whammy as it fits nicely into the Redsploitation and Native American horror categories. A group of friends head out into the Missouri woods to help a friend clean out a cabin. Back in the 1830s, the land was settled by a group of Cherokees who broke off from the Trail of Tears. The tribe's elder summoned dark spirits that ended up destroying the whole tribe. Shit happens. The naive campers, including one descendant of the elder, find stones in the woods that summon back the elder and his demonic spirits. One by one the campers are possessed by various demon-animals (including a hilarious pig-man) as Stanze turns the gore up to 11. The film is allegedly inspired by Cherokee ghost stories told to Stanze in Missouri, and that little touch of Indian lore makes Savage Harvest more authentically Native American than most movies mentioned here. Which is weird. JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975) Director William Allen Castleman's Johnny Firecloud is the Citizen Kane of the Redsploitation genre. It's unrelenting, gory, racy, and, unlike many of its brothers, actually features some Indian-style killing. Tomahawks fly! Johnny, who has turned his back on his Native culture, returns from Nam (where I assume he fought alongside Thunder) to find his father, White Eagle, a degraded to a whimpering of entertainment for the local ranchers. They make him dance and rack their pool balls for a shot of whisky. Johnny (played by Mexican actor Victor Mohica) interrupts one of the ranchers' circle jerks and this pisses off head rancher Colby so much that he orders White Eagle be hanged. If that wasn't enough of a kick in the breechcloth, Colby shocks his daughter into having a miscarriage. Guess who the father was? That's right, Johnny knocked up Colby's daughter before heading to Nam and Colby refuses to be grandfather to a half-breed. Johnny shakes loose from the shackles of the contemporary world and decides to teach these ranchers a thing or two about street justice. By which I mean he tracks down and kills them in unique ways: tomahawk to the head, dynamite, buried up to neck and left for buzzards. Eventually he makes his way to Colby who he brutally beats until he's chased off by a ranch hand. The film ends abruptly soon after Johnny's chased off. For such a brutal film, the ending is too ambiguous to be completely satisfying, but that doesn't stop it from being the best in the genre. If you're still in the mood for Native American action after all this business, check out The Manitou (1978) and War Party (1989). Manitou is about a 400 year-old demonic shaman (Manitou) that grows out of the neck of Susan Strasberg. The shaman doesn't really do anything except "gain strength" by sitting on the ground. He is naked and has a crazy six-pack though, which makes for some silly visuals. In War Party (directed by Franc "Quadrophenia" Roddam), a reenacted battle between U.S. Cavalry and Blackfeet Indians goes awry when the use of a real gun leads to real dead Indians. Matt Dillon's weird-looking brother Kevin is in it and overall it's really entertaining. Worth a watch. PATRICK COOPER
- Vice Blog