A long time ago, I took a strange trip to the future.
On a crisp fall afternoon, I found myself walking silently in a surreal post-apocalyptic landscape. It was a rocketship graveyard, filled with towering metal hulks covered in brown rust and grime. Once they had lifted men and machines into space. Now they sat silent, neglected, horribly earthbound. Thick kudzu vines crept across sealed hatches. Rivets and panels were caked in rust. These engines had been forged in giant furnaces and sent aloft on columns of smoke and fire. Now nature sought to reclaim the metals that had been wrenched from her soil. The blazing glory of these spaceships was long gone. They stood like tombstones to a forgotten dream.
(Photo credit: Stephen Lodge)
This was at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the first Alabama tourist attraction you hit driving south from Tennessee on Interstate 65. Located about an hour east of the town I grew up in, it's actually a nice, clean and endlessly optimistic place. Those historic rockets are very well-kept and power-washed on a regular basis.
This "rocket garden," as it's known, was at the time lorded over by a gargantuan Saturn V rocket, the kind that lifted Apollo missions to the moon and to this date is the only spacecraft ever to carry humans beyond Earth orbit. The giant Saturn is still there, only it's been moved inside a hangar and hangs suspended on huge brackets. Huntsville has the peculiar honor of hosting this space flight museum because of a rich aerospace history that is the pride of Alabama's high-tech corridor running from Huntsville to, well, Huntsville. These rocketeering roots stretch all the way back to 1945 when former Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, in a canny post-WWII technology power grab, was transferred to America under the auspices of Operation Paperclip. He spent decades at Huntsville's Redstone Arsenal designing numerous rockets and spacecraft, and even today his name is spoken of fondly by Alabamians, with little reference to his work for Adolf Hitler.
On the day I walked the rocket graveyard, a long ago future the calendar calls 1978, a Hollywood movie was being filmed on the site. Movie crews spent days clambering over these historic rockets, draping plastic vines and spraying them with fake rust stains that would be rinsed off later.
The day following my visit, the cameras rolled as Irish actor Richard Harris, dressed in rags as a survivor of a nuclear holocaust, wandered through this eerie scene, staring up in wonder at the spires glinting in the sun. Inside the facility, he would encounter an insane military man maintaining a dutiful watch over these broken spacecraft...
(Photo credit: Stephen Lodge)
This film is The Ravagers and I am definitely not here to tell you it's a lost gem you should seek out. In fact, I would tell you to avoid it at all costs, but it's been hard to find since its release. Until recently, the only available version was this foreign-dubbed VHS transfer segmented across YouTube. For those with $15 to throw away, a standard definition letterboxed copy is now available for $14.99 via iTunes.
As a rabid sci-fi fan, one who mowed lawns all summer to finance his own Super 8mm movies, I was desperately hoping a bona fide science-fiction classic was to be filmed near my hometown. This was just one year after the brain-altering pinballl machine called Star Wars changed my life. All I knew about The Ravagers was that it was far-future science-fiction (and 1991 did seem pretty far away at the time). Richard Harris wasn't exactly my idea of a sci-fi action star, but he had been cool in films like The Wild Geese and A Man Called Horse and gosh, that rocket graveyard I'd seen in Huntsville was grimly spectacular.
Maybe you're thinking I was just some corn-pone redneck dazzled by Hollywood bullshit. Not true. A lot of movies were filmed here, most notably Richard Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It was also well-known among Alabamians that Steven Spielberg had filmed most of Close Encounters of the Third Kind at an abandoned Air Force hangar down in Mobile. A native boy named John Badham had gone on to direct a huge hit movie and cultural touchstone called Saturday Night Fever. Plus, hell, we gave the world Gomer and Goober Pyle, fer chrissakes, two impeccable comic actors whose work still makes people laugh their asses off. Maybe we were country but we weren't fucking stupid.
You see, this was the kind of knowledge that certain people in the Deep South -- the geeks and freaks -- latched onto like a lifeline. You knew the majority groupthink in Alabama sucked. You knew there was more to life than Bear Bryant football and deep fried pig turds and rampant racism. You knew you had to get the hell out someday. Having a creative outlet was vital for those dreamers. For some of my best friends, playing music provided the refuge. For others, it was the stage. For me, it was storytelling -- short stories, movies or just plain old back porch bullshittin'.
The following year The Ravagers premiered at a local cinema. The audience was filled with locals who'd served as extras during the sweltering shoot ("You made the poster!" squealed the girlfriend of a biker-looking dude who had indeed made the poster, but then again, so had half a dozen other biker dudes and damned if I could tell 'em apart). I stood in line with friends and family and bought popcorn and felt excitement as the lights went down. It didn't last long.
There's a promising title shot, an evocative panorama of a decayed city. You keep thinking this scene or others like it will appear again, that the producers are announcing they've spent some serious money on visual effects. But no, it turns out this was just a nice Matthew J. Yuricich matte painting recycled from the Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
We encounter Harris foraging for food in a decrepit steel mill called Sloss Furnace in nearby Birmingham. He looks dashing and earnest but is sorta sleepwalking (or maybe sleep drinking) his way through the movie. He's followed by some shady-looking bad guys called Ravagers. Harris and his pretty girlfriend are attacked and she's raped and killed. Soon after Harris kills one of them in revenge and the rest of the gang sets out to take their revenge on his revenge.
In less than 15 minutes, I was shifting restlessly in my seat. I felt in my bones this grim low-budget effort was a stale, misguided and very boring movie. Not even the added presences of screen stalwarts like Ernest Borgine, Woody Strode and Art Carney could compensate for the unimaginative script.
I'd seen plenty of bad movies but this was experience was different. I was mad at this movie like I'd never been before. What pissed me off the most was the rocket graveyard scene. It could've been glorious and haunting. I know because I walked the set. You can watch it here on YouTube at about the 11-minute mark. It's sad to see that director Richard Compton lacked the visual instincts to make the most of this creepy set-piece. It's fantastic production value he just pisses away.
For example, he pans past that gigantic Saturn V rocket so quickly there's no real sense of its immense scale. I've walked all around the thing and it's jaw-droppingly huge. It's how scuba divers must feel when they encounter a blue whale. Compton zips the camera past plenty of other nifty spacecraft and a couple of lunar buggy prototypes that are actually pretty cool. None of this neat stuff registers on the retina longer than a second or two. For a movie that plods along like a geriatric coupon-shopper in the Wal-mart discount aisle, this is the one place where Compton should've slowed the pace and lingered on those haunting rocketships. It wouldn't have saved the movie, but at least it would've been a nice scene.
As I watched the movie, an angry and exciting thought dawned on me: I could've shot this better on my Super 8mm! Despite the countless terrible movies I'd endured up to this point in time, that particular subversive thought had never crossed my mind. You see, I'd always been inspired by movies whose magic I knew I'd never be able to match. You could always see the strings on my spaceships. My laser beams were lumpy animated blobs, the best I could do using single-edge razors to scratch emulsion from a series of film frames. But this lost rocket garden opportunity was different.
(An aside: Director Compton had churned out several notable grindhouse movies, notably the hugely profitable 1974 exploitation flick Macon County Line [produced by and starring Max Baer, Jr., better known as hillbilly boy Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies]. In the 1970s, independent movie distribution was a often regionally-driven system and the right kind of cheap movie could rake in millions of dollars. 1973's Walking Tall, a rowdy serving of deep-fried Southern justice, was one such movie. It played in a local theater for well over a year because each weekend saw sell-out audiences. After The Ravagers, Compton would spend most of his career directing TV, including the pilot movie for the 1990s sci-fi series Babylon 5, a show I admire but whose pilot I advise all but the most forgiving viewers to skip.)
(Another aside: Years later, I would pay another visit to a movie filming at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The 1986 ABC Motion Pictures production Space Camp lensed there. Several friends served as extras and I was on-set in official capacity from Starlog Magazine, for whom I provided a set report. It's a lightweight family picture, one whose release date was delayed because of the Challenger disaster, but if you want a better look at those same rockets [gleaming and well-washed this time], it's got 'em.)
(Yet one more damn aside: Recently another post-apocalyptic movie was filmed in Huntsville: 20 Years After (titled Like Moles, Like Rats when I saw it screened here in LA). It's an odd and sometimes ponderous film, but visually interesting, especially for its budget. And when compared to dreck like The Ravagers, it comes off like Citizen Kane. The filmmakers are hungry and they're actually chasing something, even if they're not clear on what that is. This film doesn't use the U.S. Space & Rocket Center as a locale, but does make great use of other places you see in The Ravagers, especially the cavernous rock quarry at historic Three Caves.)
(Photo credit: Stephen Lodge)
(Okay, this is the last damn aside, at least until the next one: Apparently the source material for The Ravagers' screenplay is a novel called Path to Savagery by Robert Edmond Alter, a minor pulp fiction writer. I've never been able to locate a copy so I can't comment further. But sometime in the 1980s I read the "Cape Canaveral" cycle of short stories by British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard. In these tales, he paints a dystopic and pessimistic future where mankind's greatest endeavors are left to rust and crumble in a ruined world. The rocket graveyard I walked was a fully-realized imagining of what Ballard was reaching for. It explained clearly the sense of being haunted I got from walking the set. A future had died here.)
The only piece of notable writing I've been able to find online about The Ravagers is this J.R. Taylor article for a Birmingham-based alt-weekly. It's a witty and informative story. And here's a local news station's lamentable look back at a major motion picture that nobody really remembers.
So why the hell am I writing about an artistically inept piece of shlock like The Ravagers? Because it gave me the chance to walk through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Because it put me, for the first time, but definitely not the last, dead-center on the set of a Hollywood production. Because it taught me that nobody sets out to make bad art on purpose. You plan and hope and work your ass off and pray it turns out well. I'm sure everybody working on this movie had the best of intentions.
It also got me thinking that despite our desire to imagine futures, these sci-fi visions don't really predict anything. It's not a failing, mind you, they just don't work that way. You might as well blame a hammer for not being a telephone. At best, these imagined futures act like mirrors that reveal interesting things we're experiencing at that very moment. In the 1970s, America had plenty of bleak moments: the oil crisis, Watergate, the sour hangover from 1960s idealism that didn't exactly pan out. There was lots of ugly urban violence (New York City, Detroit, etc.) and people generally felt afraid. They had shit-all hopes for the human race.
That's why this particular decade produced films like The Ravagers. And The Omega Man and Soylent Green and Logan's Run and A Boy and His Dog and and Peter Fonda's little-seen Idaho Transfer and Walter Hill's The Warriors and ...
Oh hell, that gets depressing quickly, doesn't it? Let's just look at another picture of post-apocalyptic sexpot (and soon to be Harris' ex-wife) Ann Turkel ...
When pulling together my scattered memories of The Ravagers, it was the image of that damned beautiful and haunting rocket graveyard that beckoned me. They couldn't fly anymore but something specific and tangible launched from my imagination that day: the knowledge that I could pick up a camera or a pencil and create something just as real, as visionary, as far-fetched as anything I was seeing in pop culture. With my home-brewed comic books, my first fledgling short stories and plays, with the Super 8mm movies I was making, I was already doing that. But when I saws The Ravagers, the end result was such an absolute failure that I found myself motivated for the first time not by awe and wonder but by anger and frustration. Dude, your music fucking sucks! Gimme that damn guitar!
That's a wonderful and terrifying power, and it's got to be central for anybody who's ever tried to create. You have to believe you can do better than what's out there. Otherwise, why even try? It's an ethos that forms the molten core of punk rock. It's cocky and undisciplined and its best creations will never be refined, just explosive. The most useful tools are those you teach yourself how to use.
Something else was happening in 1979 that would resonate hugely with all these frustrated yet inspired creative vibes ringing through my body. On the other side of the globe in a faraway land called Russia, another celluloid vision was being unspooled on movie screens. Like The Ravagers, it featured grimy, rag-clad figures walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape, searching for a paradise they'd never find.
That film is called Stalker. And it would turn out to haunt me just as much, if not more, than those dead rockets ever did.
That's what I'll talk about in the second and final part of this post.
(I promise, all of this is leading somewhere. I think.)