Wed, April 16, 2014

Disaster on Morris Avenue

In 1979, Hollywood came to Birmingham to film Ravagers, a post-apocalyptic tale with a star-studded cast that you’ve (rightfully) never heard of.

Richard Harris walks down Morris Avenue, here doubling as a post-apocalyptic landscape. (click for larger version)

January 10, 2008

"1991," proclaimed the movie poster for 1979's Ravagers. "Civilization Is Dead."

In smaller print underneath: "Violence, hunger and horror are rampant . . . There is no law! All that are left are bands of RAVAGERS." You could see the evil ravagers right there in the poster, groping a woman and brandishing guns and looking very bad against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Morris Avenue.

Ravagers would be the biggest Hollywood production that Birmingham saw at the end of the 1970s. The film was pretty much doomed, too. Star Wars had dominated 1977. It was a surprise hit—especially for the executives at 20th Century Fox, who thought Damnation Alley would be their sci-fi hit of the year.

The ravagers look like the Marshall Tucker Band marching to an audition for The Road Warrior.
That tale of post-nuke survival bombed. Space operas were in, apocalyptic mayhem was out. Ravagers was filmed all over Alabama—with several days in Birmingham—but there couldn't have been much enthusiasm for the production.

In the end, the film was barely even released. Ravagers played Birmingham, of course, but not many other markets. I've never seen it shown on commercial television. There doesn't seem to have been a U.S. VHS release. Nothing seems likely on DVD, of course.

But there was a VHS tape released in England. Maybe Ravagers sold some tickets overseas. Europeans love the idea of America looking desolate. Thanks to our foreign friends (and friendly bootleggers), Ravagers still exists for viewing. Here's what the American Film Institute is forgetting to preserve.

Ravagers begins with a typical '70s matte painting of a generic post-apocalyptic world. Maybe it's left over from a Planet of the Apes movie. The credits run over a mopey theme by two-time Oscar winner Fred Karlin. You have to admire that cast, though. Richard Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Art Carney, Woody Strode—and there's even Seymour Cassel, who was then best known for amazing turns in indie films like Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

You won't recognize the director's name. I did, but that's because I'd recently watched the film Richard Compton made before Ravagers. I didn't plan things that way. You run into coincidences like that when you watch movies all the time. 1977's Ransom also had an incredible cast, including Oliver Reed, Stuart Whitman, and Deborah Raffin. It was a real mess.

Ann Turkel and Richard Harris in another scene from Ravagers, which was filmed in several Alabama locations. (click for larger version)

The matte painting fades, and there's some nature footage while our hero Falk—played by Harris—is describing the world's sorry state.

"After the disasters," he explains, "it was as if life itself nearly stopped. Everything burned. Afterward, nothing seemed to grow again. Nothing. The cities died. People looted them and ran to the seas, but the seas had died, too. Empty. And then it rained again. The land and the people were still barren. People died of disease and hopelessness. Those who could, flocked together. Others became like wolves, hunting and killing everything that moved. They were ravagers."

We cut to the ravagers. They look like The Marshall Tucker Band marching to an audition for The Road Warrior. They're heading toward Birmingham. We learn this with the next shot of Falk hanging around at Sloss Furnaces. Then we see him running across Morris Avenue. It looks as deserted as it always was on any morning back in the '70s.

There are some shattered windows and abandoned cars, and that irritating orchestral score is still around. It swells dramatically as Falk discovers two cans of food in the Slater Gun Shop. The faded signage looks authentic. Birmingham had plenty of ghost signs back then. The location scout had to be pleased with that.

Falk's fortunate find is disrupted by the ravagers, who fire a few shots at him from a building that has a ghost sign for Wilson & Sons. Falk runs back to Sloss, where the lovely Miriam is waiting for him.

"I heard a gunshot," she says. "Did you see ravagers?"

See, the movie is called Ravagers.

Falk reassures Miriam that the shots came from far away, while those proverbial ravagers are actually lurking around and checking out this domestic scene. The leader of the ravagers—let's call him Ravagers' Leader, or R.L.—turns to a compatriot: "You get him, she's yours."

Art Carney as a “half-crazed Army sergeant.” (click for larger version)

This is a great scene, because you can recognize that R.L. is played by the amazing Anthony James. He used to show up constantly in films with his gaunt build, sunken cheeks, and pockmarked face. He first creeped me out as a grinning chauffeur in 1976's Burnt Offerings. Later on, James showed off his comic talents in things like The Naked Gun series. Here, though, he's in his element as an intense '70s villain.

Anyway, Miriam—who's played by future talk-show hostess and celebrity bride Alana Stewart (aka Alana Hamilton)—is showing Falk how she's redecorated their hovel. He explains that it's all very nice, but maybe they better get out of town. He wants to head South, but Miriam wants to go to the beach.

"The—seas—are—poisoned," Falk proclaims, but that delivery is pure Richard Harris. Or maybe William Shatner.

Miriam insists there must be somewhere with children where things are growing. Then the ravagers attack before Falk can proclaim a response. Falk throws R.L. down a short flight of steps, and the bad guy screams like he's plummeting to his death. Then we see him standing up without a scratch.

Falk and Miriam are running all over Sloss Furnaces. "Behind you!" Miriam screams to her lover. The bad guy is actually in front of Falk, but Sloss can be a confusing place. The ravagers eventually capture Miriam while Richard Harris' stunt double—well, stunt dummy—is thrown off a tower.

Falk regains consciousness, and goes looking for his gal: "Miriaaaam! Miriaaaam!" He finds her dead body. That shuts him up, and he buries her under a steel plate.

Falk dresses up like a bag lady and sneaks up on the ravagers while they're partying with naked mannequins in a downtown storefront during a rainstorm. They wouldn't have to settle for mannequins if they hadn't killed Miriam. One of the ravagers enters the party with some kind of junk. "Hey," he shouts, "look what I found!" They're ravagers, you know.

R.L.'s good friend goes outside to take a piss. That's awfully civilized of him. We know that he and R.L. are very close because they share a bottle while exchanging meaningful glances. Whatever those two planned for later is cut short—along with the bad guy's throat, once Falk slashes him with a broken bottle.

R.L. discovers his fallen comrade, who manages to gasp out his dying words: "The man from the steel mill." Or maybe his last words are, "The ham from the steel mill," since R.L. takes this as a cue to do his own crazed emoting. He vows to track down Falk.

It's stopped raining by morning, and Falk is walking through one of Alabama's fine state parks. He's thinking about Miriam and how she used to ramble on about some place called Genesis. Falk finds some ears of corn, and then comes across blind man Seymour Cassel stumbling along and ranting about the law. Falk convinces Cassel to lead him back to the flockers—which is what you call a group of civilized folk who try to flock together.

They're supposed to be more civil than the ravagers, but Cassel seems to have been very unpopular. The flockers gather along a cliff and throw rocks at Falk and Cassel. They manage to kill Cassel, so that makes for a disappointing cameo.

Falk runs off and soon finds himself in Huntsville. Specifically, he's at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which has been adorned with some post-apocalyptic shrubbery. All those rockets and missiles look impressive. Falk walks around with his mouth open and runs into a crazed old military man played by Art Carney.

"This is a military installation," shouts Master Sergeant Kramer. "You're trespassing!" Then the sergeant politely explains that now he has to execute Falk. Fortunately, Falk manages to overpower the ancient nutcase. This somehow convinces Sarge that Falk outranks him, so he serves Falk up some C-rations.

Sarge then announces that he can introduce Falk to some fun flockers. They end up walking over to the same place where the blind lawyer was stoned to death. That's not a plot point. The filmmakers are just recycling locations. It seems they were stuck with a very small state park.

This leads to a long scene in a big cave that's kind of like that underground rave club in The Matrix sequels, except with hippie hillbillies who've based their culture on the Foxfire book series. It couldn't have been too hard to find local extras.

Falk falls for a hooker named Faina after he watches her set a rude creep on fire. She's played by model Ann Turkel—also known back then as Mrs. Richard Harris. Faina starts off with a Southern accent, but she loses it after her first few scenes. It was probably something that Turkel just wanted to try for a few days.

This section includes a scene where Falk explains that the world's been desolate ever since he was six years old. As noted, the ad copy for Ravagers says that the film is set in 1991. We know those "disasters"—whatever they were—had to happen after 1979. This means 48-year-old Richard Harris is playing a character who can't be more than 19 years old.

Falk hits the road while Sarge and Faina tag along. The ravagers remain on his trail, and torture those flockers for information about where he went. They somehow catch up with the threesome in a dilapidated old hotel. Actually, it looks like a Birmingham apartment complex I briefly stayed in during 1985—and, boy, was it an epic struggle of survival to get my $50 deposit back.

The ravagers are surprised to learn that Sarge has set Falk up with some semi-automatic weaponry. Falk and Faina still end up fleeing for their lives. (At least when Faina warns, "Behind you!" the bad guy is actually behind him.) Once they've escaped, Falk begins reminiscing about Sarge: "He was just a crazy old fool, right? We couldn't have saved him." Actually, we didn't even notice that Sarge got killed.

Falk and Faina then come across Woody Strode and his pals looking pretty dapper. Falk's amazed to see that they're all wearing new clothes. He hasn't noticed that Faina's been sporting a fashionable ensemble ever since she left that underground cave. It turns out that the two have walked all the way down to Mobile, where a great man called Rann—played by Ernest Borgnine—has established a small utopia on an old tanker.

Falk and Faina come aboard—joined by Sarge. We told you he probably wasn't dead. He'd been captured, and then set loose by the ravagers so they could follow him to Falk. All of that falls to the wayside as the reunited trio goes aboard Rann's miraculous ship of electric lights and plentiful food.

For some reason, a lot of Rann's followers want Falk to take them away from all this. They want him to lead them to that Genesis place. It seems like there's going to be some conflict between Falk and Rann's benevolent dictatorship—but the two have a pleasant chat over a fish dinner. Hey, the sea isn't dead anymore. Maybe that's true for the land, too. Falk decides that Rann's way of running things makes plenty of sense.

Then the ravagers attack Rann's ship because something has to end this film. R.L. is doing a pretty good job of killing Falk, but a dying Rann ruins things by blowing up the ship with a flare gun. R.L. is killed in the explosion, along with the other ravagers. Falk, Faina, and some other lucky extras survive. Naturally, they gravitate to Falk as their leader. In an inspirational moment, Falk looks out at his new followers and says, "Genesis? Well, I guess we're it."

At least Sarge has hooked up with an old lady. There's a promising sign for the future.

Then all the survivors wander aimlessly against another matte painting as the credits roll, and the filmmakers thank the Alabama Film Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard. Maybe you saw all this in a Birmingham movie theater—in which case, you're very fortunate. The film didn't play for long. Damnation Alley spent more time in Birmingham theaters. That one was filmed in Los Angeles, but it had Jan-Michael Vincent and mutant cockroaches. &

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