Ravagers (1979)

Editor’s Note: Once hard to find, Ravagers is now out of the vaults and airing on various Smart TV platforms.

Ravagers is the final film of the 2nd wave of post-apocalyptic films from the 1970’s (the first wave encompassed films from the ‘50s and ‘60s that began with the likes of 1955’s Day the World Ended and 1963’s The Last Man on Earth and ended with 1968’s Planet of the Apes) that began with Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man in 1971 and solidified with Heston’s next film, 1973’s Soylent Green. (The third wave of post-apoc films began with 1979’s Mad Max, then solidified with 1981’s Escape from New York; which begat the knock offs from Italy and the Philippines.)

As with Planet of the Apes (based on Pierre Boulle’s 1964 Monkey Planet), The Omega Man (Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend), Soylent Green (Harry Harrison’s 1966 Make Room! Make Room!), and Damnation Alley (Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel), Ravagers was a long-in-development film based on another best-selling, ‘60s science fiction novel: 1966’s Path to Savagery by Robert Edmond Alter.

And as with those book-to-screen adaptations — especially in the case of Damnation Alley — the final celluloid product barely resembled its popular, best-selling source material. And as with Oliver Reed’s Z.P.G, Yul Brenner’s The Ultimate Warrior, Sean Connery’s Zardoz, Jackie Cooper’s Chosen Survivors, Paul Newman’s Quintet, and George Peppard’s Damnation Alley, Ravagers was also buried by its distributor (in this case, Columbia Pictures) after its less than stellar critical and box office performance: it was hoped each film would match the success of Heston’s films. (Yep, you guess it: Ravagers was in desperate need of dump truck-bulldozer hybrids scooping up humans and Anthony Zerbe thespin’ with sclera-lenses from under a monk’s habit.)

In addition, these failed, ‘70s A-List apoc-films rarely — if at all — were redistributed as 2nd feature-undercards on the Drive-In after their initial run, and each were a rare find on television. Even during the early ‘80s cable television boom, with the “Superstations” of TBS-Atlanta, WGN-Chicago, WOR-New York, and the USA Network, and the burgeoning VHS home video market — both formats hungry for product to fill their airtime and store shelves — the films were wholly absent from the marketplace. Ravagers did see a release on Betamax and VHS in the mid- ‘80s (now highly coveted by VHS collectors; it doesn’t appear as an entry in any U.S-published VHS guides), but in the U.K and Europe only. For whatever creative or legal reasons, it seems Columbia didn’t want — or couldn’t allow — the film to be viewed by U.S audiences.

Now, with the explosion of the present day online/digital “television” platforms, Ravagers is commercially available worldwide for the first time in forty years. While there’s no free copy offered in the extensive library at TubiTV, the film is available for a nominal fee on You Tube and Vudu — with retro-prices that harkens the VHS rental fees of the ‘80s. It’s also available for rent on cable television system VOD platforms for about the same price.

Excelling at writing war-projects, screenwriter Donald Sanford made his theatrical debut, after a long career in U.S television, with Submarine X-1 (1968), and received praises for his work on Midway (1976; directed by Damnation Alley’s Jack Smight). While it’s unknown why Sanford retired from the industry—perhaps as result of its critical and box office failure — Ravagers was his final film; he transitioned to a career as an executive in the mining industry. Ravagers also became the final theatrical directing job for Richard Compton, who had box office success with the biker flick Angels Die Hard (1970) and Macon County Line (1974). He “retired” into a prolific television directing career.

Nothing like have a dog bark at your movie to induce you to retire (more on that, later).

As is the case with most apocalyptic films (unlike Blade Runner, which built its “world” from scratch), Ravagers, shot for the then major studio “low budget” price of $4 million, made use of preexisting structures (as did 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which also took place in “1991” via 20th Century Fox’s “Century City” complex) to create its “future.” So, again . . . we’re in another future world . . . that looks pretty much like our present day. And speaking of Planet of the Apes, and the art of economic “repurposing” in film: Astute science fiction fans will notice the matte painting that the opening titles are show over in the beginning of the film is the same matte painting seen by the ape army in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

It’s that repurposing — and perhaps Sanford’s interest and connection to the mining industry — that led to the film’s stellar production values. The film is rife with majestic, rusted processing facilities, while other scenes were shot at the infamous “Three Caves Quarry,” which is noted as one of Alabama’s first limestone quarries that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, was slated to be used as a fallout shelter. Alabama’s Space and Rocket Center — again, repurposing preexisting architectural structures to save money — also served as a backdrop.

As with most post-apoc adventures, Ravagers is a futuristic-western featuring a peaceful protagonist out for revenge against those who upended his life: in this case, the rape and murder of Falk’s wife Miriam (Alana Hamilton, the wife of George Hamilton and, later, musician Rod Stewart; she made her debut in Evil Knievel and appeared in Roger Corman’s Night Call Nurses). Taking place in 1991 in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, the fallout mutated most of the world’s population into cannibalistic creatures known as “The Ravagers” (actually just homeless-looking humans with a nasty disposition) that hunt the unaffected survivors, known as “The Flockers.” (The Ravagers are led by prolific character actor Anthony James, who made a niche-career playing slimy-greasy characters in the films High Plains Drifter (1973), Burnt Offerings (1976), and Blue Thunder (1983), as well as countless U.S TV series.)

Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse, Juggernaut) is Falk; he ventures into the wastelands to dispense vigilante justice (just like in a Clint Eastwood western, such as Unforgiven (1983) — which stars Anthony James in his final film). Along the way, Falk befriends a crackpot army sergeant (Art Carney; Roadie, Harry and Tonto) and a strong and sassy scavenger (as all apoc-females are), Faina (played by Harris’s real-life wife, Ann Turkel). Together they find sanctuary in a peaceful community led by Rann (Ernest Borgnine, Escape from New York; while top-billed, he’s in the film less than 10 minutes) living on a rusted-out ship anchored off shore — that is subsequently destroyed by the Ravagers. Falk reluctantly becomes the survivors’ new leader as they embark on a quest to find a mythical safe haven: the Land of Genesis.

While visually stunning — and Anthony James, as usual, delivers the goods — the pompous judgment-diction of a woefully miscast Richard Harris makes you wonder when he’s going to pick up a skull and start evoking Shakespeare and pine for Esmeralda. And in the grand tradition of apoc-romps such as Def-Con 4 and Damnation Alley substituting action for talky-philosophical babbling of the “why we’re here and what are we gonna do now” variety, Ravagers moves like a gimp turtle being beaten by a snail.

Like with the earlier apoc-romps The Ultimate Warrior and Damnation Alley, Ravagers isn’t a total waste of time . . . it’s just that it could be so much better. Regardless of its shortcomings, I hold the film in high regard due to the memories of my late father taking me to see it at the local Drive-In (it didn’t play in theatres; and it was gone by next the weekend). My dad hated Ravagers; then again, he hated Soylent Green, Rollerball, and Damnation Alley for having “too much talking and not enough action” and, in a way, pops was right. There was a lot of yakity-yak in those films.

But my dad didn’t hate it as much as Gene Siskel of PBS-TV’s Sneak Previews. Roger Ebert’s svelte sidekick chose Ravagers as his “Dog of the Week” (well, actually Spot the Wonder Dog picked it; you can forward to 2:29 for the “ravaging” review). And Siskel’s review killed the film: For when a canine barks at your $4 million dollar gorilla, telling you it’s a “dog” . . . you quickly pull the big ape from release, cancel the rollout to additional U.S screens, cancel your overseas theatrical schedule, and quietly release the beast years after the fact to video in Europe. Why release it on U.S video, only to have reviewers dredge up Spot the Wonder Dog in reviews all over again? Nuked by a dog: now that’s an apocalypse!

. . . And that’s, my apoc-rats, is the story of Ravagers.

Oh, and if you absolutely must have more Ann Turkel (yes, please!) working alongside her then-husband Richard Harris, you can check out their first three movies together: 99 and 44/100% Dead! (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and Golden Rendezvous (itself a long-in-development novel-to-screen project optioned in 1962 and not made until 1977). But here, at B&S Movies, we love Ann for Roger Corman’s amphibian-monster Alien rip-off, Humanoids from the Deep.

Sorry, Ms. Turkel. We know you probably want to forget that one. Along with Ravagers.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.

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