THE EXCELLENT EIGHTIES: Savage Journey (1983)

This movie made this entire month worth it.

That’s because it unlocks another part of the saga that is my fascination with the utterly strange and mysterious Night Train to Terror, a movie that I have written about more than once.

While this movie is listed on IMDB as a 1983 made for TV movie, the truth is that this movie was originally released six years earlier as Brigham. I love this comment on the movie from Mormon Literature and Creative Arts, which stated that the film came about as David Yeaman wanted to “create a film billed as authentic and sympathetic to the LDS view. Top Hollywood brass was involved, primarily Oscar-winning screenwriter Philip Yordan, and the LDS public grew excited to finally see themselves depicted accurately on screen.”

Oh man. Let’s take a break from this quote just to remind everyone who Phillip Yordan was. In The Phillip Yordan Story, a Hollywood urban legend is just part of his legend. It was claimed that Yordan hired someone else to go through law school for him so that he could get a degree without doing the work.

While Yordan is the listed writer on nearly a hundred movies, including DillingerDetective Story and Broken Lance*, the jury is out on what films he actually wrote. Some believe that many of the movies he wrote were actually a front for blacklisted writers, who still wanted to make films, giving Yordan all the credit and half the paycheck.

In the late 1950s, Yordan finally got caught. He mixed up two scripts, delivering a Fox script to Warner Brothers and vice versa. Seeing as how he was under contract at Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck threatened to get him blackballed at all the major studios. A few years later, his secretary would claim that she was the real writer of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and things got so bad that Columbia demanded that he have an office on their lot where they could watch him write, guaranteeing that he was the author. Despite this new contract, he was still hustling scripts at other studios and was fired and forced to return his paycheck. This time, he really was told you’ll never eat lunch in this town again.

Yordan then showed up in Spain, working for Samuel L. Bronston, using folks like Ray Bradbury, Ben Barzman Arnaud D’Usseau, Julian Halevy and Bernard Gordon, who really wrote The Day of the Triffids, not Yordan.

By the mid 60s, he was back in Hollywood, a survivor of everything from being blackballed to going bakrupt, working as a script doctor on movies like Horror Express — also a horror movie set on a train — and Psychomania.

At the end of his life, he worked as an adjunct screenwriting instructor at San Diego State University and was writing scripts for movies like The UnholyMarilyn Alive and Behind Bars (which is also part of Night Train to Terror), Cataclysm (ditto), Cry Wilderness and this movie.

Back to our friends at Mormon Literature and Creative Arts, who wrote that “Unfortunatley, when released, Brigham proved a critical fiasco. It was criticized for poor acting, incomprehensible chronology, sensationalized violence, incredibly poor casting, lack of dramatic focus, and even for recycling wagon train footage from earlier films like Brigham Young itself. The film was quickly withdrawn, reedited, and re-released early the following, billed as The New Brigham. Similar attempts at repackaging continued as it was apparently again revamped and christened Savage Journey a few years later (perhaps to parallel the 1983 handcart film Perilous Journey). Despite this, Brigham remained a critical flop, and modern Mormons, if they remember it all, do so with humor or derision.”

Yes, this was a movie that Yordan made specifically for the Mormon Chuch and along the way, he brought director Tom McGowan, who — yes, you got it — also directed Cataclysm, and Richard Moll, who would star in that film and Marilyn Behind Bars. Seeing as how both movies are segments in Night Train, it gets really disconcerting watching Moll have hair, not have hair and be played by a double with astoundingly hairy arms.

Other actors who appear in both films include Maurice Grandmaison, who plays Brigham Young himself and Papini, the homeless Catholic priest who attempts to help the heroine Claire Hansen; Stephen Cracroft, Phineas in this one and a first AD on Night Train; Lou Edwards, Brother Becker in Mormon times and a production manager on Night Train; Faith Clift, who was Claire Rudley in this movie and appears as Claire Hansen in Night Train (she was also Yordan’s wife, showing up in his movies Captain ApacheHorror Express and Cry Wilderness); an uncredited Marc Lawrence (yes, the very same man who made Pigs and appears in Night Train as Abraham Weiss) and most importantly, Yordan’s son Byron, who is the song and dance man doomed to die on Satan’s Cannonball, but not before he sings “dance with me, dance with me” more times than you can count.

I’m astounded that this film exists. Actually, I’m so into the fact that Yordan did, a flimflam man who claimed to have never read a newspaper before the age of fifty, yet somehow was a lawyer who became an Oscar-winning writer, a producer and the connection between so many movies that are just plain strange.

So how’s the movie?

Moll, who used the named Charles Moll for this film, sums up Savage Journey best in the movie The Work and the Story, saying “All independent films suck, all Mormon films suck, and, ergo, an independent Mormon film must royally suck.”

*A movie he won an Best Original Story Oscar for, despite it being a remake of 1949’s House of Strangers and the fact that he probably didn’t write a single word of the actual script.

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