ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of Sam’s favorite movies and he can and will take any opportunity to talk about it. Read his article about it.
Exploitation films and fundamentalist sermons are two genres that generally do not intersect. Exploitation cinema deals in graphic sex and violence, the things fundamentalists generally most condemn in modern media. Apparently, no one told Mississippi Baptist preacher Rev. Estus Pirkle and exploitation director Ron Ormond, who combined their dubious talents during the early 1970s to make three religious propaganda films: If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horsemen Do?, The Burning Hell, and The Believer’s Heaven. The films reflect both Pirkle’s harsh interpretation of Christianity and Ormond’s background making sleazy movies.
Pirkle was a Baptist minister based in New Albany, Mississippi. He wanted to make a film adaption of his sermon “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horsemen Do?” which warned that moral decline in the United States would inevitably lead to a Communist takeover. (The title was taken from a line in the Book of Jeremiah warning that the enemies of the present were nothing compared to the coming tribulations.) Fortunately for him, Ron Ormond had recently converted to evangelical Christianity after he and his family narrowly survived a plane crash in Nashville, Tennessee. Ormond had previously been known for directing Z-grade exploitation films such as Mesa of Lost Women, Untamed Mistress and The Girl from Tobacco Row, which featured the tag line “She was a preacher’s daughter, but wild as a peach orchard hog.” As luck would have it, this filmography was splendid preparation for a film adaptation of Pirkle’s lurid sermon.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horsemen Do? opens with men in military uniforms riding horses down a dirt road. As the credits end, Pirkle, in a voice over, claims he has sources to back up every atrocity story he relates in the film, but that the film transfers their setting to America in order to “emphasize that the same things can and will happen here, if they take over.” The film goes on to intersperse scenes of Pirkle preaching to his congregation at the Locust Grove Baptist Church with graphic depictions of Communists terrorizing Americans. There is also a sub-plot about an errant congregant named Judy, played by one Judy Creech, who is led back to the straight and narrow by Pirkle’s sermon.
The most memorable thing about this cinematic sermon is its sheer brutality, which would have earned it an R if not an X rating from the MPAA had it been submitted for a rating. At the very beginning, Pirkle warns that if America does not undergo a religious revival, his listeners can expect to see bodies piled up in the street, a warning the film reinforces by show us bloody corpses, including those of children, lining the sidewalk of small-town Mississippi. The film goes on to show such edifying sequences as a group of children being forced to murder their father by dropping him via rope onto pitchforks, complete with graphic shots of the father being impaled, bloody forks, and an obese commissar laughing his head off. Communist soldiers force their way into homes in order to rape women, and children caught listening to sermons have bamboo driven into their ears, which for some reason causes them to vomit. In the film’s memorable climax, a young boy, played by Greg Pirkle, Estus’s son and later a Congressional candidate, is beheaded by a commissar after refusing to trample on a picture of Jesus. The boy’s head is shown bouncing and rolling on the ground for at least five seconds, a shot that even today would likely earn the film an NC-17 rating.
The film’s overwhelming ineptitude, however, undermines its impact. It often fails at the basics of filmmaking, a mixture of Ormond’s incompetence and the very low budget. For example, the Communist soldiers’ uniforms have obviously fake armbands. Rather than the red and gold banner favored by most Communist countries of the time period, the armbands are just white cloth with a drawn-on hammer and sickle. Even more embarrassing are the scenes where people are machine gunned. According to Ormond and Pirkle, people struck by multiple bullets aren’t shaken by the impact; they just slowly drop to their knees on the ground, then lie down. The climactic beheading of a child becomes laughable when the commissar slips into an Arkansas accent and yells “You stupid little foo’!” when the boy refuses to renounce Christ.
Its impact also suffers from the ridiculousness of Pirkle’s arguments. Among the “footmen” Pirkle claims will lead to America being taken over by Communism are sex education, Saturday morning cartoons, declines in church attendance, and dancing, which Pirkle calls “the front door to adultery.” The film makes clear that Pirkle viewed these issues in hysterical terms. For example, Pirkle apparently believed that sex education consisted of a teacher encouraging elementary school children to engage in pre-marital sex and explaining the “seven erotic zones” in women. He similarly warns of the potential of cartoons to distract parents from reading their Bibles.
The disturbing thing is, Ormond actually toned down Pirkle’s hysterical tendencies for the film. In the audio recording of the original sermon, posted on YouTube, Pirkle goes on at much greater length about the dangers of the “footmen.” In one segment, he contrasts the virtuous content of the McGuffey Reader, a nineteenth-century teaching aid that he and his father grew up with, which consisted heavily of Bible stories, and the New Our New Friends reader being used in schools of his day He dismisses the latter as being full of “Jack and the Beanstalk stuff” while claiming that one of its stories, about a squirrel receiving a nut from a little boy in a white house, was meant to indoctrinate children into socialism. To put Pirkle’s rant into perspective, the New Our New Friends reader featured the well-known “Dick and Jane” stories. Ormond even apparently persuaded Pirkle to alter the delivery of his sermon; in the original recordings, the reverend’s voice often developed a shrill quality when he got excited.
The film does feature some interesting casting, with the Arkansas commissar being played by Cecil Scaife, who was actually an important figure in the history of rock music. Scaife was the National Sales and Promotion Manager for Sun Records, where helped to promote Elvis Presley, among others. Scaife seemingly turned religious later in life, becoming involved in the gospel music scene and participating in a failed effort to ban references to drug use in music. Other members of Scaife’s family, including his daughter La Quita, also appeared in the film. Later Pirkle-Ormond collaborations also featured some interesting, albeit less savory, cast members. The Burning Hell featured two guest preachers, Dr. Jack Hyles and Rev. Bob Gray. Dr. Jack Hyles was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and his tenure was notable for numerous scandals, including having an affair with the wife of another church official. Hyles was also notable for being very controlling of his congregation, to the point that his own daughter later denounced him as a cult leader. Rev. Bob Gray of the Trinity Baptist Church died while awaiting trial on charges of capital sexual battery on children in his congregation. In interviews with the police, he openly admitted to having French kissed young girls.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? can be found in a restored version on the website of artist Nicolas Winding Refn. That said, it might be worth watching the non-restored versions on YouTube, as the poor quality of the film stock in those versions fits the seedy atmosphere of the film.