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Friday, April 25, 2014

Damnation Alley

20th Century Fox released in October of 1977 a film which they had hoped would have been the memorable sci-fi epic of the year. Damnation Alley (DA) had a big budget, some known actors, and a story developed from the traditional Atomic Angst mythos. The tale is essentially a post-apocalyptic survival road trip. What Fox had not counted on when they started the project in 1976, was George Lucas releasing Star Wars in May ’77, just a few months ahead of their 'epic'. When it hit the theaters, DA was instantly a pair of dockers at a tuxedo wedding. George Peppard plays Major Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays Tanner. Both are actually co-stars to the real star of the film, The Landmaster armored personnel carrier.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Major Denton (Peppard) and Lt. Tanner (Vincent) arrive at an Air Force missile base in California, for their shift in the deep launch control room. While they’re going through their checklist, the radar lights up with dozens of incoming missiles, each headed for a US city. Interceptor missiles are launched. Denton and Tanner launch theirs. Only 40% of the hostile missiles are intercepted, so most US cities are destroyed. In fact, the whole country is laid waste. Atomic storms rage in the atmosphere. The earth is tipped off its axis, so freakish storms wrack the wasteland. Due a technician falling asleep with a lit cigarette, in the room where explosives are stored, most of the base is blown up. The survivors, Denton, Tanner, Lt. Perry and Airman Keegan set out in two jazzed up 12-wheel personnel carriers: Landmaster One and Landmaster Two. Their objective is Albany, NY which is the source of a repeating taped message. During tornado storm, Landmaster Two is wrecked and Lt. Perry killed. Keegan joins Denton and Tanner. They stop in Las Vegas for some pointless playing of slot machines. There, they meet Janice, who thought she was the last person on earth. The four of them set out, bound for Salt Lake City, to find fuel. When they get there, they find out there are killer cockroaches. Tanner and Janice barely escape on a dirt bike. Keegan does not. He is eaten. The three set out east again. They find an orphan pre-teen named Billy, who is very good at throwing rocks. He thought he was the last person alive too. The four set out again. They come upon a remote gas station. When they scout for fuel and supplies, they are captured by four ‘mountain men’ with guns. They want Janice for their ‘comfort’. In some quick action, the mountain men are defeated and/or killed. Denton blows up the gas station with some missiles. After a couple of montages meant to depict long travels, they come to Detroit. The Landmaster has mechanical trouble. Denton needs semi-truck parts to fix it. While salvaging the parts in a junkyard, an even stranger storm blows in. They all huddle in the Landmaster as flood waters crash in. The Landmaster is tossed, but floats, Ark-like on the angry waves. The skies clear to a normal blue. Eventually, they spot their version of Mount Ararat. They land in bucolic northern lake country. Their radio crackles a non-recorded message from Albany. Everyone is excited. Tanner and Billy race ahead on the dirt bike and are greeting with hugs from a community of survivors. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Fans of Atomic Angst films can appreciate the big-budget effort to show the post-apocalypse after a nuclear World War III. The first 15 minutes of the film actually present a good drama of what the opening minutes of that sort of war might be like. The Landmaster machine itself is the real star of the film. It cannot help but appeal to a viewer’s inner little boy. (more on that below)

Cultural Connection
Anti-War Vogue — An occasional subtext running through DA is the 70s-contemporary ‘disdain’ for all things military. Both the Tanner and Keegan characters are disgruntled airmen who quickly resign after WWIII. Tanner is the archetypal youth who loathes authority figures. This was a popular meme in the day. This was undermined by the fact that the authority figure (Denton) saves Tanner’s butt several times. In one bit of exposition, the Keegan character gives the 70s-trendy monologue about how people should never fight wars, but just stay home and make babies. The mountain-men scene pretty well explains why the youthful-naive sentiment doesn't pan out.

Based on the Book — Based, but only lightly. Roger Zelazny wrote a novella in 1967, entitled “Damnation Alley”. This, he expanded to a novel in 1969. The basic plot for the film was developed by Lukas Heller. Heller kept the basic premise of a nuclear-war-ravaged world and a cross-country trip in a jazzed up vehicle. He also kept the main character’s name of Tanner. From there, Heller’s script diverged. In the book, Hell Tanner is criminal, bribed with a promise of a pardon, if he will drive across the inhospitable middle of the country (called Damnation Alley) to bring a serum to plague-ravaged Boston. Heller has survivors of the war emerge and go across country in search of survivors in Albany. Tidbits that Heller kept include: Tanner being a motorcycle occasionally, a storm damaging one of the other vehicles, a stop in Salt Lake City, finding a lone woman, and a quasi-idyl outside of Albany. What Heller changed? It’s a team driving across, not a lone convict. He added the killer cockroaches and the mega-flood. He also turned Albany into the rosy destination. Zalazny had Tanner complete his mission, but fade away anti-climactically. Where the movie DA was not too highly received by the critics, Zelazny’s book had its critics too, who thought it read like a flat B-movie. (though one might ask why that’s a bad thing.)

Suped-Up Star — The real star of DA is the Landmaster. Make note of how much screen time the Landmaster gets. (a lot) Surprising, in the era of virtual-everything via CGI, the big 12-wheeled behemoth was an actual, functioning vehicle. It was built for the movie by Dean Jeffries of Jeffries Automotive. A single big gasoline engine drove two axles, each
equipped with a triad of wheels which could rotate about the axle. The Landmaster did not have brakes, however. The driver had to use downshifting to slow down. It was steered by hydraulics bending it in its middle, like a big loader. Watch the driving scenes and you will see the stretchy fabric between front and rear halves wrinkle occasionally, as the unit articulates. A small model was made of the Landmaster, for the flood scene, but the unit floating in calm water and paddling to shore via its wheeled triads, is the real unit. The Landmaster cost $350,000 to build, so there was only one made. One suspects that Fox invested so much in a single huge prop, expecting there to be a television series or sequels. None came. The Landmaster itself got a few bit parts in other projects, but languished for the most part. It is said to still be in California someplace, either restored, or undergoing restoration.

On The Beach, On Land — The faint repeating radio signal, and the all-out quest to see if there are any other survivors of the holocaust, is strongly reminiscent of On The Beach (’59). Where OTB was a dour tale of doom unaided, DA turns it into a happy story with the seekers finding happy survivors.

Sappy Handy Ending — Critics of the film usually agree that the ending was too handy, and too sappy. Denton sets up the foreshadowing when he tells Billy how the earth is all nasty and stormy because the nukes tilted it on its poles. If it could just right itself, everything would return to normal. Why Denton believed that, was never explained. But, sure enough, while they’re in Detroit, a mega storm (and subsequent flood) somehow cleanse the Earth of all unrighteousness. The skies clear. The storms abate. Overnight, stately spruce trees line the wetland shores. Then, once they make contact with Albany, they find a bucolic landscape of rural horse farms, quaint farmhouses and white painted fences. Even for scriptwriter Alan Sharp (who did most of the dialogue, not the plot), Heller’s plot was a little too “Norman Rockwell”.

Star Gazing — Those who watched too much television in the 80s will recognize George Peppard as “Hannibal” from The A Team. His faux-southern accent fades in and out, providing more distraction than color. Jan Michael Vincent starred in many films as the hunky and clean “rebel” youth. HIs Tanner comes across obstinant than hearing a different drummer. A couple of minor cast notes: Jackie Haley, who plays young Billy, would go on to play Freddy Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street. Seamon Glass, who plays one of the rapacious “mountain men” at the gas station, was the star-crossed deputy in This Is Only A Test (’62)

Bottom line? DA is a throwback to the old fashioned narrative of nuclear apocalypse. it even has some big bugs (scorpions, cockroaches) to keep up the 50s tradition. The story is moderately entertaining enough to pass the 90s minutes. For the pre-CGI world, the sets and effects were pretty big. The Landmaster is just plain cool. If George Lucas has not blown away the old Atomic Angst paradigm, DA might have been remembered. As it was, however, DA was eclipsed by a galaxy far far away. DA is not great, but makes a pretty good 50s B-movie.

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