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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Ravagers

While The Ravagers (TR) is not the second sci-fi film of 1979, it’s close, AND it is a prefect follow-up to Mad Max. Both feature post-apocalyptic settings. Both feature a protagonist who loses his wife to an evil gang. TR is more of a major Hollywood effort. It stars Richard Harris as Falk (the protagonist). Art Carney and Ernest Borgnine get supporting roles. Ann Turkel plays Faina, Falk’s eventual love-interest. Anthony James plays the sinister leader of the evil gang of Ravagers. In this post-apocalyptic world, mankind separated itself into two groups. Flockers are normal folk who band together for safety, and Ravagers who roam and prey on any and all.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Amid a desolate cityscape in ruins, Bob Falk scavenges for anything. He finds a pair of canned goods and hurries home to his wife, Marion. He is spotted by members of a Ravager gang. They follow Falk to his hidden lair. They attack and ravage/kill Marion. Falk lies in wait, and that night, kills one of the gang. He flees into the night, but the gang leader becomes obsessed with catching and killing Falk. Falk encounters one Flocker band who drive him away with thrown rocks. Through his travels, Falk remembers Marion talking of a promised land named Genesis where plants grow and people have babies. Falk thinks it is only a myth, but keeps wandering with no particular place to be other than where he was. He stumbles upon a rocket graveyard, guarded by an old (and somewhat senile) sergeant (Art Carney). From Sarge, he gets an Uzi. Sarge says he knows a Flocker group with food and women. He leads Falk there. The Flockers live in large cave (former salt mine?). They have food and supplies and like to hold hoedown dances. Falk sees a pretty brunette dancing. He tells her he has tobacco, so she takes him to her bedroom. The transaction is made. Falk tries to sneak out, but Sarge and Faina follow him. Falk wants to travel alone, but they are not cooperating. They hole up in an old country hotel. Evil Leader has followed them. His gang attacks at night. Falk and Faina flee while Sarge gives them covering fire with his M14. Sarge is not killed, however. Evil Leader keeps him. Meanwhile, Falk and Faina come upon another group of Flockers loading supplies into small boats. They convince them to let them come along. Evil Leader released Sarge, to lead the gang to Falk. Sarge goes with Falk and Faina to the Flocker base. This turns out to be a hulk tanker, grounded near shore. They too have lots of food and supplies, and a generator and diesel fuel. The Flockers are ruled by the despotic, though not very menacing Rann (Borgnine). Others ask Falk about Genesis, but he keeps saying it is only a myth. They think he is just being cagey. The Ravagers storm the ship and a sprawling, protracted brawl ensues. Rann is shot, but before he dies, he shoots a flare into a pile of munitions. Explosions ensue. One such explosion breaks up a fight to the death between Falk and Evil Leader. Falk is blown overboard. Evil Leader is burned alive. More explosions consume the ship, presumably killing the last of the Ravagers. In the morning, the refugee Flockers are on the beach. They ask Falk about Genesis. He says “I guess we’re it.” He becomes their defacto leader as they follow him and Faina off the beach. The End.

Why is this movie fun?

Cultural Connection
Bi-Polar Apocalypse — As with Mad Max, the culture of the times imagined the post-apocalyptic world as polarizing mankind into good and evil tribes. The "good" would be constructive, compassionate and civilized. The "bad" would be their polar opposite: destructive, cruel and savage. Both Ravagers and Mad Max exhibit that post-Watergate mindset where traditional authorities (government) are swept offstage as irrelevant. What remains is the rugged individualist — the lone survivor motif. The hero becomes the new authority. This seems like the nascent roots of the Gen X ethos.

Based on the Book — The script for TR was based on the 1969 novel, “Path to Savagery,” by Robert Edmond Alter. Fans of the book decry the film as deviating too far from the book (and not being as violent). Going from reviews of the book (not having read it yet), it appears that Donald Sanford’s screenplay added Falk’s wife and the promised-land notion of “Genesis.” In the book, Falk starts out as a Loner, and has a Thompson submachine gun as his equalizer. In the film, he later acquires an Uzi. Both the book and the novel have Flockers. The book’s bad guys were called Neanderthals, not Ravagers. Both novel and screenplay have Falk encounter the Flocker camp and “acquire” Faina. The book has people desperately searching for potable water. The screenplay ignored this. In the book, Rann rules over a Flocker colony in a flood-isolated department store, not a ship. The book has Rann as a more significant despot character. Falk fights his epic battle with Rann, not Evil Ravager Leader. The battle amounts to a contest for Rann’s über-desirable “queen” Lara. In the film, Lara is only briefly seen as a mousey brunette beside Rann at the table. The book has Falk (who wins, btw) eschew Lara and leadership of the colony. Instead, he sets off wandering again as a Loner, but now with Faina in tow. No Genesis.

People Want Heroes — In Mad Max, the Fifi character monologues about how, in difficult times, people want heroes. Max did not want to be that hero. Falk, similarly, is not interested in becoming a leader. Both battle evil and triumph — though Falk less by himself than Max. The remnant of Rann’s group are obviously looking for a heroic and righteous leader. Falk shows up and somewhat reluctantly accepts the mantle. “Genesis. I guess we’re it,” he says at the end. The people (hungry for a hero/leader) follow him, even though he has no idea where he is going. People in the late 70s were weary from the government corruption, scandal, and impotence (the Carter years). Clearly, “Government” was no longer seen as the leader. People hankered, instead, for a more personal (tribal level) leader they could believe in again. TR has an element of wishful thinking about personal leadership.

The Promised Land — This is a recurring trope in several post-apocalyptic films. Planet of the Apes (’68,’70) had its vague something out in the Forbidden Zone. In Glen and Randa (’71), Glen seeks a utopian Metropolis beyond the destruction. In Logan’s Run (’76), people imagined there was Sanctuary, beyond the despotic domes. In Damnation Alley (’77), beyond the atomic deserts there was Albany (which turned out to be a Norman Rockwell idyll). Somewhat akin to the 50s Seeds of Hope plot device, the 70s mythos imagined that there had to be a “better place” out there…somewhere, where things were not as bad as we all feel they are here. Falk’s wife was certain there was a real Genesis place. Falk seemed to have internalized the notion back to the personal-action level. People make their own Promised Land.

Infinite Ammo — The usual Hollywood paradigms still apply to the world in TR. In the book, Falk searches for both potable water, AND .45 caliber ammo for his Thompson. In the film, both Sergeant and Falk, fire off long bursts of gunfire — which stereotypically stitches across walls in little explosions and makes lots and lots of ricochet zing sounds. Yet, Falk is never seen carrying any other magazines or ammo. He does not search for any 9mm rounds, or finds any. Nor is he seen reloading. His Uzi just has infinite ammo. Note too, that Falk’s Uzi is pictured as having the ballistic force of a .50 caliber (or larger) weapon. It pushes bad guys through windows and sends them sailing over railings. Gun buffs argue that 9mm rounds don’t have enough force to assure a “kill”, let alone knock people over. But, that’s how Hollywood imagines guns work: infinite ammo and as powerful as tanks. They’re like magic!

Termination Fees — Sanford’s screenplay played with a subtle notion in his view of the post-apocalyptic world. Group membership was not very flexible. The blind lawyer was kicked out of his group for (presumably) not having sufficient utility to merit his consumption. Rather than take him back, or accept Falk, they stone them. The group that Laina was in appeared less rigid, but it was assumed that Falk would simply join and stay. Falk had to sneak out (which wasn’t too hard).  Laina said she could never go back, as that was that Flocker group's rule. Once-gone, always-gone. Rann’s group also had strict membership. Falk and Laina could join, but no one was allowed to leave. This meshes with some popular-wisdom among present day post-apocalyptic thinkers. If People were allowed to leave a group, they could tell others of their location and amount of valuables (food/water/ammo, etc.) and bring back looters. To keep a survival group’s location secret from ne’er-do-wells, members were not ‘free’ to go. Membership contracts did not allow for early termination.

Bottom line? TR is more of a big-budget Hollywood spin on the popular post-apocalyptic tale. Some viewers belittle the movie as too tame, with insufficient action and violence. Others enjoy another foray into imagining what the world would be like post-apocalypse. The visuals in TR give it some interest, particularly the rocket graveyard (which is actually the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, dressed up to look abandoned. There is not much sci-fi to the story, beyond the post-nuclear setting. Viewers who want more sci- in their -fi, may not care for TR. Those who like post-apoc tales in general, may enjoy another spin on the topic.

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