TakingTigerMountainHere we have a true American oddity with a history as nutty as what ended up onscreen.  This is to say that TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN was shot piecemeal by one director and completed nearly a decade later by another, and in the process transformed from an avant-garde kidnapping drama to a science fiction fantasia.  The end result, as you might guess, is something of a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess, and a great showcase for the late Bill Paxton.

It all began in the mid-1970s, when filmmaker Kent Smith and the 19 year old Paxton traveled to Morocco to make a film about the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson, utilizing short ends from LENNY (1974).  Following a spell in prison and much infighting Smith and Paxton ended up in Wales, where the majority of the film was lensed, and various local folk were recruited as cast members (resulting in credits like “Mrs. Davis” and “Paul”).

From there the footage shot by Smith and Paxton lay dormant until 1979, when it was purchased by aspiring filmmaker Tom Huckabee.  Unexpectedly enough, it was refashioned into a futuristic hallucination via a newly shot prologue, re-recorded dialogue—much of it by Paxton himself, whose Texas-accented tones are unmistakable—and voice-over readings from the William Burroughs novella BLADE RUNNER: A MOVIE (around the same time, of course, that a certain other film with that title was in production), resulting in Burroughs’ first and only screenwriting credit.

young bill paxton

(L) Bill Paxton

The finished film was released on the college screening circuit in 1983, but has largely disappeared in the ensuing decades.  Paxton himself seemed determined to forget TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN ever existed, although he evidently remained close with Tom Huckabee (who’s credited with executive producing Paxton’s self-directed 2001 feature FRAILTY).

In the film William Burroughs’ descriptions, which take the form of off-screen radio broadcasts, fill us in on the setting: a war-ravaged future Earth whose cities are engulfed in rioting, epidemics, biological mutation and even cannibalism.  Paxton, who’s first seen enthusiastically masturbating on a TV screen, plays Billy Hampton, a young stud abducted by a band of militant feminists.

Utilizing some kind of high tech hypnosis, the ladies brainwash Billy into assassinating the head of a government-sponsored prostitution ring located in a sequestered English village.  This entails settling into the village and mingling with its citizenry, a rocky process that sees Billy graphically bang at least two women and develop a friendship of sorts with a local homeless boy, who at one point dispassionately slices up Billy’s mouth with a knife.  Finding himself questioning his programming yet powerless to overcome it, Billy (and the film overall) spirals into an increasingly hallucinatory fugue that concludes in extremely bleak and unsettled fashion.

The film certainly has its share of annoyances, including a meandering narrative and badly cropped black-and-white visuals (with every shot focused in the middle of the frame).  Yet the whole thing is compellingly strange, with the overdubbed dialogue imparting a retrofitted air that nearly approximates William Burroughs’ famed Cut-up writing method.

As for the young Bill Paxton, I found it difficult to judge the technical qualities of his performance amid the cacophony of the soundtrack, but he had definite screen presence (speaking of which, those of you with a yearning to see his penis will be overjoyed, as it’s generously displayed throughout!).  Indeed, Paxton can be said to serve essentially the same function here that he would in subsequent, higher profile productions like ONE FALSE MOVE, TRESSPASS and A SIMPLE PLAN: he keeps the proceedings grounded, which in this case is no small accomplishment!

Vital Statistics

The Chess Players Club

Directors: Tom Huckabee, Kent Smith
Producers: Cecil Craft, Tom Huckabee, John Lane, Kent Smith
Screenplay: Paul Cullum, Tom Huckabee, Kent Smith, William Burroughs
Cinematography: Kent Smith
Editing: Tom Huckabee
Cast: Bill Paxton, Barry Wooller, David Guthrie, Mrs. Davis, Paul, Judy Church, Io. Church, Cosmo Meemo Chiefo, Barbara Clifton, Minnie Dimple, Ernie Dimple, Lou Montgomery, June Allen, Loren Bivens