Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited – Bill Paxton debut defies catagorisation, for better and for worse

ttm 3Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited

Director: Tom Huckabee and Kent Smith

Writer: William S. Burroughs, Paul Cullum, Tom Huckabee and Kent Smith

Starring: Bill Paxton 

Etiquette Films and Gold-Alchemy

Premiering at the Oxford Film Festival. Home media release to follow.

There has probably never been a more appropriate time to re-release the bizarre, dystopian thriller Taking Tiger Mountain (Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited); the long-thought lost first film of Bill Paxton. In it, America has torn itself asunder in a devastating nuclear war and a patriarchal society has taken control of the civilised world, forcing women into traditional gender roles and prostitution.

The influence of radical feminist Valerie Solanas is clear in the world that Tom Huckabee (the writer/director who took on the project from original creator Kent Smith) creates, as is the dystopian, drug induced paranoia from William Burroughs. Taking Tiger Mountain is a film of juxtapositions something that works in its favour but also against it.

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Bill Paxton (looking every bit the movie star he would become) plays American draft dodger Billy Hampton. The first time we see him, he’s sleep deprived and naked, under the watchful eye of a radical feminist group. Using negative reinforcement and some rather severe surgical methods, they brainwash him into an unwitting assassin and ship him to Brendovery; a seemingly quaint Welsh village, which houses the minister of prostitution for Wales.

The paranoia only increases when we reach this village. Perhaps unintentionally, it’s Prisioner-esque with all-seeing eyes following Hampton through the village, bizarre characters designed to give exposition but only adding more confusion. The hunt for the minister, a portly man named Major Guthrie Whitbread becomes almost secondary to the arthouse stylings, free-love sexual encounters and sudden bursts of violence.

Huckabee’s script does a good job of adding some weight to these situations and you do get a sense of danger, with good performances from the amateur cast (made up of locals from the village of Llandeilo) for the most part. However, several sequences seem to come to nothing.

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It’s hard to place blame on anyone for this. The film has a behind-the-scenes story almost as drawn out and difficult as Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote.

Huckabee took on 60 minutes of footage shot a decade early by Paxton and Kent Smith. It had no sound and, in Huckabee’s words, a languid pace. That the director managed to pull together threads by adding his own influences and newly shot scenes is impressive enough. That the film manages to be cohesive, even with the achingly arthouse surrealism is a near miracle.

And Paxton is a joy to watch. It’s clear from this that he would go on to a star, at 19 he’s able to show so much with just his face. He adds real depth to the thinly scripted character and truly holds Taking Tiger Mountain together, switching between dazed confusion and a creeping sense of dread.

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The restoration, too, is stunning. A few rough edges can’t detract from the crystal clear picture and any sound issues are because the whole film was dubbed after the fact.

Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited shows moments of brilliance and hints at what both Huckabee and Paxton would do later. It also acts as a jumping point for interesting theories and cult writings.

As a film, it’s deeply flawed, if charmingly so. As a curio, it’s a must see and this incredible restoration is the definite version.

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