[Excerpt from the chapter "THAT's Godsploitation! A Blinkered View of Christian Apocalypse & Rapture Cinema" in Jack Sargeant's forthcoming anthology SUTURE 2]
The Ormond Film Organization was a grass roots film production and distribution company from Nashville headed by husband and wife team Ron and June Ormond, later with their son Tim. Ron worked from the late 1940s on Lash LaRue westerns through to the cheesecake jawdropper Mesa Of Lost Women (1953), and later with the rest of the family on a series of increasingly lurid exploitation titles: Untamed Mistress (1956), Please Don’t Touch Me (1963), White Lightnin’ Road and Forty Acre Feud (both 1965), and my favourite Ormond shocker, The Exotic Ones/The Monster And The Stripper (1968). By the early 1970s the Ormonds found Jesus and from their work on outrageous gore-laden If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971) as hired guns for doomsday Baptist sermon-monger Estus Pirkle, the films took on a new purpose; their’s were still exploitation films at heart, but were first and foremost exploitation films for God, or “Godsploitation” if you will. I found Tim Ormond by sheer chance through the website for his current position at Film Nashville, and he was more than happy to talk about his family’s film history, both secular and devotional.
“My Dad and Mom met way back in vaudeville, and they did stage shows and they traveled and they managed the Three Stooges and they had a grand life. And finally a point in time came when they decided to get out of stage shows, and go into films. And that’s a story in itself, which I’m finishing up a book on. We were never famous, we never got rich, but we had people who were kind of followers of the Ormond films throughout the South East. And that was grand and fun and that type of thing. But throughout the years, my dad, and my mom too, always had an interest in spiritual things. My Dad took a tour of the Orient way back in the fifties, just kind of doing a comparative religion study, so this was always something that interested him.
“On the premiere of Girl From Tobacco Row , which was going to be in Louisville Kentucky, my Mom and Dad and I climbed in our Beachcraft Bonanza. And instead of getting to Louisville in style, our engine quit and we had to make a forced landing. The forced landing happened moments after take-off, or at least minutes, and there were not too many choices of where to land. We ended up crash-landing in a field, and basically my Mom felt – she told me this later – that it was the hand of God that kind of spared us. She said, ‘I could see an angel sitting on the wing.’ Whether she did or not, that’s what she said to me. So we did crash, the airplane was literally torn in half, but my dad was a command pilot in the airforce so he was a very good pilot, he was able to put it down safely. I got out of it without a problem, my Mom and Dad had fractured backs. Whenever you face death, it forces you to look at life a little different. And I’m not saying that from one night to another our lives changed, but nevertheless it puts you in a different mindset.
“So it’s not like the following Monday we got a call from Estus Pirkle, it didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, we got another airplane, a twin engine airplane this time. And that was fun, we went on doing what we were doing. Until on the way back from the Bahamas, one of our engines quit! And we had a second engine, so we were able to land safely. But still, it shook us up. Because that’s two – one crash and one forced landing. But we were fine.
“Shortly after that second incident, my dad heard from a friend of my Dad and Mom’s back when they were touring in vaudeville. He was a local radio announcer and he interviewed my dad. They kept in touch over the years. Well, flash forward in time, to when a preacher found that same person and preached his message on that local radio station. And of course somehow in the course of the conversation, the man, Estus Pirkle, said ‘I would like to make this into a film.’ So the gentleman I’m referring to said, ‘Well, I know someone in the business, let me get in touch with him.’ So he in turn calls my dad. My dad then gets on the phone, talks to Estus Pirkle and a guy by the name of Monty Stanfield who was his partner at the time. Or at least associate. And they agreed to meet at an airport, I think in Shreveport, Louisiana if I’m not mistaken.
“And so the three of them met in an airport and had their initial conversation. Now, Estus didn’t know the first thing about making a film. He assumed he would stand up in front of the camera and preach for an hour and that would be the end of it. But my dad, of course, coming from Hollywood and a story background, he says, ‘Well no, we’ve got to make it into a film that’s interesting to, you know, audiences.’ So they came up with the storyline of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, which was basically Estus’ sermon, and then my Dad’s screenplay, combined into a one hour Christian film, which was pretty shocking for the time. And it showed around, and it was very well received in the very fundamentalist circles of Estus Pirkle. But he made a decent amount of money off of it – the numbers actually escape me. We didn’t necessarily have a wonderful relationship with Estus, but we had a decent business relationship. We were coming from two opposite sides of the fence. He was like really really REALLY fundamental, and we were coming from Hollywood, so that kind of says it right there.”
“REALLY fundamental” is more than an apt description of Baptist preacher Estus Washington Pirkle. From his home base at the Locust Grove church in New Albany, Mississippi, Pirkle thundered relentlessly across the Baptist circuit in the Southern States until ill health slowed him down, and passed away in relative quiet in Tupelo on March 3rd, 2005. Like all touring preachers, he had one sermon he was famous for; his calling card was a virulently anti-Communist diatribe called “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?”, a violently apocalyptic vision of America under Godless Communism. The titular “Footmen” are Communists abroad and godless liberals at home paving the way for the Apocalypse; when the real Horsemen appear, Pirkle postulates, will YOU be prepared to meet Jesus? Its timely appearance at the height of fears of a North Vietnamese victory (and by following the falling dominoes a Red Chinese takeover) in South East Asia, not to mention lingering paranoia over a possible Soviet invasion via Cuba, struck a powerful chord among churchgoers. Pirkle even recorded his sermon for an LP in 1968, the lines “Communism is good...Communism is good...” sampled by Negativland on their track “Christianity Is Stupid” in 1987.
Pirkle didn’t just see Reds under the bed - they were in the streets gunning down children, or in the pulpit up to their elbows in Baptist entrails. In his “Footmen” sermon he quotes Communist Party USA leader Gus Hall in 1961: "I dream of the hour when the last congressman is strangled to death on the guts of the last preacher” - Hall himself alluding to the famous quote by Diderot, who said he dreamed of strangling the last king with the guts of the last priest - “and since the Christians love to sing about the blood, why not give them a little of it. Slit the throats of their children and drag them over the mourner’s bench and the pulpit and allow them to drown in their own blood; and then see whether they enjoy singing these hymns."
When Pirkle approached Ron Ormond to make a filmed record of his “Footmen” sermon, Ron certainly didn’t forget his exploitation roots and crafted what can only be described as an absurd combination of classic cold war propaganda (a Biblical “duck and cover” training film) and hysterical Baptist fire and brimstone fear-mongering, tarred with a thick layer of fake blood and feathered with donations from Pirkle’s congregation in return for bit parts or screen credits.
If Footmen Tire You... opens with shots of Communist soldiers (Russians or Cubans - their ludicrous accents are never that clearly defined) riding on horseback through Mississippi forests. An off-screen voice asks, “Reverend Pirkle, are the pictures we are about to see true facts or figments of imagination?” Pirkle, still off-screen, replies, “I can document every statement I make in this film...” It can and will happen in America if Communism takes over. “Will we be trampled down under the feet of our enemies like the horses in Revelations trampled down God’s enemies? Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Estus Pirkle...” And with that, Pirkle’s commanding stare from behind horn-rimmed glasses fills the screen. Pirkle was a small man in real life, tightly wound and utterly compelling to watch in action, his body rigid with righteous anger and indignation, with only his mouth breaking into a contorted grimace, his voice staying between a carefully controlled “People say to me, PREACHER...” and barely more than a whisper (“Will you come...will you come...”).
Pirkle again eyes his congregation of frightened big-haired matrons, stoic Southern gentlemen, mature-aged boy scouts and spooky Addams Family children. “The things that are happening in America today are like a Sunday School picnic compared to that which will take place within the next 24 months unless revival breaks out in our country.” If not, he reasons, God will simply pack up and leave America for, say, Indonesia. In his place, there will be millions of dead Christians - 67 million to be exact. They will be gunned down in their homes, in front of their churches, in front of their children. So much blood, and Ron Ormond’s camera captures the envisioned carnage in lurid detail: or’nary folks and their chill’un torn to ribbons by fat, sweating, laughing Commies with hammer-and-sickle armbands. Again and again, Ron returns to the same blood-splattered corpses for pronounced dramatic effect.
Meanwhile, young wayward Judy leaves her boyfriend’s swanky car for church. Only to make an appearance, mind you. She asks her greasy beau if he’ll join her. “No way baby,” he shoots back, sunglasses showing an impassive front. “I’m a lover, not a Christian.”
Judy saunters into the church in her cha-cha heels while Pirkle turns his steely eye on today’s youth. “Mother and Daddy, are you willing to let your children be destroyed?” The footmen of the Apocalypse, he reasons, are already among us. On the TV, and in our schools: we see a teacher taking a sex education class, about to launch into an examination of “the seven erotic zones of passion”. At the drive in: “Have you considered what goes on down there? It’s nothing more than a spawning house for sex!” Even dance halls get a black X: “Dancing is just as wrong as it’s always been!... It’s the front door to adultery. The thing that starts on the dance floor is expected to be finished in a parked car or a motel somewhere!”
Under these Godless conditions, Pirkle reasons, Communism can take hold with “jet-age speed”. Without warning, news bulletins hark the New Age of America under the iron glove of socialism - the President is dead, the Cabinet are dead, and the invasion of the United States has begun. Almost immediately, children are taken from their parents for some good old fashioned re-education. One of the menacing Communist officers asks a classroom of children how many believe in Jesus. All hands go up. He then asks if they believe Jesus can perform miracles. All hands again. How many of them would like candy? “Let’s see if your Jeee-sus will bring candy now...(long pause) I don’t see any candy. I don’t taste any candy. There IS no candy!” He then suggests they ask their new beloved leader Fidel Castro for a miracle. A soldier enters the classroom and throws a huge bag of candy over the children. “Take all you want!” the Commissar tells his foundlings. “This is a miracle...”
Under Godless Communism, even the children are treated like slaves and forced to work in the fields. To prove they are not immune from punishment, the Commissar (Cecil Scaife) is shown gunning down a preacher in front of a horrified group of kids. The boys are then hogtied and one has a bamboo spike rammed through his ear. You imagine a Christian film would spare you the spectacle, but there it is, in glorious close-up, as the young boy vomits what looks like his own brains. The soldier then mumbles, “We punctured your ears... so you cannot hear... the word of God!”
A relentless litany of tortures follows, all captured by the Ormonds’ unflinching camera, from a young Tim Ormond forced to shoot his own Christian mother (“She is a diseased animal and must be slaughtered!”) to a family vainly trying to keep their father suspended over a patch of upturned pitchforks, while a soldier laughs at their futile efforts. Mental torture consists of families forced to sit on benches listening to 16 hours of recorded loops: “Communism is good... Communism is good... Christianity is stoopid... Christianity is stoopid... Give up... Give up...”
Back at Pirkle’s Church, Judy flashes back to moments of her own wickedness - dancing (the front door to adultery, baby!), smoking cigarettes and scoffing beer from a Styrofoam cup, all the while ignoring her sickly mother’s pleas: “I implore thee, read the scriptures!” Even on her deathbed, Mom had kept up her missionary zeal. At the thought of her mother passing, Judy’s blue eyeshadow starts to melt. Her resolve is beginning to weaken.
But Estus has one more horror story up his sleeve: the tale of a young boy (based on fact, of course) whose parents are gunned down in front of their church by a satisfied Commissar, in the same sinister closeup used throughout the film. The boy - played by Estus’ son Greg Pirkle - comes looking for his Momma and his Daddy. “You keeled them, didn’t yew?” “Yes,” the Commissar replies in his best Bela Lugosi voice, “but think how much better off you’ll be. Now you belong to the State... We don’t want to kill you, but ve vill, unless you co-operate.” He casts a picture of Jesus onto the ground and shows the boy how to grind it under his heel. The young lad looks at the picture, then into the sky: “Jesus, one day you died for me, now I’m willing to die for you.” “Why, you stupid little fool!” the Commissar spits out, and slices the boy’s head off with his cutlass. Bounce, bounce, bounce, the boy’s head goes down the hill in slow motion: possibly the most outrageous moment in Godsploitation, and certainly as awe-inspiring as the moment in the Ormonds’ secular shocker The Monster And The Stripper, in which six foot eight Sleep LaBeef beats Cecil Scaife (not surprisingly, the Commissar in Footmen...) to death with his own severed arm.
“Noooooo!” screams Judy, imagining her dead mother’s coffin materializing on the altar, Momma still imploring her to surrender to Jesus. “What about you, Judy?” Estus prods. Judy kneels with Estus and tearfully accepts Jesus into her heart; the organ music swells, and a fixed closeup of Estus fills the screen. “But right now this very moment, wouldn’t you like to receive Jesus as your own personal saviour... Will you come? Will you come?” And in a barely audible whisper, Estus delivers one final “Will you come?”
The Burning Hell (1974), a glimpse of a sinner’s own personal apocalypse, was the Ormonds’ second and most widely-seen Christian feature. Little wonder it traveled so well South of the Border - boasting a cast of hundreds (again, Estus Pirkle’s family and deep-pocketed congregation) and international locales, The Burning Hell is an intense, over-the-top theatrical experience. Credits flash over an all-girl Baptist choir singing a joyful “Hell Awaits You” as Estus W. Pirkle stands looking thoughtful, perched precariously on the rocky slopes of Mount Sinai in Israel. Moses suddenly appears, complete with huge department store Santa beard and eyebrows, to face a crowd of renegade Israelites and calls upon God to opens up the Mount to swallow them up. Without warning the camera shakes and a smoking hole appears; helpless sinners and even entire tents fly into the gaping mouth of Hell. Pirkle turns his horn-rimmed gaze on the camera and spits out, “Does that shock yew?” This is but a glimpse of the horrors to come, courtesy of the fertile imaginations of the Ormond Organization, for those of us who do not believe in a literal Burning Hell.
Cut to two ragtag Jesus Freaks, Tim (a more mature Tim Ormond, now sporting a beard and leather jacket) and the aging delinquent Ken (Chuck Howard). They call on Estus and, amidst a chorus of “yeahs” and “groovies”, force their hip modernistic reading of the Bible onto him, not realizing he is a preacher. When square daddy-o Estus lays a bum trip on them by pulling out the trusty King James and quoting the scriptures, particularly the part about a literal Hell, they shrug and Ken announces, “Hmm... well, that’s heavy!” Estus invites them to his sermon on Hell. Ken becomes quite angry and says if he goes to Hell, his friends will all be waiting for him. “You do your thing, I’ll do mine,” he says before jumping on his motorbike. “I’ve got me some livin’ to do.”
By now Estus has joined his congregation, a similar looking crowd to the Footmen peanut gallery, staring open-mouthed as Estus rattles off his dubiously sourced statistics: 6000 people die each hour, and HALF of them head towards Hell. “At this moment”, he says, “someone is heading to a burning Hell.” Meanwhile Ken and Tim power along carefree on their motorbikes. Ken hits the throttle and speeds along ahead, then hits a patch of rocky road - literally and figuratively. Tim comes across the broken bike and, lying next to the wreckage, Ken’s severed head.
The distraught Tim limps into Pirkle’s church mid-sermon, just as Estus assails the shell-shocked congregation with more “facts” about Hell. “There will be no TV programs to watch or movies to go see. There will be no cookouts to enjoy or sunsets to watch together... All will be one long night of sorrow, remorse and regret for ever and forever!” The concept of “forever” is hinted at on a chart with a one and three hundred zeroes after it. Even after these many years, Estus asks, “What time is it? Well let me say this - after this much time has been consumed, there will still not be one speck of hope for a sinner to ever escape Hell!” Tim relates the story of the accident, and wants to know if Ken has even a slight chance of going to Heaven. Without missing a heartbeat, Estus shoots back, “Chances are he’s burning in the flames of Hell right now.” Cut to Ken, now roasting slowly in the Bottomless Pit. Around him are screaming, contorted faces covered in sump oil and silly putty and pipe-cleaner hats, and the ever-present flames superimposed on the action.
There’s scant relief from the relentless downward spiral into the pit with the odd bloodless tale from the Bible, all filmed in the Holy Land with a staggering array of fake beards and headdresses. But fear not - whenever the pace lags for a moment, the Ormonds head straight back to the good ol’ eternal torment, “where the worm dieth not and the flame is not quenched”. And in case you don’t believe there will be worms - they’re right there in the Bible AND, in true Ormond style, front row centre on the screen. Close-up after hideous close-up of squirming maggots on contorted faces. “Think of the terrible odours!” Estus point out. “The continual itchiness!” For the grand finale set in Hell (or “Hay-yull”), the Ormonds outdo themselves with a nightmarish menagerie of creatures, including the “locusts” described in Revelation: a surreal creation with the body of a horse, gold breastplate, teeth like a lion, hands of a woman, a crown of gold and a scorpion tail lashing at sinners. Even the Devil shows up dressed like the Riddler, an incessantly tittering fop who taunts a wide-eyed Tim Ormond with the promise of everlasting anguish. The crazed soot-covered killer of John the Baptist spies Tim from across the flames, and in a Southern honk cries out, “He’s still alive! He’s still alive! But this time I’ll kill him!” In agonizing detail, the killer spears Tim through the stomach while the Devil’s tittering grows unbearable.
In a flash, Tim wakes in Church clutching his stomach, and is so shaken by the nightmarish ordeal that he immediately goes forward to the altar. He admits to wanting to receive the spirit of Christ out of fear. “That’s OK”, says Estus gently, “You’re looking at a man who in 1940 got scared to die and go to Hell.” He fixes the camera with same unwavering stare as in If Footmen Tire You..., and continues: “I came to Jesus and he saved me. He would do the same for you if he’ll let you. He wants to save you.”
After making The Land Where Jesus Walked (1975) for the Sword Of The Lord Organization, Sword’s Dr John Rice suggested the Ormonds make a sure-fire soul winner with Rice’s powerful friends Jack Van Impe (later producer of the Cloud 10 rapture thrillers) and Jerry Falwell, both guaranteeing marquee value on the Southern Baptist circuit. Each starred in his own segment, staring directly into the congregation via the camera’s lens and railing against “demonic forces”. The firebrand Van Impe gives us a vision of things to come with his memorable introduction: “Those who embrace these false teachings will be accompanied by a - GRIM Reaper into a fiery hair-yull!” The Grim Reaper (1976) is a less surreal reworking of The Burning Hell, made fundamentally different without Pirkle’s endless sermonizing but with the basic framework intact. There’s the wayward soul scared into finding Jesus, the budget-conscious yet still Bruegel-esque scenes of Hell (in typically theatrical Ormond style), and Bible stories - Moses from Exodus, Paul and King Saul, and a scene-stealing June Ormond as the Witch of Endor, an eccentric pantomime role behind a black pointy hat and droopy latex mask with that unmistakable voice cackling through.
The Grim Reaper starts, appropriately enough, in a Baptist church. Cecil Scaife, the craggy Communist general in If Footmen Tire You..., turns in a more low-key performance as Vern Pierce, a distraught father at his son Frankie’s funeral. The funeral eulogy has been delayed as the preacher is not convinced that the wayward Frankie has gone to heaven. Vern is appalled by the suggestion, and says he’s glad he stayed away from church all these years. “Perhaps if you hadn’t stayed away,” states the preacher coldly, “your boy might have been saved.”
The Ormonds’ cameras stay on the family as Vern joins his Christian wife (Viola Walden, also in The Burning Hell) and preacher son Tim (a more clean-cut Tim Ormond), who is convinced Frankie is in the fiery depths of Hell. The preacher echoes Tim’s sentiments from the pulpit, and exploits Frankie’s eulogy to warn the congregation about avoiding Hell. With Frankie’s open coffin in the background, the preacher continues his heartless rant: “His fate is sealed, there’s STILL a chance for others.”
While the family view Frankie’s inert body, Vern flashes back to a happier time where he and Frankie are sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching TV. Mom and Tim arrive home from church; Tim implores Frankie to join their services. Frankie laughs and says. Tim, in his conservative Sunday best, gently tries again, but Frankie, with his “modernistic” wide collar and white man’s afro (or white-fro), gets angry: “Look, this religion thing is YOUR scene, not mine.” He’s more concerned with his racing car career, its big engines and big money. “Religion? Not for this dude. No way.”
Harking back to the Ormonds’ earlier White Lightnin’ Road (1965), the action switches to the race track for a few tightly edited moments of car action before a multi-car smash, where Frankie’s car flips over several times. The ambulance crew rush to Frankie’s broken body with Vern and Tim, but it’s too late to save him from his internal injuries. “I want to pray for him,” says Tim. To Frankie: “Will you accept Jesus as your personal saviour?” “I’ll accept him, Tim, when Dad does - right, Dad?” “Right, son,” a grim-faced but resolute Vern replies. Frankie sinks back onto the grass covered in engine smoke resembling a black cloud of hellfire.
Still in the same endless flashback but now four months later, Tim and his Mom walk through the cemetery. Mom says she wants to contact Frankie from the spirit world. That’s the occult, reasons Tim. “Talking to the dead is dangerous!” “Talking to the dead is NOT dangerous,” says Dr Kumran, a fakir in a bright blue turban, to Vern. Tim walks in appalled to find an occultist in his home. He grills the fakir about his dubious spiritual credentials and his Church of many gods before denouncing him an occultist “energized by demonic spirits”. Kumran spins in his turban and leaves.
Vern then describes (in a flashback within a flashback) his first meeting with “Doctor” Kumran. Ron Ormond had always been fascinated by Eastern mysticism and metaphysics, and so sinks his teeth into a wonderfully cheap seance going horribly wrong: furniture shakes, candles are snuffed out, and warped ghostly figures appear, along with quick flashes of the Devil’s red visage over Dr Kumran’s face. Was it real, wonders Vern. “It was,” Tim shoots back. “Satan is alive - and he’s EVIL!”
Mom tries to sleep in one of the separate marital beds but is woken by a strange moaning. She looks up horrified to see the ghostly figure of Frankie appearing through the wall, clothes in tatters and more burnt than ever. “Momma,” he groans, “I can’t stand it!” “I’ll call Dad,” says Mom. “No, not Dad! He’s the reason I’m here!” A demon suddenly looms from behind Frankie and drags him screaming back into the depths of Hell.
Back at the funeral, Vern falls asleep, only to find himself in Hell. This time the Ormonds’ infernal scenes are even more spectacular, with huge flames shooting up from behind the tormented souls (reportedly from burning tyres on the Mississippi shoot, covering the entire cast in soot). Amidst the screaming of the damned and the demented, the Devil - more of a circus clown than in The Burning Hell, with what look like candy snakes for hair - guides Vern towards the Great White Throne. “It’s JUDGMENT DAY!” “I’m not even supposed to be here!” yells Vern. “I’m not even dead yet!” With the sound of the hellish chorus behind him, he is cast spiraling down into the Lake of Fire... FOR ETERNITY...
Vern wakes with a start: “I’m all mixed up!” he confesses; the vision of Hell takes him to the altar with Tim, but he still won’t accept Christ as his saviour. Tim prays for his father, and Mom joins them, united as a family for the first time since Frankie’s death. Vern relents. The preacher, Dr Gray, then turns to the off-camera congregation and asks the Fallen to do the same. The picture fades out; once again, more thousands of souls have been saved courtesy of the Ormond Organization.
TIM ORMOND INTERVIEW
My dad and mum met way back in vaudeville, and they did stage shows and they travelled and they managed the Three Stooges and they had a grand life. And finally a point in time came when they decided to get out of stage shows, and go into films. And that’s a story in itself, which I’m finishing up a book on. That led my Dad and Mom into making initially a series of Westerns, with Lash LaRue. Lash was a good friend of mine until he passed away, about five or six years ago now. He’d stop by the house once a month and spend a couple of days. He was like an uncle to me, great guy. So he and my dad made the Westerns, and that went on for a while, and then Lash went in one direction, my dad went in another, and did his own thing. Till a point in time came where they decided they wanted to leave Nashville and move out in the South, somewhere it was less crazy and hectic. And I think they were considering how I would grow up, that was part of it.
So back when they were in vaudeville, there was a thing called the Kemp Time, and the Kemp Time was a circuit which ran through the South. I couldn’t tell you the cities, but it was just like a one night stand here and a one night stand there. Well, as time went on, instead of Mister Kemp retiring, he just kind of moved from vaudeville into booking movies at drive-in theatres and things like that. So since they already had the contact, it was a natural ‘in’ to talk to Mister Kemp and then through him they met other people. Not too much time passed before they had a series of people throughout the South East who would agree to play their films. And so we had a nice little living. We were never famous, we never got rich, but we had people who were kind of followers of the Ormond films throughout the South East. And that was grand and fun and that type of thing. But throughout the years, my dad, and my mum too, always had an interest in spiritual things. My Dad took a tour of the Orient way back in the fifties, just kind of doing a comparative religion study, so this was always something that interested him.
On the premiere of Girl From Tobacco Row, which was going to be in Louisville Kentucky, my Mom and Dad and I climbed in our Beachcraft Bonanza. And instead of getting to Louisville in style, our engine quit and we had to make a forced landing. The forced landing happened moments after take-off, or at least minutes, and there were not too many choices of where to land. We ended up crashlanding in a field, and basically my Mom felt – she told me this later – that it was the hand of God that kind of spared us. She said, “I could see an angel sitting on the wing.” Whether she did or not, that’s what she said to me. So we did crash, the aeroplane was literally torn in half, but my dad was a command pilot in the airforce so he was a very good pilot, he was able to put it down safely. I got out of it without a problem, my Mom and Dad had fractured backs. Whenever you face death, it forces you to look at life a little different. And I’m not saying that from one night to another our lives changed, but nevertheless it puts you in a different mindset.
So it’s not like the following Monday we got a call from Estus Pirkle, it didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, we got another aeroplane, a twin engine aeroplane this time. And that was fun, we went on doing what we were doing. Until on the way back from the Bahamas, one of our engines quit! And we had a second engine, so we were able to land safely. But still, it shook us up. Because that’s two – one crash and one forced landing. But we were fine. But shortly after that second incident, my dad heard from a guy by the name of Monty – I’d have to look up the exact name of the person, he’s actually a character in one of the Estus Pirkle films, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? He was a friend of my Dad and Mom’s back when they were touring in vaudeville. He was a local radio announcer. And he interviewed my dad – I’m talking about in the past, about what he was doing. But they kept in touch over the years. Well, flash forward in time, to when a preacher found that same person and preached his message on that local radio station. And of course somehow in the course of the conversation, the man, Estus Pirkle, said “I would like to make this into a film.” So the gentleman I’m referring to said “Well, I now someone in the business, let me get in touch with him.” So he in turn calls my dad. My dad then on the phone talks to Estes Perkel and a guy by the name of Monty Standfield who was his partner at the time. Or at least associate. And they agreed to meet at an airport, I think in Schweport Louisiana if I’m not mistaken.
And so the three of them met in an airport and had their initial conversation. Now, Estus didn’t know the first thing about making a film. He assumed he would stand up in front of the camera and preach for an hour and that would be the end of it. But my dad, of course, coming from Hollywood and a story background, he says, “Well no, we’ve got to make it into a film that’s interesting to, you know, audiences.” So they came up with the storyline of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, which was basically Estus’s sermon, and then my Dad’s screenplay, combined into a one hour Christian film, which was pretty shocking for the time. And it showed around, and it was very well received in the very fundamentalist circles of Estus Pirkle. But he made a decent amount of money off of it – the numbers actually escape me. We didn’t necessarily have a wonderful relationship with Estus, but we had a decent business relationship. We were coming from two opposite sides of the fence. He was like really really REALLY fundamental, and we were coming from Hollywood, so that kind of says it right there.
But anyway we had a working relationship. Then that led, after its success, to The Burning Hell. The Burning Hell was an enjoyable film, even though it was rather horrific in many aspects. Enjoyable, because I got to participate in it much more. I was the lead actor, we got to go to the Holy Land for several of the scenes…
It was actually filmed in Israel?
A good deal of the establishing shots were filmed in Israel. And then the tie-in shots were filmed in Mississippi or wherever we choose to do it. So The Burning Hell was extremely successful. It made a ton of money, and I’m not talking necessarily in the millions. But in the scope of a small religious film, it made a great deal of money. Unfortunately, because of that situation, our relationship with Estus Pirkle began to be less than favourable. And I’m not going to go into details concerning that, except to say that after one more film – which was called The Believer’s Heaven – we agreed to disagree, and no longer work together. And that was kind of bad, it was not a good parting, but I feel that we did good work together, and the rewards for that are spiritual rather than financial. And my memories, as I look back on it, are of the good times, of going to the Holy Land, and my Mom did the make-up and the script, I was Director of Photography and lighting and an actor. And of course my Dad was the screenplay writer and the director. And we edited it ourselves, and were the main distributor. It was just the business end of it that didn’t work between the Pirkles and the Ormonds. So as I say, we made one more film, ‘The Believer’s Heaven’, and that was pretty much the end of our relationship with Estus Pirkle.
However, during that time we also met some other people who were also Christians, but in a different field than Estus Pirkle, and that group was called John Rice – the Sword of the Lord. I always remember John Rice as kind of being like Moses, but contemporary. Not that he looked like Charlton Heston (laughs) but he was truly a saint. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some people who were masquerading as Christians but were closer to the Devil. And then I’ve met some people like John Rice, who were truly saints on Earth. And I don’t mean that in the Catholic term, but they just saintly individuals. John Rice and my Dad became close friends, and a couple of the other people at The Sword of the Lord, which was a publication that continued for years and years – a very fundamental, down to Earth, straight-laced paper, but run by beautiful people. And I did not necessarily agree with them on every matter, every jot and tittle, as the Bible says, but I did appreciate their sincerity, so we all got along good. So John Rice invited my Dad, and then my Dad of course said well I need to bring Tim, to go on the Holy Land tour, and he said, “And maybe you can photograph it.” Well, that became The Land Where Jesus Walked. Which was the first film we did in cooperation with the Sword of the Lord. And basically that’s not a great film, that’s more or less a travelogue, but then we interspliced it with some scenes. As we would come to, let’s just say, the garden tomb, and there would be John Rice talking to the tour group, then we would dissolve through and show a scene, that we would fabricate ourselves back in the States and cut them together, so it became a – I don’t know, a travel documentary, a travel feature, I don’t even know if there’s a term for that, but basically a travelogue.
It was pretty nice, and it had some limited success. But it wasn’t a dynamic “hit them in the guts” film, it was more a gentle tour with John Rice that was illustrated. From there, we thought to ourselves, we’re no longer in association with Estus Pirkle, we wish him well – and we still do – but we no longer had The Burning Hell, but it had elements in it which were great for these fundamental circles, so what can we do which is a similar type of film. That led to a second film with The Sword of the God, called The Grim Reaper. And The Grim Reaper was basically a story about a family with one son – played by me- which was trying to live the straight and narrow, and another son who was trying to live like James Dean, racing fast cars and such and such. So the second son, who was Eddie King, and he’s still a friend of mine today, he dies in a car accident without having accepted the Lord. And then the remainder of the movie is the father and the mother coming to grips with that, and then visualising through dreams – Eddie, the second son, coming back and being dragged back to Hell by a demon. And the father is the one who actually comes to know the Lord at the end of the film, because of the mother and because of me and because of the dreams he had and such and such.
Interesting piece of trivia – the man who played the father is Cecil Skase. Cecil Skase ended up, was a close friend of our family and remains so today. He was in my father’s secular films, and he was in the first film If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? I don’t think he was in The Burning Hell, but he was then in The Grim Reaper. And then he ended up being in another film, which I haven’t talked about yet, called The Second Coming, and then another film, called The Sacred Symbol. So he was kind of my dad’s pet actor, and later became my pet actor.
He was the General in If Footmen Tire You…?
Yeah, exactly, the one who says, “I have come here to sleep with your wife.” But the funny thing about that is, the girl playing ‘the wife’, was actually his daughter! She was just playing the part. Cecil was a good friend of my dad’s and remained a good friend of our family’s through the years. And he’s up in years now, but nothing but very good memories with the Cecil Skase family. Who was in the music business – his son is successful here in Nashville as a music producer. So after The Grim Reaper – other things happened in there, and I’d have to sit down and make up a chronology or a filmography. We also met Bill Rice, who was the half-brother of John Rice, and did a couple of films for them, mainly promotional films. Bill Rice headed up an organisation called the Bill Rice Ranch, and it was I guess about ten miles away geographically from The Sword of the God, the same area. But their ministry was to the deaf, because Bill Rice’s daughter was born deaf, and they began thinking, how can we tell her about Jesus. And they said, well, she’s deaf, so we have to find a way to communicate. So once they found a way to communicate to her, then in turn they said, we can tell other deaf people, and that led to the formation of a camp. And that still exists today, the Bill Rice Ranch. So we made a couple of films for them, promotional films. Then later in time, after my dad was gone, I was the director of photography on a Bill Rice Ranch film, which was directed by Dave Ute, who is now with Bob Jones University. Dave made a film called When Silence Speaks, which was a very good film, which still shows around, and as I said I was Director of Photography on that one.
So let’s see… oh, then another association which happened was Pete Rice, who was the son of Bill Rice. Bill Rice had two sons, Bill Rice Junior, and Pete Rice. Pete Rice was the second son, therefore, I guess you could say biblically speaking, he would not inherit the mantle of running the Bill Rice Ranch, he wanted to do his own thing. So he formed an organisation called ‘Pray’ – [which stood for] Pete Rice And You – and then we did a couple of promotional films with Pete, where we went out to, for instance, Pete would go out and minister to the Navajo Indians and we would catch him out there doing his thing and talking to the Navajos. He went on since that time to have Worldwide Ministries, kind of like a Billy Graham, but at a different vein. He travels all over the world. The Phillipines, Mexico, I think he’s even been to Australia. And he continues to travel. I haven’t talked to Pete in a while, he lives out in New Mexico now. But I remember him well. The film we did with him was Surrender at Navajo Canyon.
That kind of brings me up to the point where my dad was getting sick. We were working together on a script, and that was called The Second Coming. And The Second Coming was a script that I wrote, but the way I would write it was, I would sit down and I’d discuss it with my dad. And I’m a night-owl, as you have gathered, and I would go out to a little travel trailer that I had out in the back, which was kind of my little cubbyhole, and I would literally write all night long, and then I would put the pages on his chair. So when he got up the next morning – and as I said, he was sick – he would read the pages, and then when I got up in the afternoon, we would discuss the story and then I’d go out and write for that night. And it was a continuing process. But basically my dad, by not helping me write it, but just discussing, was kind of proving to me that I was a writer on my own behalf, and I didn’t necessarily have to have him. He knew he was dying at that point, so he wanted me to be able to accomplish something on my own.
Unfortunately my dad died before we could shoot the first frame. But we did go into production on it. Within a week after his death, we made a pilot – which was like a twenty minute fundraiser, we basically took one scene and photographed it, and then I went around to various people to try and raise money for the complete film. Which we did about a year later, and then made the finished version, called The Second Coming. So from that point, the last Christian film I made – which does not mean I’m not still a Christian, I am, I’ve just kind of gotten involved in other things. I still keep in touch with some of my other friends. But the last one I made was The Sacred Symbol, which was in essence – when my dad went to the Orient, I mentioned earlier in the conversation, he shot a whole lot of footage of very unusual and strange things. Anything from fakirs to snake handlers to Buddhists to the flagellantes. Well, I had all this footage, but I was now making Christian films, so I thought, what can I do with this strange footage?
So I wrote a script around the footage, and it was called The Sacred Symbol. And basically the storyline was, some people met at the Adventurer’s Club, and they discussed their guest speaker, John Harvey, who in real life was John Calvert, who was a famous worldwide magician and who was a friend of my dad’s back in Hollywood. And so at the Adventurers Club they discussed his travels, and he talks about, I’ve been here and seen this, and I’ve been there and seen that, but I finally found something which amazed even me, when I uncovered the ‘sacred symbol’. And then he started talking about Christ and such and such, and that led us into the finale of the movie, which was, “There’s all these various different things and religions, but there’s the true path and such.”
Could you elaborate a little bit more on The Second Coming, because it’s a film that I haven’t seen.
I can tell you some of the high points. After my dad died, I came to the final scene, which was the – and the way we got around things in general, was, someone would say, that’s not the way it’s gonna be, and I’d say, well, this happened as kind of the way this person imagined it or dreamed it. Like Daniel would have this dream. So that’s the way we would alibi things in case a theologian would say “Well that’s not the way it’s supposed to happen.” But anyway. This particular character in The Second Coming was visualising Christ returning on the white horses, wielding the sword with His face aglow… well, I had to stage this scene. This was of course before computer graphics were like they are today. And even so, the cost would be prohibitive. So I went to Hollywood, along with my Mom, and we looked up old friends and we went out and we found the wrangler who did Little House on the Prairie and we found some of the old friends of my dad who’d worked on the Westerns. And I began to put together a crew and a shoot in Hollywood that would be staging this last scene. But simultaneously, I had made a phone call to my friend in Nashville, Eddie King, who had played my brother in The Grim Reaper and asked him if he could try to put together the same shoot in Nashville, because it would be much less expensive. So I guess, just a few days before we were ready to go into production in Hollywood - and I’m just talking about on that one scene – I talked to Eddie, and he had put it together in Nashville. So we came back to Nashville to shoot it, merely from a cost standpoint.
So on that particular night we gathered at Riverwood Riding Academy, which was a great big field out near a park, not too far from my house, and people began to gather with the horses. We had a searchlight come in from Huntsville, which could basically shine this very bright, illuminating beam of light on Christ’s face – he was wearing a reflective surface so it would reflect the light back as bright as possible. He was dressed in the red robe, all the horses were white and groomed, all his angels were riding alongside of him wearing white robes, we had fog on the ground, we had lights, we had big blowers running to move the fog…
And the funniest thing is, right exactly next door – I’m talking about a hundred yards away, but across a fence – was the park patrol. Just sitting there in the dark watching what was going on. And we didn’t know this. They didn’t bother us, but they were talking on their scanner. And one of my crew – actually the wife of the director of photography – was listening to them, and one guy said, “Come on, you’ve got to come over and see this! They’re doing a commercial for the Ku Klux Klan!” So that was kind of a funny incident. But when it was done, it turned out very well. Of course, the ground was fairly dark on purpose, and there was a layer of fog. We superimposed that over the clouds, and it does then appear like Christ returning triumphantly in the clouds. Which is a pretty graphical representation of the way it reads in the Bible. So that’s one little scene.
The difficulty in making a Christian film, unless you’re telling an easy, gentle ‘forgiveness’ type story, is you’re always going to step on someone’s foot. Because they say, “Well that’s not necessarily the way I think it should happen. I think it should be this way.” So as I mentioned earlier, the way we got around that was saying, “That was the way this person who’s our central character visualised it in his mind.” And basically the character wakes up one morning, and it’s the Tribulation, and everyone is gone. And he looks for his mum, and he looks for his friend, and he can’t find anybody. And he begins to read the Bible, thinking, “Oh my God, this is the Rapture and everyone’s been taken except me, and what can I do?”
Then we go into his run and his escape from the soldiers of the Anti-Christ – which was an interesting story in itself. There’s a gentleman here in town who I happened to work with on an unrelated matter, about a month ago – his name is Tony Maples – and he makes machine guns. And he is supplying the forces around the world, not just American forces but U.N. forces, with machine guns. Completely legitimate, there’s nothing wrong with them, but that’s just what he does. Well, way back then, when we made The Second Coming, I had to get a kind of a half-track type vehicle. I didn’t have any contacts, or any money to rent one. So someone told me about Tony Maples, and I went and saw him and told him what we were doing, and he very graciously gave us the people to man the vehicle, and the vehicle itself. He had it transported – at his own expense – down to our location where we filmed. It was a very ominous looking scene, of the Anti-Christ soldiers searching for the people who hadn’t accepted the mark. And so it was a lot of fun to make; it was very challenging to make, and it was very emotional to make, because it was something that I had thought my Dad would be involved in. Instead he was gone. But we felt, I think, if I’m not mistaken – I haven’t looked at the film myself in some time – but I believe I have in there, “Dedicated to the memory of Ron Ormond.” I’m pretty sure I did that, as a tribute to him.
I wasn’t actually sure from reading the synopsis in the ‘Psychotronic’ interview if it WAS a Rapture scenario or not.
Yeah, it was. But I mean, in essence it’s a little bit more than that. Of course, I learned to make my films from my dad and he learned from making Westerns. So there’s always action. For instance we go back to Nebucenezzer, and we redo the scene where Nebucenezzer has the vision of the statue with the head of gold and the chest of silver, and the thighs of brass, or whatever – I’ve forgotten the details. And then he envisions this giant stone coming down and smoting him on the feet. Does that ring a bell with you?
Not that story, no.
Well anyway, look it up in the Bible and you’ll see it. And in essence, I re-established, rebuilt that scene, and we filmed it. Once again, not with computer graphics, but we actually built a seven foot statue out of plaster of Paris – filled it with dynamite, the right amount. And literally got a high speed camera, went out to a location, and filmed it blowing up at 500 frames a second. And it’s a great scene. And so King Nebucenezzer – who once again is Cecil Scafe, who played the General – we got him in the wig, we would get our wigs from Universal Studios, my mum was a friend with one of the wardrobe people out there. So whenever we would need a wig, she’d order it from them and they would send it to us. So it was first quality. And we made a decent looking set, with tapestries and beds and lines and candles, and it really looked like King Nebucenezzer’s bedroom. And he was having the dream. And of course the dream was of the statue blowing up, and then the rest of the story is Daniel then interprets the dream and such and such…
So we would go back in time, I would do that. Also, at the beginning of the film, it starts out with Christ’s ascension with the disciples when they saw him transfigured and then going up into the sky. So it is a Rapture, but it’s a little bit more than just like Thief in the Night where it’s just a Rapture per se. I just tried to build a little theology and history into it, and you know, I kind of did. Then the very ending, which actually turns the central character, convinces him to come to the Lord, was, he imagines himself in one of the battles. So I got a lot of stock footage from the army and navy archive, and we would intercut that with… whenever we would want to do something, we would basically do it for little money but we would do it ourselves. So we went out to a friend of mine’s farm and basically burned off a field so it looked like it was war-torn. And then we planted explosives all around, and we would set them off as our guy would go running though the burned out field, trying to survive. And so we had a lot of intensity and drama built into it. And it was a very good film. It was never necessarily popular. Thief in the Night which was a very popular film some years later, was a very successful film. This one was moderately successful. I don’t think, I think the most successful of them all in the religious circles was The Burning Hell. And it’s still out there, doing its thing. Although I no longer have anything to do with it, and I don’t know what Estus Pirkle is doing with it. But I do know that from time to time I hear about it out there. So yeah, it’s a Rapture film, but it’s a little bit more than that. It’s got some theology, some drama, some wars, some history, you know, a little bit of a love story. Everything we could pile into it, to make it an interesting film, as far as that goes.
Oh sure. My Dad was still alive when that came out. He and I and my mum saw it around the corner from our house. Matter of fact, I met the producers of that some years later.
Russell Doughton? I talked to him a couple of months ago.
Yeah, I met him at a Christian film producers meeting some years ago, although we don’t keep in touch or anything like that.
Talking about Estus Pirkle, I was surprised to see that he’s still actively doing his ministry.
Right. There’s not much I can tell you about Estus Pirkle that I haven’t already said. I don’t keep in touch with him. I don’t have any animosity towards him, but we did cross some bridges that we won’t recross. The way I find out about what’s happening with Estus Pirkle is, I talk to a good friend of mine who’s still a minister, who was in our original films, he was in The Burning Hell, he was in The Grim Reaper, he helped me with The Second Coming. And he remains a good friend to this day. Although I hardly ever see him anymore. He’s an evangelist, his name is Tim Green, and I’ll talk to him once or twice a year, just to say hi, and I’ll say, “So what’s going on with Estus?” And he’ll catch me up. The way I understand it, Estus is kind of sickly these days, but to the best of his abilities, he still does carry on his ministry. But beyond that, I really couldn’t comment because I just don’t know.
Because I did notice on one website, Estus Pirkle Films are still renting out 16mm and video copies of your films.
Well, he had children, he had a son and a daughter. I would imagine – matter of fact, in Footmen, his son is the one who the General chops his head off! Of course, that was back in like ’72 or something like that. He’s an older man now. But yeah, I don’t know if Estus himself is necessarily running it, but I’m sure his associates – his wife, his children – someone is still running it. But I don’t keep up with that.
The point I was making was, those films that were made – well, Footmen is over 30 years old now – they are still regarded as successful ‘soul winners’. And I think that’s testament to the actual film making. I mean, if you actually look at it as, if you looked at it completely objectively, as - if you could call it a propaganda film, it’s a very, very powerful tool for getting a message across.
Well film in general is a powerful medium for getting a message across. That’s always been the truth. It’s how you use the tool, for good or… there’s so many different venues, anything from Christian films to pornography, from adventure to family – it depends on the person behind the wheel. As Shakespeare said, “The play is the thing.” So I agree with you, and from my Dad’s standpoint, I’ll say thank you on behalf of him. And I agree. Although when I look at Footmen today I think, “Yeah, it’s kind of hokey…” But in Third World countries, The Burning Hell and Footmen did great! I remember taking The Burning Hell along with Tim Green down to Mexico, showing it on a sheet, and people would just pile in. It was on a screen, in just some little vacant yard next to a church! Of course we had translated the film into Spanish, so after the film was over, people would come up to me and speak to me in Spanish – I couldn’t answer them! And they said, “But we saw you – you speak Spanish.” Because they saw me speaking it on the screen. So I always thought that was funny.
But that particular film is a very theatrical film too. So I’m sure that translates very well.
That comes from my dad; that’s purely him. I can’t take any credit for that except for being an actor. I was just a kid then, learning. But you know, he made a Christian film that was theatrical, exactly like you said. Exploitation was his calling card back in his movie days, and he carried it forward into his Christian film days. Because the thing of it is, you’ve got to capture someone’s attention before you can tell them anything. And that’s what he was trying to do in his own way.
I could imagine that he never looked back on the Sixties exploitation years with a certain amount of embarrassment or anything like that.
Oh no, that was just life. You walk down a path and you know… I think my mother said it best, “It’s not how you start out in life, it’s how you end up.” So I don’t think – I don’t remember him ever saying, “Oh I wish I hadn’t of done that.” No, he had a lot of fun making the Lash LaRue series, and all the rest of the films. And he just used that education he had to make the Christian films. So no I don’t ever remember him saying “I wish I hadn’t done that.”
Obviously you make a conscious decision at a certain point to NOT make secular exploitation films, and, rather, make religious exploitation films.
Well, that happened after the airplane accident.
But was The Monster and the Stripper already made by then?
Yeah. You know, I’m telling you a story that happened - in a verbal conversation, it happens fairly quickly. In real life, it happens – as I mentioned, we got a second airplane, and I’d have to go back and study my actual chronology to know the exact date. But if I’m not mistaken, the first crash was actually maybe two or three years before we met Estus Pirkle. And we had a second airplane – and when THAT engine stalled… I went into the service, and my mum and my dad were doing whatever they could, so no, it didn’t happen from Monday to Tuesday. It might have happened over a period of a couple, maybe three years would be a closer approximation of it. But it’s always the way you look at it is, we were almost killed, and not too long after that, I get a phone call about a guy who wants me to make a religious film. And I think other avenues were kind of closed at that point in time, so he felt that that was God talking to him. And yeah, at that point in time, I believe it probably was a conscious decision of thinking, I need to do something positive for God with my talents. Although I don’t think he felt the Lash LaRue films were negative, he just thought that he needed to do something with a more specific spiritual message to it.
Because The Monster and the Stripper is just an amazing cap on a particular period in your family’s film career. It’s probably one of the most outrageous films I’ve ever seen. Probably one of the most entertaining too, but outrageous.
Well, it just showed this past summer here in Nashville, at the Nashville Independent Film Festival. And my mother and I went to watch it, and she answered questions afterwards. So it’s still got its little cult following. It was kind of fun to look back in time like that. It’s a great – oh! Cecil Scafe was in that too.
What part did he play?
Well he’s the one who got his arm torn off and beaten to death.
Oh, of course he is… which has got to be one of the greatest exploitation moments of all time!
Oh yeah, that was truly great. I love to keep my dad’s name alive. And my mum is still doing well, she’s ninety and a half now. She lives here with me. So she’s doing fine, for ninety and a half. I mean, she’s slowed down. But I guess as recently as six months ago she was in a local TV commercial and was kid of acting it up and having a good time. So she’s not an invalid or anything, but she’s ninety and a half so she’s slowed down and kind of takes life quiet now. She’s doing fine and healthy. Nothing wrong with her except just that she’s getting old, which is just the natural course of life. And you know I certainly feel that when her time comes, although I’ll miss her, I’ll feel that she’ll be reunited with my dad, as I will one day. So that’s the one good thing about being a Christian, no mater if you make a film or not. When you come to those tribulation points in your life – and I don’t mean tribulation as that ‘capital T’ point in time – you can have some peace in knowing what’s going to happen or where you’re going to go. And I get people who argue with me sometimes, “how do you know for sure”, and I say, how do you know it’s not? And what if I’m right and you’re not? I have complete peace as far as that goes. I have nothing negative to say about any of the events or time that I spent with Estus Pirkle or any of the people – they were points in time. We’re all human, and we just didn’t see eye to eye with Estus Pirkle on all points, so we just agreed to disagree. And that’s pretty much the long and the short of it. So far, so much water is under the bridge since then, it’s not something I spend much time thinking about.
Believer’s Heaven? I can’t seem to find any information about it.
Well, Estus got on this kind of kick, which I don’t know that he ever really followed through. He felt – and I don’t think this was anything except – it certainly wouldn’t be attributed to luck, because he wouldn’t have believed in that. But anyway... B.H. for Burning Hell, B.H. for Believer’s Heaven – then, had we stayed together which we didn’t, we were going to make B.H. for ‘Beloved Hill’, standing for Calvary. Which we never made. Believer’s Heaven wasn’t exploitation like The Burning Hell, so it never grabbed people the way The Burning Hell did. The Burning Hell was kind of a story that scared you. Like, oh my God, if I don’t get right, this is what’s going to happen. And Believer’s Heaven was more, “Well, everything’s going to be wonderful because I’m going to heaven.”
The good memories I have about Believer’s Heaven? Well, we got to go to Hawaii. And we got to go way up on top of a mountain. I don’t have dramatic memories of Believer’s Heaven like I do on The Burning Hell, just because it was exploitation for the masses. And when we made it, there were so many dramatic moments, the motorcycle crash and having to create the fires, the people falling off the cliff and so many things like that. Believer’s Heaven – it was my first time I actually wrote a scene by myself, that got actually on film. I wrote the scene, and actually played the part between when Abraham was deciding to leave the city sand go off on his own and basically find whatever God wanted for him, and I remember writing the scene and we actually filming it. We got a backdrop from 20th Century Fox and hung it down there in Myrtle Mississippi, where Estus has built this big warehouse which was kind of a studio but basically just a big warehouse. But it had nice high ceilings so we could film, so that was kind of fun to have actually gone to Hollywood, gone to 20th Century Fox, gotten the wonderful fake beards and costumes and going all through – I think it was called Hollywood Costume – picking out all these costumes, having them shipped to Myrtle Mississippi then setting up everything. Then filming right there and that was kind of an enjoyable experience. That’s a good memory.
Then we had to film the Great White Throne in that same area, and that was challenging. Because I was doing the lighting – I’m pretty good at lighting, I make part of my living doing lighting for a variety of functions. Not so much any more, but I did. But back then, I was just learning. So I had to – our camera angle was way up high, looking across the Great White Throne, and we had this big book which was symbolising the Book of Life. And then all of Estus’s parishioners and others from far and wide came to basically fill the room with people dressed in white robes and we had the smoke on the floor, the dry ice, and as I said the Great White Throne. And then I had to light all these people without putting out shadows – because this was Heaven! And that was my first great big lighting challenge, of how in the world do we do this, it just isn’t going to work. And then sitting there, figuring it out and things like that. So that’s a very good memory.
As I said, Hawaii was fun, because we got to fly over there, we got to visit the volcanoes and go to certain spots in Hawaii where if you photograph it right, it almost looks like you’re just standing on air. Which is basically up on some high mountain, and you stand fairly near the cliff. On the right day, then, early in the morning, there was a kind of a fog out there, so it looked like you were standing amongst the clouds. So we filmed a lot of the Heaven scenes – or Estus’s interpretation of Heaven anyway – up there on the mountaintops in Hawaii. So that was kind of fun. But it’s funny - over the years, ‘Believer’s Heaven’ has just kind of faded away. I haven’t seen it myself in years and years. But I think one of the things Estus portrayed was the ‘nevermores’. He would go and show, we would go and photograph people, actual people who were Christians but they had suffered from very bad deformities. And the reason we photographed them was because, he said, in Heaven we will nevermore have to have something like that. So it wasn’t done in a bad way, but it was – that’s just a memory, thinking it was a strange thing to be photographing.
But I don’t know that I can go into any details about Believer’s Heaven. Not for any reason, except that particular film is a foggy memory to me. And I think that was because it wasn’t that well received in the churches. Not that it was panned, but it didn’t have an edge like The Burning Hell. And it doesn’t have an edge in my memory. If I sat down and watched it with you or something, I could say, “Oh, we did this, that and the other.” But it’s just kind of a little bit foggy. I do know that we got to meet Doctor Robert Lee, who was eighty-something at the time, and one of the most illustrious speakers I had ever met in my life. And he was nearing of course the end of his career, but we got to go photograph an opening of him in Memphis Tennessee. And we had to ask him – his claim to fame, besides just being a great person, was he was a very, very eloquent speaker. And when my dad said, “Well, can you give us thirty seconds or a minute on Heaven?” he said, “That’s like emptying out the ocean with a teaspoon!”
But he did. He sat there and came up with 35 or 40 seconds, straight to the point of what he believed Heaven was. I think the film opens with two or three preachers, Doctor Robert Lee being one of them, who gives a very pointed, poignant statement about Heaven. I remember him, just because of him saying that, I can’t remember some of the others. But gosh, the storyline. It just kind of, it’s a vanishing memory. I’d have to go back and watch the film again to give you – I mean, if you decide you need some more stuff for your book, I’ll have to see if I can get a copy from Tim Green and look at it. I haven’t looked at it in so long, I’ve just forgotten it.
So you don’t keep video copies of your films?
Ah, well, technically – and since I’m on a recorder – I’ll just say we don’t have any of the Estus Pirkle films. And we of course have copies of the other films, and I guess that’s as far as I’ll say since I’m being recorded here! But I’m sorry, I just can’t help you any more. What I could do, is you could give Tom Green a call. Unfortunately he’s not reachable via email, and he could fill in some of the blanks if you want. He was like a brother, as I mentioned, and he still remembers Estus Pirkle. And he was in a lot of the films, as I say, and he helped us. Many of the incidents which I’ve told you about, he was right there with me.
You would have been around the family while they were making their films.
Oh, sure. I grew up doing it! I wasn’t there for the Lash LaRue films, though Lash was a friend of mine. But that gets into a whole other avenue of conversation, like why do I have the screen name Belas Godson II – which I don’t want you to publicise, because I don’t want a bunch of people emailing me for no reason. But my godfather was Bela Lugosi, so Bela’s Godson, that’s my screen name. But yeah, I grew up watching them make the movies. As I said, I wasn’t there for the LaRue’s, but I have memories of being on the set at a very early age, watching them do their thing. I obviously didn’t travel with them while they were on the road, that was before I was born. But they would tell me, and it wasn’t too many years ago, I was watching Turner Network Television late one night, and in between movies they showed a little short. And my mother was in the short, and it just floored me. Like “Oh my God, there’s my mum.” And so I was able to get in touch with the right person at Turner Network, and they re-aired it for me like a week later, and then I was able to tape it. And this was back when she was just a girl, like 17, 18, performing with Bob Hope. So they’ve got an illustrious history, well before the films. My mum was actually very famous in her circles before she ever met my dad. Matter of fact, she was more famous than my dad back then.
I guess your mum and dad were kind of grooming you, from an early age, to enter the family business?
Well, I don’t know if they were grooming me in that sense of the word. It was just a natural flow of events, but I guess in a way they were. I always remember my dad – and I guess my mum too, but I specifically remember my dad, trying to - flashing forward here to The Monster and the Stripper – and I’m singing to the monster. What he’s trying to do there is get me a recording contract in Nashville. The problem was that I really couldn’t sing, and I didn’t really care about singing, so it was not something which ever happened. But he actually did set up some appointments with record producers. Because back at that time, he pretty much had free rein here in Nashville, because there weren’t any other people making movies here. So he could talk to whomever. I remember hanging out with Johnny Cash one night, I can remember Curly Puttman coming over to the house – he wrote ‘Green Green Grass of Home’, and he came over to tell my dad about it right after Tom Jones had recorded it. So they were like friends of his. So had I been able to sing, I’m sure I could have gotten a recording contract. But I couldn’t sing. So he was kind of grooming me, I guess you could say it that way.
I guess you always wanted to be in show business though?
To a certain degree. And to a certain degree, I always explored other things. Actually, in the service, I was an air traffic controller. And I considered going into that. And then of course I am a writer, and I still do that, but of course that kind of revolves around show business too. Yeah, I guess it’s almost a genetic thing with me. It’s like… I ran into a friend of mine who was a comic, still is, and I hadn’t seen him for some time. So I said, “Well, have you gotten a job or what?” And he said, “A job? I haven’t had a job in my life, and I’m not going to start now.” It’s kind of the same with me – this is what I know, and this is what I do.
Because you can.
Because I can, or because of the old expression, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You’ve heard that? I guess that’s all true. It was a lot of fun, and it still is. I have great memories. Although I had the typical rebellion of any teenager growing up, as an adult now I look back and I had a great dad, we got along well. As I say, my mum’s still living, so I don’t have any surpressed desires or any Freudian things about ‘my parents this’ or ‘my parents that’. They were good parents and they tried to do their best for me, and I appreciate it. But I guess to a certain degree they were probably grooming me, and they had the vehicle of making a movie. And if things had gone perfect, maybe I would have gotten some other movie offers from appearing in their movies. I don’t know exactly what was going through their minds. But yeah, they were always 100% behind me. And as I say, great parents.
White Lightnin’ Road was my first movie, and it might have been their first movie away from Hollywood. It was made in Cummings, Georgia. Why they ended up coming to Nashville was, back in the vaudeville days they had met some country music people who lived in Nashville, and I guess they stayed in touch with them. The people’s names were Smiley and Kitty Wilson. Smiley Wilson was the original manager for Loretta Lynn. And so Smiley I guess called up my dad and said, what are you doing, and dad said, making a movie. “Well, why don’t you come up to Nashville and edit it here?” So he came up to Nashville, and he edited White Lightnin’ Road at a studio in town called UMC, which stands for – actually it was called Trafco then, Television Radio And Film Commission of the Methodist Church – and he rented the editing room, with equipment, for $125 - not per hour, but per week. And so he said, “Well God, I have to cut it here, there’s just no other place this cheap.”
Then flash forward in time, and we actually shot The Monster and the Stripper in their studio, although they didn’t necessarily appreciate that one! But since they didn’t know what it was…so it all kind of, one hand washes the other. Actually I just saw one of the people from those days, her name was Dixie Carter, now Dixie Reynolds. She ran the studio. I saw her as recently as nine months ago, and she still works at UMC, which is the new name for Trafco. Of course, they’ve got different facilities now, but the same type of thing. But that kind of led us to Nashville. As far as actually making the movie, yeah, it was my first one. I was in boarding school down in Louisiana, and the reason they stuck me in boarding school was, number one, it was near some relatives so I could see them on the weekends or whenever. And number two, my dad was born in Louisiana, so he wanted me to have a little country blood in me I suppose. And number three, they were travelling, and they didn’t have any roots at that point in time, so they needed to keep me in school while they figured out what they were going to do. And then that led them to Nashville. And finally I think I spent a couple of years at the boarding school – of course I’d be with them in the summer. And during one of those years, we made White Lightnin’ Road and of course they got me an excuse from school for a month or so, so that was a real lot of fun to get out of school. Of course, I had to do my homework and everything, but that was a lot of fun.
It was my first one, but we had a great time and I had nothing but good memories. That one I can sit and tell you about. Believer’s Heaven is just kind of gone, but White Lightnin’ Road was kind of firmly implanted in my mind. Lots of good memories on that film. And it was very well received. It played all over the South. I think it came out a couple of years after Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum. And the same type of clientele, the same type of storyline, and it was just kind of a bang ‘em up, car race type film.
I’m sure the drive-in circuit would have been really good for that.
Oh sure. I still keep in touch with two of the characters in the movie. Earl Richards, who was Earl Snake in the movie – dressed all in black, kind of a James Dean character – I talked to them around Christmas time, he and his wife, and just said hi. We don’t hang out together any more, but we still keep in touch.