Return of the American Soldier: Americana (1983, directed by David Carradine)

The year is 1973.  The American Solider (played by David Carradine, who also directed) has just been discharged from Vietnam and is now hitchhiking across an America that he no longer understands.  When he reaches a small town in Kansas, he stumbles across a run-down carousel sitting in an overgrown field.  The Soldier decided to spend the night camping in the field and, the next morning, he sets out to rebuild the old merry-go-round.

No one in town can understand why the Soldier is doing what he is doing.  The local teenagers harass him while a silent and beautiful girl in a white dress (played by Carradine’s then-partner, Barbara Hershey) brings him a toolbox but runs away whenever the Soldier tries to speak with her.  Some of the older townspeople, led by gas station owner Mike (Michael Greene), help the Soldier by giving him odd jobs and deals on equipment and tools.   But, when the Soldier refuses to attend a weekly cockfight, both Mike and eventually the entire town turns against him.

Even with the community refusing to help, the Soldier continues his work.  Finally, the Soldier needs only one last piece to complete the restoration.  Mike agrees to give it to him on the condition that the Soldier first fight a dog.

Based on the 1948 novel, The Perfect Round, Americana was a passion project for both David Carradine and Barbara Hershey.   They first learned of the book and its story in 1969.  Four years later, using the money that he made starring in Kung Fu, Carradine purchased the rights to the novel and set out to the bring the story to the screen.  As producer, director, editor, and star, Carradine had complete artistic control over the project.  This was both a blessing and a curse because Carradine spent a total of 8 years editing his film.  It then took another two years for Americana to finally be picked up by a distributor, Crown International Pictures.  Ten years after filming began, Americana was finally released in 1983.  Carradine was shooting new scenes up until two weeks before the film’s release, which explains why the Soldier suddenly and dramatically ages an hour into the completed movie.

Americana may be strange but it’s not bad.  In some ways, it reminded me of what First Blood would have been like if, instead of going on a rampage, Rambo had taken the Sheriff’s advice and moved on to the next town.   It has its share of pretentious moments but the overall story, about a man who, having seen so much destruction in Vietnam, now just wants to build something good, shines through.  Even if her character never makes sense, Barbara Hershey is stunningly beautiful and Carradine is effectively low-key as the Soldier.  Even Americana‘s controversial ending works as a statement about sacrifice.  Much like the characters played by John Wayne in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Soldier’s role is to defend and improve a society that has no place for him inside of it.

If Americana had been released in 1973, it probably would have been ahead of its time.  Few people wanted to talk about Vietnam, much less go to a movie that was a metaphor for the entire conflict.  When Americana was was released in 1983, people were more interested in refighting the war and achieving victory with Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris and had little interest in Carradine’s more thoughtful approach.  Americana got pushed into obscurity but David Carradine’s vision of post-war America is still worth watching.

The Daily Grindhouse: The Clones (dir. by Lamar Card and Paul Hunt)

How, you may be asking, did I come to see The Clones, an extremely obscure and low-budget science fiction thriller from 1973?

It all started when I first saw the trailer for the film on 42nd Street Forever, a compilation of old school grindhouse trailers.  For whatever reasons, the trailer for The Clones fascinated me.  Whether it was the extremely dry narration or the fact that the trailer actually ended with a quote from a then-member of the U.S. Senate, I felt that The Clones was a film that I, as a student of film and history, simply had to see.

How obscure is this film?  It’s so obscure that The Clones has never even been released on DVD.  In order to see the film, I had to go on Amazon and order a used VHS copy from a some guy in Indiana.  When it arrived in the mail, the first thing I noticed was the big “Property of the St. Augusta Public Library” that was stamped on the back of the worn video box.

The fact that my copy of The Clones had obviously seen better days actually added a lot to the viewing experience.  Much as true grindhouse fans treasure every scratch and auditory pop whenever they watch a film like Fight For Your Life or Last House on Dead End Street, I found myself oddly proud that my copy of The Clones had obviously survived so much just so that it could eventually end up as a part of my video library.

As for the film itself, The Clones is one of those wonderful low-budget films that deserve to be rediscovered.  Dr. Gerald Appleby (well-played by an actor named Michael Greene) is a nuclear scientist who discovers that he’s been cloned and that the clone has essentially been out living his life whenever the original Appleby has been at work.  Though it’s hinted that he’s being set up by foreign spies, the reason for Appleby’s cloning remains obscure throughout the entire film.  Whether this narrative obscurity is intentional or not, it actually serves the film well as it helps to transform Appleby into almost a Kafkaesque figure.

When Appleby attempts to reveal to the proper authorities that he’s been cloned, he finds himself accused of being an imposter and is forced to literally run for his life.  The majority of the film deals with Appleby being chased across the California desert by not only the mad scientist who cloned him (a wonderfully demented Stanley Adams) but also by two ruthless federal agents.  The two federal agents are played by Otis Young and Gregory Sierra, two character actors who appeared in several films during the 70s.  Sierra and Young are a lot of fun to watch in this film and it’s hard not to like them, even if they technically are villains.  They both just seem to be having so much fun trying to kill our hero.

From what little information that I’ve been able to gather about this film’s production, it appears that The Clones was one of the first motion pictures to attempt to take advantage of the paranoia that most people feel over the prospect of humans being cloned.  When seen today, the film’s story is a bit predictable because, to be honest, there’s really only so much when you can do with cloning as a plot device.  However, The Clones remains an oddly effective film.  The low budget (and lack of special effects) actually contributes to the film’s success.  Without the crutch of spectacle, The Clones is forced to pay attention to things like characterization.  How’s that for a concept?

The film eventually climaxes with a genuinely exciting shoot out in a deserted amusement park and then it all ends, in typical 70s fashion, in a climax that manages to be both fun and depressing at the same time.

The Clones is not necessarily an easy film to see but it’s well worth the effort.