Sidewinder’s View: Vigilante Force (1976)

Vigilante Force (1976), United Artists
Written and Directed by George Armitage
Starring Jan-Michael Vincent, Kris Kristofferson, Victoria Principal, Bernadette Peters

Ever since catching this on TNT’s MOVIES FOR GUYS WHO LIKE MOVIES in the late 1990s, Vigilante Force— a movie I’d wanted to see since first catching sight of its poster when the film played our local theater in 1976– has been one of my favorite ‘B’ Action flicks. When my wife and I put together a framed collage of ninety-something miniature posters for our favorite movies, to hang in our son’s nursery, the poster for Vigilante Force made the final cut. That’s how much I love this movie.

The plot: An oil boom attracts loads of new money and a violent criminal element to a small California town, which responds by deputizing a cynical Vietnam vet and his ex-military/ex-cop pals to clean town up after the real police fail.

These skull-smashing “good guys”, secretly corrupt and in league with different criminals than the ones they’re cracking down on, soon turn on the town, robbing and extorting its citizens, murdering those who resist.

When the ugly truth is revealed, the town decides to drive out Kristofferson and his thugs with its own version of ‘vigilante force’.

Recently, I stumbled across this exchange between George Armitage and an interviewer from Film Comment:

Interviewer: So you’ve got the two brothers, Jan-Michael Vincent, the good brother, but he’s named Ben Arnold, which has to be Benedict—

Armitage: Oh, good, I’m glad you got that. And Kris Kristofferson is Aaron, as in Aaron Burr…What I was really doing there was Vietnam. What would it be like if people took over your town, as we had been doing to the hamlets of Vietnam? What if we brought Vietnam back to America, what would that be like? That’s kind of what we were going after, but since the Bicentennial year was coming on and bringing a lot of revisionist history with it, I thought I’d include a little Revolutionary War in the recipe. I’ve always tried to include something subversive, not hidden from anyone, just for my own interests.”

Initially, I was confused by his decision to name Vincent’s good guy after Benedict Arnold, an historical figure whose name is synonymous with treason, since Vincent remains the movie’s hero from start to finish, without any ambiguity. Then I figured that perhaps this was just Armitage’s satirical take on the ‘revisionist’ history he saw going around him at the time.

What I like about Armitage’s approach to the material, in his decision to make reference to Vietnam and the American Revolution, is that it’s subtle. Until I heard his audio commentary on the recent Blu-ray, I had no idea he was trying to get this stuff across, particularly the Vietnam theme. I simply viewed it as a modern-day Western with a shitload of wild and entertaining stunts.

(If I’d really thought about it, I would have realized it can also be viewed as a remake/rip-off of Arthur Marks’ 1975 AIP action flick Bucktown, starring Fred Williamson and Pam Grier.)

So subtle is the Vietnam theme that Kristofferson and his crooked pseudo-cops could also be viewed as stand-ins for the ‘saviors’ Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in post-revolutionary Cuba…or Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge rampaging through Cambodia in pursuit of the agrarian perfection of Year Zero…

Armitage doesn’t take a heavy-hand to the subject matter, the story or its characters. You can take it as some kind of allegory or just sit back and enjoy it for the sheer thrill of its pulpy melodrama, colorful performances, humor and the insane spectacle of its action sequences.

Which is how I’ll continue to watch the movie.