Wednesday 20 February 2013

Polk County Pot Plane (1977)

Director: Jim West
Stars: Don Watson, Bobby Watson, Big Jim, Paul Weiner, 'Sandy' St Armour, Edward Smith, Bob Deyton, Debbi Washington and N67038 (DC-4)

We've all had good ideas for movies, just like we've all had good ideas for band names, but most of us have never shot a movie or formed a band. Georgia State Representative James I West is the exception, because a good idea for a movie literally landed in his metaphorical back yard and he made it happen. In August 1975, someone flew a Douglas DC-4 into Polk County under cover of night and landed on the top of Treat Mountain. Designed for runways over 3,000 feet, it stopped in only 500 on a landing strip cleared by bulldozers mere hours before and lit up with strips of 100 watt light bulbs. It had clipped pine trees on the way in and needles were still stuck in the prop. It was carrying 3,260 pounds of marijuana and 75 pounds of hashish, which were mostly recovered by authorities from a rental truck a few miles away. Many were arrested but most were released, including the plane's owner, Robert Eby, as nobody could prove he was flying it at the time.

While it was a talking point all over Georgia, Jim West saw a good idea for a movie. Fortunately for us, he did everything right in turning it from the former into the latter. The federal authorities had seized the plane as evidence but couldn't figure out what to do with it, as it clearly couldn't just fly out again. Eventually they auctioned it off to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps. Ahead of the auction, West bought the 300 acres surrounding the plane, fenced it off and set armed guards to stop potential buyers from inspecting it. Once he won the plane, he hired a crew to expand the runway to 3,500 feet and flew it out himself using JATO bottles for added lift. With the set and the biggest prop in hand, he formed a production company, Westco Productions, wrote a screenplay and set to persuading everyone he knew to take part, as cast, crew or both. Previous experience was not required and clearly didn't exist for the most part.

What's most amazing to me, beyond the background to this story itself, is how far West managed to get. His dedication must have been absolute and his word trusted implicitly. His neighbour was a house mover, so he promptly hired him to play a house mover who sets up one of the biggest stunts in the film. Howard Smith and Bob Deyton play the Clayton County police chief and sheriff purely because that's what they were. When Oosh and Doosh, the lead characters, are lifted off the roof of the Clayton County Jail by helicopter, they really are lifted off the roof of the Clayton County Jail by helicopter. What's more, like everyone else in the film, they perform their own stunts, as presumably West just didn't know any stuntmen. These are not minor stunts and we can't forget that these folk aren't even actors, let alone stuntmen. For the more dangerous stunts, they were liquored up with 'liquid courage' first. As far as I know, nobody was hurt.

Of course, West himself was as experienced as a filmmaker as anyone else involved, which is to say not at all. This was the only film he made and it shows. While he's only credited as producer and director, it has been said that anywhere there's a Jim or a James in the credits, it's really him, from Jim Clarke the writer to Jim Young the camera operator. I don't know if that's really true or not, but it's certain at least that he's Jim Whozitt as Big Jim Elliott, the pilot who flies in the DC-4 for its initial landing at the beginning of the film. He does a capable job, very naturalistic as you might expect, but believable, and it sets the pace for the acting throughout, which is similarly shorn of any real acting in favour of authentic southern accents and conversational tone. This is actually much appreciated, one of the charms of the film, along with the relentless stuntwork and chase scenes. The film's biggest success is that nothing in it pretends to be anything it isn't.
If it wasn't clear beforehand, it becomes absolutely clear during the first chase scene that there's no effects work going on here at all, not just no CGI but no effects at all. When we see Oosh and Doosh driving their camper van full of pot at high speed, they're doing just that. When we watch them nudging cop cars off the road, that's what they're doing. When their camper van nicks the blade of a bulldozer on the back of a truck going the other way and half the top gets ripped off, that's precisely what happened. It feels rather surreal that we're watching a fictional story that's leading up to a reenactment of a true event, but in doing so we're watching something very real indeed. The only reasons this doesn't play out like an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos are that they kept getting away with these stunts and because editor Angelo Ross was one of the few professionals on the crew. His other editing job in 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit.

There is a plot unfolding, but that's one of the weaker parts of the affair. Oosh and Doosh work for Joe King and they're good boys the boss doesn't want to lose. They're dumb enough to get all four of their crew caught and locked up in the Clayton County Jail, but they're bright enough to talk the sheriff into allowing them all to work on the roof the very next morning with their regular clothes underneath their jail outfits. They promptly escape by helicopter, with Oosh and Doosh hanging onto the landing skids for the duration of the ride, presumably without harnesses or safety nets or anything except that 'liquid courage'. They get back to King's place to find that he's been deposed offscreen by Sandy, who shoots the helicopter pilot and puts Oosh and Doosh right back to work, this time picking up a new load from the DC-4 in an eighteen wheeler, which is promptly chased by state troopers. These cops are apparently really quick, both to find crooks and to let them go.

What follows contains a little bit of story, a little bit of humour and a little bit of violence. There's no acting talent or character building to speak of. Mostly it contains a lot of vehicles. It's a ninety minute feature but a full third of that is taken up with car chases and associated stuntwork. This would be reasonably impressive in any film, both in quantity and quality, but it's eye opening in this film because of the lack of stuntmen. Remember, if we see it, they did it for real. When a cop car crushes itself under the back of the truck, that's what it did. When another drives right under the truck and loses its top, that's what happened. And when the eighteen wheeler speeds right through a prefab house parked in the middle of the road, that's absolutely what happened. How much of the budget went on 'liquid courage' I have no idea, but most of it was surely spent on vehicles. Every time I watch I forget to count how many get trashed, but it's a lot.

This is exciting but then these are the exciting scenes. The catch is that surrounding them are other scenes of vehicles that aren't exciting in the slightest. While a third of the film is taken up with chase scenes and stunts, another third of it, if not more, is taken up by vehicles not being chased and nothing else happening that requires 'liquid courage'. We see cars driving down the road, trucks driving down the road, armoured vehicles driving down the road. We watch loading and unloading, we even watch parked vehicles waiting for someone to show up. We see cop cars waiting for something to happen. We see bulldozers at work. We watch vehicles following other vehicles, pushing other vehicles, nudging them in new directions. We're shown shots from the helicopter and the DC-4 and aerial shots of the helicopter and the DC-4. Sometimes it feels like the action was choreographed by a six year old boy playing with his hot wheels.
In some ways it's refreshing that this isn't just another seventies action flick, even just another seventies hicksploitation flick. Because nobody knew what they were doing, the film doesn't feel like anything else and that's always a good thing, even if the end result is fundamentally flawed. The building blocks may be clearly phrased like the memories of films or TV shows, but generally they're put together in whole new designs that apparently just seemed like they made sense at the time. Whole swathes of this film are completely dialogue free, occasionally accompanied by old timey music that helps set the scene as silent slapstick comedy. It's a heist movie when Oosh and Doosh rob an armoured car to pay back Sandy for the losses and damages they've incurred. It's a chase movie in its heart and in truth it's a snapshot of the seventies south, Georgia accents all the way, jeans so tight you can see the testicles and hairstyles right out of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Eventually all this preliminary padding gets us to the point of the film, dramatised of course. Big Jim wants to bring in the biggest shipment ever seen and, despite their track record, wants Oosh and Doosh to be his ground crew. He's going to fly in ten million dollars worth of pot and cocaine from Colombia and he'll give them a quarter of a million each to make it work. He needs a 2,500 foot runway carved off the top of Treat Mountain in Polk County and five two ton trucks to carry away the drugs. And he needs it in three days. Nobody does their job right, the ground crew not clearing as much as they should and even Big Jim arriving a couple of hours ahead of schedule, but that just means that we watch the plane fly in, clipping trees as it did in reality, wondering how Jim West managed to get away with everything he put in this film without a single stuntman on the payroll. The picture's motto is clearly, 'Just do it!' and that's what they did.

Presumably the aerial shots we see during the finalé were the first filmed, of the real plane in the real location before Jim West bought the land. They could even be news footage taken after the event, just as the radio announcements by real Atlanta DJ Van Q Temple may well be recordings from the time. Yet, as tends to be the case with this unique film, reality morphs into fiction that is in its own way, new reality. When Jerry Burnam and his bulldozer crew clear land for Big Jim to fly onto Treat Mountain in the story, it's really Jerry Burnam and his bulldozer crew clearing land for Jim West to fly off the mountain with his new purchase and so make the rest of the film possible. When he flies back in, he's reenacting the real event in the real plane in the real location. We're impressed with his skill as a pilot, assuming he's actually flying the plane, but we're even more impressed with the unknown pilot who did it first, at night and with much less runway.

The more I see Polk County Pot Plane, later reissued as In Hot Pursuit, the more I love it. While it's not a good movie, clearly an amateur affair through and through, Jim West was bright enough to know every one of his limitations before he even began and he worked around them throughout. He knew he was working with amateur actors because they were friends, family and presumably whoever said, 'Sure, I'll be in your movie, Jim,' so he wrote scenes that didn't require acting. He knew he didn't have stuntmen so he persuaded his cast with a politician's silver tongue to go for it and do amazing things. The result is so intrinsically honest that it's surreal. We're conditioned to know that films are fake, but this one isn't. It's as honest as they come, not because West wanted it that way but because he didn't know how to do it differently. He saw an opportunity, grabbed it and didn't let go until he had what he wanted. Maybe that 'liquid courage' was really for him.

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