Sunday, 16 January 2011

AFED #15: Fight For Your Life (US, 1977); Dir. Robert A. Endelson

In 1983, at the height of the video nasties panic in the UK, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) published a list of 72 films that were deemed liable to deprave and corrupt and banned under the Obscene Publications Act. In many cases the charge was laughable and they were acquitted within a couple of years, while the vast majority are now readily available, albeit occasionally (e.g. Cannibal Holocaust) with cuts.

One of the handful that remains banned is Robert Endelson's 1977 home invasion thriller Fight For Your Life. Although unquestionably a violent film it's perhaps unique amongst the blacklisted titles as having been of more concern for the prolific use of inflammatory language, namely racial slurs. The BBFC rejected it outright when it was submitted in 1981 and nobody's tried since.

When I became aware of the film recently it immediately intrigued me. I've been on the receiving end of racist pejoratives myself over the years, but could the language really be so extreme as to justify its banning? Isn't it as much a matter of what context the language is being used? There was only one way to satiate my curiousity and fortunately Fight For Your Life was released on dvd in the US a few years back on the Blue Underground label.


The story begins in New York when three convicts escape their armed guard following a vehicle collision. After stealing a car the trio head north, leaving a trail of bodies and mayhem behind them, before invading the country home of middle-class black minister Ted Turner (Robert Judd) and his family. It soon becomes obvious that the nominal leader of the trio, Kane (William Sanderson), is a racist and he begins subjecting the hostages to a tirade of taunts and insults. While the police are tracking down the felons events head towards a predictably bloody climax when the family finally turn on their captors.

To understand Fight For Your Life you should be aware it was made under the guidance of William Mishkin, a producer who had built his career on grindhouse cinema and skin flicks. It's therefore quite manifestly an exploitation film which uses a provocative scenario to arouse the passions of its audience and ultimately satisfy them through an empowerment fantasy.

Our sympathies are meant to lie squarely with the Turner family but the effect is achieved so clumsily it becomes laughable. From the onset it's apparent Turner is something of an 'Uncle Tom'; he rebukes his son for enjoying boxing and preaches the virtues of pacifism. The walls are adorned with portraits of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys just so we're in no doubt about their political persuasion. Later Kane's verbal jabs are followed up by slapping Turner across the face repeatedly with his own Bible, making explicit that turning the other cheek is a sign of impotence. Only when he finally picks up a gun can Turner reclaim his manhood; a rather depressing message.

As far as the language is concerned its shock value suffers the law of diminishing returns as we become inured to it. That's not really a flaw of the script so much as a fact of life. More shocking is the fate of some of the peripheral characters, a couple of whom are dispatched with surprising and violent expediency when they threaten to expose the siege. Unfortunately it does little to avail the turgidity of the whole.

Sanderson's performance as the detestable Kane is perhaps the saving grace of a weak film; admittedly he's a pantomime villain but doesn't flinch from the vulgarity of his character's words and actions, holding the attention in every scene. The rest of the cast are mainly competent, although the Mexican and Asian actors playing Kane's fellow convicts are stereotypes of the crudest variety; something which betrays the absence of any earnest intentions beneath the hyperbole.

Aside from the self-evident truth that racism is bad Fight For Your Life has nothing intelligent to say. Quite simply it's not very good and you end up feeling slightly embarrassed for those involved. I'm not going to waste any more time with it.

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