In the 1960s U.S. based studios had found that they could make cheap drive-thru fare even cheaper by moving production to the Philippines. They brought actors from The States with them but would often employee locals behind the camera. This gave rise to a golden era of Filipino schlock. Overt political content often found its way into these movies, especially in the early 70s explosion of films about Western inmates in Banana Republic women’s prisons teaming up with local revolutionaries. These movies are rife with explosions and nudity and certainly deserve the exploitation categorization they have received; despite this, these films are undeniably grounded in the reality of political conflict in the Philippines at the time. Resisting the temptation to simply document reality, these films used the exploitation format to celebrate the revolutionary spirit that was sweeping ex-colonial countries during the 60s and into the 70s. This type of movie has become all but impossible today, but looking back to the Filipino exploitation golden era we get a glimpse of what a truly revolutionary cinema might look like, and it’s full of schlock!
I will examine three movies that are typical of the genre: The Hot Box (1972), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and Black Mama White Mama (1973). The plots are driven by the question of whether or not the women will commit themselves to revolutionary struggle, either for their own freedom from prison or for the liberation of the entire country. The protagonists are almost always a group of independent women who confront issues of sexism in both the prisons and the revolutionary groups. Sometimes these issues develop into a feminist social commentary, other times the commentary falls flat and the problems go unresolved. In addition to the political aspects, the movies are awesome– the viewer enjoys watching political consciousness being raised and then seeing the women kick ass to liberate themselves.
The opening scene of Joe Viola’s 1972 The Hot Box, whose title was originally going to be Prescription Revolution, shows two children getting sick. One is the son a military officer and is brought to a hospital where his life is saved; the other lives in a rural village and is rushed to a hut where a medicine woman tries to save him with traditional plant remedies as he dies. This is immediately followed by four attractive American nurses, identifiable as those working in the hospital, going on a date in a sailboat. They are in the country of San Rosario for three months working in the hospital as a service project. The four women are kidnapped by a group of thugs who we find out were hired by the People’s Army in order to force them to help set up a health system in the rural villages. The women plan their escape, trying and failing to steal a car. The protagonist, Lynn (Margret Markov), subsequently becomes politicized on a run to a near-by town to steal medicine for the rural clinics, realizing “I have more at home in my medicine cabinet than they do in the whole God damn place.” Eventually the other three women convince Lynn to try an escape again, this time with the help of one of the rebel soldiers. When they get back to the city they find out the rebel who helped them was extorted by the government to give up information about the revolution. The army commander takes them prisoner and tells them about the offensive he has planned against the rebels. The women escape the government prison and rush back to the camp to warn the guerrilla leader, Flavio, and the rest of the rebels. The Hot Box ends with a glorious battle where the four women fight side-by-side with the guerillas and defeat the government attack.
Jack Hill’s 1972 The Big Bird Cage, produced by Filipino exploitation great Cirio Santiago, revolves around a Western socialite, Terry (Anitra Ford), in an unnamed third world country who spends her time hanging out with rich politicians until she is intrigued one night by a group of rebels who burst into a swanky bar she frequents. Leaving with the rebels, she is subsequently arrested and sent to a women’s prison/sugar plantation which is run by a sadistic warden (he kicks a puppy!) and his stereotypical gay head guards. Even within the abusive prison the women are constantly fighting among each other. Local rebel, Blossom (Pam Grier) hatches a plan with Django, the leader of the rebel army and her lover, to break the prisoners out so they can join the revolution. Blossom goes undercover in the prison and Django seduces the guards into getting him a job in the prison. The result is that the prisoners forgo their interpersonal problems in order to liberate themselves and defeat the warden, leading to a bloody escape in which Django and many of the women are killed. The last words of the film are, “Viva la revolución.”
The third film is Eddie Romero’s 1973 Black Mama White Mama. The story follows Lee (Pam Grier), the “black mama”, and Karen (Margaret Markov), the “white mama.” Lee is a prostitute who was involved with the largest drug dealer on the (unnamed) island, and before being arrested she stashed away $40,000 she had stolen from him. Karen is an ex-pat who has become a prominent member in the rebel army on the island. Just before being arrested she secured an arms delivery that she must personally pick-up and is determined to escape through any means necessary. The prison is run by a sadistic matron who maintains such horrible conditions the prisoners have no choice but to trade their bodies for favors from the guards. While being transferred to a maximum-security prison in the city for questioning, the rebels attack the bus in an effort to free Karen, to whom Lee is now chained. The two women escape the bus but are separated from the rebels by army reinforcements. Now they must fight over where to go. Karen needs to get to the arms shipment but Lee wants to get to a friend’s boat to leave the island altogether. Eventually Karen is convinced and goes with Lee where they end up in a final showdown with the drug dealer’s goons and the army against the rebels. When their handcuffs are finally broken, Lee escapes but Karen is killed along with many of the rebels, destroying the hope for revolution.
It is easy to dismiss these films as simply what they advertised themselves as: an orgy of explosions and nudity. At the same time, one can make the argument that the violence and sex were a Trojan horse that tricked movie-goers into sitting through an hour and a half of revolutionary propaganda. Ultimately the intention was, in all likeliness, the former. This shouldn’t stop us from exalting these movies in all their rebellious glory (a post-Rev re-editing might take out some of the shower scenes though). These films represent an ideal for what cinema could be. Not the delicate artistic space where we are asked to contemplate the subtle paradoxes of life and hardship in the modern world (there are books for that) but where we go to relax and watch some rebels liberate prisoners, maybe some women deal with sexism by uniting and overthrowing their oppressors, or weigh the immediate needs of people versus the ultimate goals of a revolution while shooting government attackers. It is a cinema that doesn’t equate ambiguity with depth.
These films could get away with such overt political content because the Filipino backdrop kept these revolutions at a safe, exotic distance, but for the Filipinos involved this was anything but removed from daily reality. 1969 saw the formation of two guerrilla armies in the Philippines, The Moro National Liberation Front fighting for the independence of the southern Bangsamoro region and the New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines fighting along general Leninist-Maoist lines, as well as a Left student movement dedicated to stopping the rise of fascism in the Philippines. The fear of fascism crystallized in 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos dissolved parliament, declaring martial law and beginning a dictatorship that would last until 1986. The 2010 documentary about Filipino exploitation cinema, Machete Maidens Unleashed! details the unique situation of American-backed films in the period. While Filipino media was under heavy censorship from the Marcos regime, they were ready to give American movies not only creative freedom but almost unlimited financial support through the use of the military. Many of the soldiers killed while suppressing people’s uprisings in the films were, somewhat hauntingly, the same soldiers actually suppressing people’s uprisings at the time, as the documentary explains, sometimes even that same day. Filipino directors were able to make movies that would have gotten them killed had they been intended for Filipino audiences, as filmmaker John Landis explains, “Because nobody [from the censorship board] was watching.”
These films certainly lack subtlety but we shouldn’t equate that with stupidity. Contrary to their billing, the movies try to draw out nuance in both their social critiques and revolutionary philosophy. In The Hot Box we see a manifestation of Ivan Illich’s speech To Hell with Good Intentions where he critiques American students who travel to third-world countries to play hero. Not only are the nurses quickly confronted with the fact that only the wealthy benefit from their work in the hospital but we see the vast cultural gulf between the women and the rebels when they are taken by two female rebels to bathe in a stream after getting back to the camp. Enraged, one of the nurses, Bunny, comically yells at the two guerrillas, “I hope some day you’re on a date and then some maniacs come along . . . and drag you into the jungle and . . . then not even tell you why!” The nurses claim throughout the beginning of the film that they’re “already doing enough to help the people,” and they “just want to get back home.” The film forces Western viewers to realize how ignorant they have collectively been to the plight of liberation movements in the rest of the world and provides them with no other option besides direct support for their revolutions i.e., we can’t donate our way out of these political conflicts. Flavio, the guerrilla leader, is especially astonished by Ellie, the only black woman of the four, who he assumed would identify with their struggle considering the horrible racism in The United States. A desire to span the gulf between far away populist insurrection and local struggles here makes The Hot Box one of the most radical films of the genre.
In Black Mama White Mama we are given philosophical tension that would seem relevant only to the revolutionary minded. Lee (black mama) represents a kind of average person; primarily interested in her person financial gain but not willing to sacrifice her pride to get it. For example, she refuses the sexual advances of the warden even with the promise of less work in the fields. Karen (white mama) on the other hand is more ideologically focused, almost to the point of myopia. She succumbs the the guards’ advances in order to get out of work and have a better chance to escape, even if that means the other women have to do more work. This antagonizes Lee from the beginning. Karen is committed to getting out and securing the arms shipment no matter the effect on the people around her. For this reason we are originally seduced by Lee’s populist dignity and immediate financial concern, we hear the echo from the common critique of radical movements “Sure you have big plans for the revolution but what are you doing about my situation now?” We are happy when Karen finally agrees to stop resisting and go with Lee to her friend who will break the handcuffs and take her out of the country. The end result is the battle described earlier, the rebels are decimated, Karen is killed, and the shipment is lost while Lee sails back to America cash in hand. The lesson is surprisingly direct: don’t become bogged down in immediate humanitarianism; make the strategic decisions that will ultimately help the revolution.
The Big Bird Cage is, in some ways, the most problematic of the three (not that each doesn’t have its problems), specifically regarding the use of homophobia as comic relief. That aside, when we scratch the surface we find what might be a feminist call-to-arms. While the rest of the guerillas are more interested in getting laid than actually liberating their country, Blossom takes the initiative to convince them of their shared interest in these women’s liberation. Blossom intentionally gets thrown into the prison, while Django seduces his way into a position as guard. Other than the support of Blossom and Django the rebellion is carried out by the women united under the same cause. At the end the guerillas meet up with Terry and another woman just as the prison guards are about to catch them, they rescue them and send them on their way. As she sets sail Terry vows to come back and support the revolution. The film is more scattered than the others but the lessons is a simple one: women can’t rely simply on male revolutionaries to save them, they have to do it themselves, and that male revolutionaries will have to support feminist struggle and get over their machismo in order to get anything done. The film is most memorable for the awesome escape scene in which the tower used to process the sugar, the titular “bird cage”, which was so dangerous inmates would regularly die working on it, is on fire and about to fall, as the warden runs for cover one of the women who has been shot grabs his leg and takes him down with her.
There are, of course, serious limits to the effectiveness of these, in many ways, politically unsound films. Other than the homophobia, perhaps the most obvious is the nudity. The women are always attractive and often topless. How can we call something a revolutionary film when we can’t stop gawking at the revolutionaries? The representation of these women simply contradicts the revolutionary message of the films. The other major limit is the exotic distance the backdrop provides. With The Hot Box being the possible exception, we are generally presented with these conflicts as unique to corrupt Banana Republics far away from our civilized democracy. These problems are unfortunate and are ultimately bound up in the nature of capitalist film studios; if a movie about topless women and jungle revolutionaries sells better than real women fighting for justice in the U.S. that’s what they’ll make.
We should remember that we are not slaves to totalizing reviews. We don’t have to say these movies are 60% revolutionary. There are parts that are radical and parts that are problematic, but, without dismissing the problems, let’s enjoy the revolutionary spirit these movies celebrate. While there are plenty of movies made today about revolutions of one kind or another, they are impulsively sensitive dramas about the human cost of conflict, or something equally apolitical. Because of their schlocky nature the Filipino movies unmistakably champion the revolution as a force for good. The heroes are the underclass (prisoners, rural villagers, etc.) while the villains are the politicians, military generals, and plantation owners. This type of binary has fallen out of fashion in modern America but will always be crucial to revolutionary class analysis. We shouldn’t be scared away from sitting back and laughing as the towers of capitalism crumble in flames on top of the wardens of the world, even if it’s just in a movie.