THE DEADLY TOWER
1975/Director: Jerry Jameson/Writers: William Douglas Lansford , Antonio Calderón
Cast: Kurt Russell, Richard Yniguez, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Pernell Roberts, John Forsythe
In my post on the comic story I might make this sniper month here at the Uranium Café and who knows, I just might. I have the film Two Minute Warning, Targets and the older b/w 1952 film The Sniper all around here somewhere; it is just a matter of locating them. I rewatched the 1976 film The Deadly Tower last night and decided I would do a post on that one, and maybe the other ones if I can find them. My family moved to San Antonio Texas, just south of Austin, a year or so after the shooting. I was bit too young to really know about stuff like then but as time went on I gathered up bit of information on the event and its impact on the local psyche. In fact in 1979 San Antonio had its own sniper, the Battle of Flowers sniper, and the whole Charles Whitman story was briefly revived. I saw the made for TV MGM film when it was first aired on NBC back in 1975. I was of course, like any young lad at time, shocked by the performance of the then All-American Disney leading man Kurt Russell in the role of psychotic sniper and murderer Charles Whitman. I remember a pre-John Carpenter’s Elvis: the Movie (1979) Kurt Russell. While Russell was no doubt trying to break out of that sweet guy type casting –and of course he eventually did- it was not to be because of this film. Seems it would be the Carpenter Elvis film and then his other films with the director, including Escape from New York and, of course, The Thing, that would finally sever Russell form his old Disney and TV guest star roles. But for me The Deadly Tower was the film that did it for me.
There are factual discrepancies in the film that really annoy a lot of viewers and after reading up the actual events I guess there are a few issues I have as well with the way the facts were adjusted here or there, or even fabricated to make the story more dramatic –as if the events needed that- but at the end of the day the film gives a fairly good retelling of the nightmare that took place on the University of Austin campus on August 1 1966. We can explore some of those idiosyncrasies later, though I don’t think they really destroy the film as a whole. It was, after all, a made for TV film. The story had to fit into a tight time slot, and you can even tell when the parts end and begin to allow for a commercial break.
The background of the film, for people who may not know anything about it, is the sniper rampage carried out by Charles Whitman from the observation deck of the tower located 307 feet above the University of Austin campus. He had earlier in the morning killed his mother and then his wife, leaving behind notes that offered no real insight into his motives for what would shortly happen. He bought a small arsenal of fire arms and ammunition and lugged them up to the top of the tower where, after killing a receptionist (one of the film’s discrepancies, as in the film he lets the lady live, while in real life he butt stroked her to death with a rifle- and some tower visitors returning form the top. Once on the observation deck he began indiscriminately killing students, teachers, women, children and anything that he could get his sights on. In total he killed 16 people and wounded 32 others. Police and civilians fired at Whitman, but he to be killed by a small group of policemen who made it to the top of the tower. While the film credits his killing to a police officer named Ramiro Martinez –who was involved in the siege of the tower- in reality the fatal shots were fired by officer Houston McCoy. The twist of facts here were done to help the story center on Martinez as the film’s lead character, but some of the liberties taken with Martinez’s life would have the film makers successfully sued later by the real life Ramiro Martinez.
So, how well does the film tell the story and, most importantly I think for this article, how well did Kurt Russell do as a psychotic ex-Marine who has snapped from the pressures of life and perhaps from the effects of a malignant brain tumor. The looks enough even though it was actually shot in Baton Rouge Louisiana. The University of Texas at Austin was not going to have the film shot there, but the tower in the film looks almost identical. Much of the story actually seems to focus on Officer Martinez and his job issues, some dealing with possible racism, and marital problems his moody and pregnant wife, who is Hispanic. In fact in real life Martinez had no major job conflicts at the time, his wife was not pregnant and she was a white woman, not Hispanic. These were issues used in the law suit later. I don’t guess Martinez complained about being the actual bad guy killing hero of the film though. The film goes off a bit too much into this peripheral issues, and sometimes we are treated to too much bleeding heart liberal whining by characters like Elwood Forbes (John Forsythe) as he preaches about gun control. The racism issues seem way out of place really, but I can see that they simply trying to develop the character of Ramiro Martinez into a human being we can all relate to.
But does not seem to happen, sadly, is that the character of Charles Whitman –who was in no condition later to sue anybody- is not explored in any real depth. Russell does a fine job with what he is given, but he barely has any lines in the film. One would think there may be a few flash backs of something, but nothing ever happens like this. It may have been a conscious decision of the filmmakers to dehumanize Whitman and make Martinez the character we come away having a connection with. But at the same time a lot of opportunities are missed here. When we could have been seeing flashbacks of Whitman’s relationship to his father and mother –who were breaking up at the tie of his collapse, or his problems in the Marines or his issues with wife beating and declining mental stability, but the film never really goes in that direction and in a sense robs Kurt Russell of really becoming the focus of the film. Ned Beatty plays civilian hero Alan Crum who went up the tower with the Austin Police to stop the carnage. He of course plays a sweaty, fearful but resolved overweight southern guy with no problem.
Director Jerry Jameson -known for his TV work- does a fine job of trying to keep things moving along. When there is suspense and tension he shows he knows what to do with the camera. Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright of Bonanza) plays Lt. Lee and typecast forever as a redneck cop Clifton James plays grumpy –and racist and holding down Martinez?- Capt. Fred Ambrose. Ramiro Martinez is played finely by Richard Yniquez. Really the acting and direction are pretty above average for a made for TV flick. The story takes liberties with some facts and details –though there is a disclaimer at the film beginning about this- but that is to be expected with a story like this. A good movie I think if you like sniper docudramas. You can see the new and emerging Kurt Russell as a sometimes unlikable type in the film’s very beginning when he is peeling some sort of fruit in the kitchen and feeding slice to his puppy. You just expect him to carve the mutt up next. Wish he had had more lines and more time on screen doing something other than shooting people, but his performance is still strong and chilling.