Back when she was a fresh young face in Hollywood and not the over-the-hill starlet who’s been making headlines lately for allegedly mistreating her hired help, I might have saved Victoria Principal.
Nah, scratch that – it’s Linda Christopher, the character she plays in George Armitage’s VIGILANTE FORCE (1976), who I might have saved.
There’s always someone in one of these action flicks who is just too stupid to live, but this Bicentennial 4th of July firecracker show from producer Gene Corman presents us with an entire town of uninformed half-wits suitable for slaying; Miss Christopher just happens to be the tragic simpleton of the story. The new girl in a town under siege, she’s a sweet schoolteacher who knows very little about history, even less about rural living, and next to nothing about fraternal bonds and macho bullshit. You want to scream at her to run like hell the minute Kris Kristofferson enters the picture. By the time she finally does start running, it’s clearly too late.
The mid ‘70s energy crisis drives the once sleepy town of Elk Hills, California to open its considerable oil reserves, attracting a few thousand rowdy oil workers and the criminal element to keep them all occupied with drugs, gambling, prostitution, and worse.
When a shootout claims the lives of three deputies, the mayor (Brad Dexter of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and several local businessmen decide that an auxiliary police force of “tough, trained men” is what they need to clean up the mess and restore order to Elk Hills.
"How about your brother Aaron?” the old-timer Shakey Malone (John Steadman) asks amiable widower Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent), a single father and tractor sales/repair storeowner who is romantically involved with Miss Christopher...
...to which Ben replies, “What are you, drunk?!”
“Aaron was the biggest problem I ever had in this town,” the police chief states.
“Until now!” Shakey shoots back.
“He’s a genuine war hero,” points out Mayor Dexter. “He must’ve picked up something in three tours of duty in Vietnam.”
The next day, Ben goes to see Aaron (Kristofferson) at his job and with almost no effort convinces him to help out.
“Y’know, the last time I tried to go home they gave me a parade -- in one end of town and out the other,” Aaron reminds his younger brother.
“Elk Hills has changed -- there’s a lotta strangers,” Ben says accurately, before adding an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing: “Probably some money to be made if you’re interested.”
Aaron and four of his buddies --
-- fellow veterans who aren’t seeing enough money or excitement as big city police officers --
-- are deputized by the mayor --
-- and then set up home base at a ranch formerly owned by one of Ben and Aaron’s old school buddies, now deceased, who "used to have 75 Arabians here at one time.”
“Before he was in the war.”
You’d have to be as thick as everyone in Elk Hills not to know what happens next.
Aaron and his boys subdue the rowdier oil workers and successfully rid the town of the riffraff --
-- and then promptly install their own criminal organization to run the whores, drugs, gambling and shakedown “protection” rackets.
One very memorable scene has Aaron and his posse busting up a cockfight.
Someone better get the Flying Maciste Brothers on the phone.
I smell a dummy death!
Wow, we just hit two blogathons in the same post! In addition to Arbogast on Film's "The One You Might Have Saved" we just chalked another for Destructible Man's Destructible Blog-A-Thon 1!
OK, back to the story, which is just the same old western plotline that had been trotted out the previous year in two different blaxploitation actioners, BUCKTOWN and THE BLACK GESTAPO (both 1975).
Eventually you know it's all going to come down to good brother Ben vs. bad brother Aaron.
"Did you and Aaron hunt a lot when you were kids?"
"He did. I never liked killin'"
"I'd rather make somethin'."
"He scares me."
Ben tells her that he and Aaron once fought over a girl -- “the only girl in Elk Hills that he ever liked” -- and although Aaron won the fight, Ben ended up with the girl: his late wife Iris. “Maybe that’s why he hates it around here,” Linda surmises.
“He don’t hate nothin’,” Ben responds. “Aaron’s just gotta have a big fuss made over him or he thinks people don’t like him.”
“A hero,” Linda bitchily says, misusing a word that’s pertinent to the Bicentennial celebration.
At that moment, Ben’s daughter emerges from the house dressed as Uncle Sam, a costume she plans to wear in the upcoming 4th of July parade, and lures her father away from Linda by telling him there’s a Dodgers game on the TV.
“I hate baseball."
"I hate baseball!" is all Linda can say - twice - in a failed effort to remain the center of Ben’s attention (a popular commercial jingle of the day proclaimed “baseball, hot dog, apple pie and Chevrolet” to be all things American).
Meanwhile, Aaron and his boys have been using the police department’s purchase order forms to illegally stockpile machine guns, bazookas and other weaponry (“You never know when a revolution’s gonna happen”). When the sheriff starts snooping around the ranch and discovers the paramilitary stash, Aaron kills him and dumps his body in a run-off ditch.
Witness to the murder is Little Dee (Bernadette Peters), the happy-go-lucky barmaid who Aaron’s been shacking up with at the ranch. Unlike Linda, a teacher who doesn't seem to place a high value on history (we never learn what subject she actually teaches), Little Dee understands the importance of the past -- she simply chooses to fabricate her own, by believing that she's already met everyone who she is introduced to (“We've met. Ladies room, Texaco station, Tropicana, Texas, 1969” she tells Aaron, who replies “I spent all of ’69 in the Orient”).
When Ben goes to the ranch to confront Aaron about the shootings at the cockfight the day before, as well as the criminal allegations the local business owners have leveled against him, Little Dee sees an opportunity to escape and - bags packed - asks Ben to take her back to town.
Aaron tries to stop her, but Ben intervenes. "We're gonna fight over another girl, Ben?"
Little Dee leaves with Ben. Like Iris, she is "the girl who got away" from Aaron.
Linda Christopher, on the other hand, isn't as lucky.
Soon after she and Ben accuse Aaron and his posse of murdering the sheriff, a trio of thugs led by drug dealer Michael J. Loonius (Paul Gleason) pay a suppertime visit to Boots Linden's guest house, where Linda resides, and beat Ben unconscious.
"When your boyfriend wakes up, tell him he's off the 'untouchable' list."
Then, Ben's tractor business mysteriously burns to the ground.
The next day, Linda catches Loonius trying to peddle drugs to her schoolkids.
"What are you doing hanging around the school?"
"Uh -– what, I brought my kid his lunch."
"Yeah? Who's your kid?"
"All of them."
“What’s this? Uppers? Downers?”
“Inside the car, lady.”
“I didn’t know what else to do with her.”
“Get the hell out of here.”
"You are really sick."
"I'm gonna kill you."
"I don't want to talk about it --"
"-- I don't want to hear about it --"
"-- I have seen and heard it all."
Her lifeless body lands near the railroad -- to most a symbol of American progress and power, to others (like Henry David Thoreau) the personification of humanity's greed, ignorance and destructiveness.
Miss Christopher unselfishly gave all she had to protect her students and died in the line of duty. Even if she was never quite sure what the word meant, she'll be remembered in Elk Hills as a hero.