On a warm night in 1966, a single engine airplane crashed into a cow pasture just outside Donalson, Tennessee. The crash was likely caused by an overheated engine, and both of the adult passengers suffered severe injuries. The child traveling with them was, miraculously, mostly unharmed.
On a similarly muggy night some four years later , a congregant named Monnie Stansfield left the cramped environs of a revival tent in Myrtle, Mississippi, deeply impressed with the impassioned oratory of one Estus W. Pirkle. The fire and brimstone preacher’s words were just as vivid as any movie. Had that passing thought been left in an appropriately fleeting place, much innocent celluloid could have been spared.
Unfortunately, Monnie Stansfield actually hunted down Reverend Pirkle that day, encouraging him to put his words on film and bring even more souls to the Lord. Stansfield even knew the right man for the job, who ran a small film studio down in Nashville.
That filmmaker’s name was Roy Ormond (The Mesa Of Lost Women, The Monster And The Stripper). After a second near miss plane crash, he had denounced the skin and sin of his secular career in exploitation. Freshly born again, he had decided turn his talents toward salvation. Since 1968 or so, he had been focusing on making small local films within the Baptist community for church and classroom use.
Stansfield’s chance introduction led to one of the strangest series of collaborations ever set to film. 1971’s If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? isn’t so much a movie as it is the cinematic equivalent of those faux $100 bill tracts left at a restaurant tables in lieu of an actual tip.
The opening few minutes are spent in a bizarre combination of manifesto and disclaimer, with Estus Pirkle having a conversation with a disembodied off screen voice about his ability to “verify” everything we’re about to see. “All of the documented re-enactments are taken from actual events that have taken place in Russia, Korea, China, and Cuba, where they have already taken over”, and that the only dramatic liberties taken are the use of American actors to better show what will happen on the home front “when they take over….if they take over”.
In front of an audience that looks like they are already in their own personal Hell (aside from the one prominently placed spectator who wisely stays asleep the entire time), Pirkle preaches a slightly modified for the screen version of the fire and brimstone sermon he had previously peddled both in person and as a mail order book.
All roads outside the revival hall lead to crime, sex, or both. Worldly vices are the footmen of the coming horses of communism, which establishes an overall metaphor shoehorned in to fit the title’s Biblical reference. Reverend Pirkle generously estimates this takeover as being an imminent danger within the next 24 months, unless America changes its wicked ways.
Television? Encourages sex.
Secular education, particularly at colleges? Riots, crime and……. sex.
At least this particular point gets accompanied by an a brief cut to a chalkboard. The board is illustrated with drawing straight out of a John Willie retrospective and a suspiciously hippie like instructor about to teach a class on the “7 Erogenous Zones Of A Woman”. That number is both severely underestimated and highly specific in a way that makes me suspect very few of the people involved on this film had much of a clue how sex actually works.
Dancing? Just sex standing up
Drive ins? Sex on wheels.
There’s also a bit of melodrama interspersed involving a miniskirted slattern named Judy who arrives to the sermon late, and finds herself regretting her lifestyle of smoking, drinking and anything else even vaguely resembling fun. Reverend Pirkle’s words make visions of her dead mother dance in her head, and she tearfully repents.
Where Footmen surpasses conservative Christian curio is when Pirkle moves on to the consequences of not heeding his warnings, and breaks out the promised reenactments of “verified” stories of Communist regimes shifted to American shores. They most certainly are not his personal persecution fantasies and apocalypse dreams. Nope. All true. 100%. His cousin’s sister’s hairdresser’s church had a missionary who saw it. Could totally happen to us.
There’s an endless parade of inset shots of (clearly breathing) good Christian children lying massacred in the street for not denouncing their faith. Before they are executed, they are forced to join in bizarre games involving tying up their own parents and forcibly dropping them onto pitchforks. While horses are inexplicably the preferred mode of travel for the movie’s soldiers, they break out a van for the daily roundup of speak and spell my first indoctrination. A loudspeaker drones about Christianity being stupid, pausing only long enough for training exercises. The children too cowardly to be martyrs for Jesus find themselves praying to the glory of Fidel Castro for penny candy.
Because we can’t leave the adults out of the paranoia, there’s an offscreen Communist rape fantasy involving a General that slides in between accents as easily as he slides into marriage beds to steal good Christian wives. It isn’t an explicit scene, because sex is bad. However, violence in the name of Jesus is justified. An unfortunate child actor gets the joy of his big movie moment ruined by having to pretend to get his eardrums poked out with plastic bamboo, then vomiting water straight into the camera.
Granted, all of this is far too cheaply shot and indifferently framed to look realistic. The main special effect at hand was apparently a diner’s worth of ketchup packets. Conceptually? Umberto Lenzi would have found some of this in poor taste.
Roy Ormond was one of the few filmmakers in exploitation who could make Doris Wishman look like Cecil DeMille. He had trouble efficiently conveying simple story concepts like “monster” or “stripper”, and framed every shot he ever took through what may as well have been a Jenga stack or a funhouse mirror. His biggest expense on any of the films he ever made was likely a parking ticket when he went to drop off prints to be processed.
When handed subject matter as full of fake history, factual errors, logical fallacies and misplaced rage as this screed, Ormond’s general ineptitude adds an air of manic surrealism to the whole affair, that truly must be seen to be believed. What if God was one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make His way home from an afternoon trip to the grindhouse.
To answer the film’s titular question, and tidily sum up my feelings on this particular experience…….they shoot horses, don’t they?