Fight For Your Life, Staying Alive (1977)
Directed by: Robert A. Endelson
Written by: Straw Weisman
Starring: Catherine Peppers, Daniel Faraldo, Lela Small, Peter Yoshida, Ramon Saunders, Robert Judd, William Sanderson, Yvonne Ross
Fight For Your Life (1977)
First (attempted)released: 1981
Director: Robert A. Endelson
Current UK status: Still banned
The 1970’s generated countless exploitation movies, and there were many that were offensive or just plain horrible, but Fight For Your Life is one of the few that is still banned, and proved extremely difficult to get hold of. I had to settle on a US import.
Fight For Your Life first attempted a UK release in 1981, however the BBFC banned the release before it even got to cinemas. An uncut video release, courtesy of Vision On, made it to the video store shelves in 1982, but just two years later it was banned as part of the Video Nasty era, and the film has never had a UK release since. One of two things are the reason for this: firstly, the BBFC will not grant a UK release anyway, or secondly, and considering how un PC the film is, no distributor wants to come anywhere near it.
Director Robert A. Endelson currently works as a dentist in New York (so says his IMDB page), and there is nothing really to report on in terms of his directing ‘career’. In 1973 he co-directed the comedy Filthiest Show in Town, with his brother Richard Endelson. Between them they directed, produced and edited the comedy. They then worked together on their second feature, Fight For Your Life, which Robert directed, and they both produced. Their filmmaking careers stopped there.
Fight For Your Life is an offensive, trashy movie that is so viciously non PC that it is hardly surprising the film is still banned. In today’s world of togetherness, Fight For Your Life could be considered a dangerous film, and no doubt in US cinemas back in the 70’s, would probably have caused some scuffles in the audience. The marketing for the film played on the racial aspect of the picture, providing the black audience with one version of the trailer, and the white audience with another.
The film opens with a group of violent inmates breaking free from a prison transport van. The leader is white, and a vile human being: say hello to Kane (magnificently played by William Sanderson, best known for playing Larry in TV series Newhart, or JF Sebastian in Blade Runner), the leader of the gang of thugs who comes with one of the cruellest, most racially aggressive dialogue you will ever hear in a film. He is joined by Chino the Mexican and Ling the Chinese convict. We learn of their exploits as they make their getaway, as a woman informs over the police radio exactly who the law are dealing with. Basically, these are a pretty horrible bunch.
We soon meet their victims, a black family living in a quiet house in the country, and sitting down for dinner where instead of foul abusive language, we are in the presence of a Father telling his son to eat his dinner or he won’t have desert (its pumpkin pie). It’s the total opposite to the onslaught of vile behaviour we have just witnessed. We have the Father who is a preacher, and talks of peace and good will towards men, and gets excited as he prepares to recite his upcoming sermon. Grandma Turner is the comedy relief throughout the entire film, caring, loving and spitting venom from her wheelchair at her hostage takers. Mum Turner is a good cook, there’s the teenage daughter and the young son who has aspirations of becoming a boxer (just check out his Ali T-shirt for proof) Here is a pleasant, everyday family about to have their lives turned upside down by Kane and his crew.
The teenage daughter of the Turner’s gets caught up in a robbery at a liquor store, and is taken hostage by Kane and his gang, and they take her home, hoping to steal Daddies car. Before this takes place, we see a brutal stabbing , and then the robbery where the shop owner is shot, and Kane holds a gun to a baby’s head (too far?) What I found most uncomfortable here was that only ten minutes in, already it felt like the film could do anything, and its sense of anything can happen lead me to believe Kane was going to shoot the baby.
For the next hour or so, we simply watch the poor black family get bullied, terrorised and made fun of by Kane and his convict friends. They demand to be fed, get drunk and aim to stay until dark, before making off with the family car. While in the house they rape the daughter, shout racial abuse, threaten and bully the family. We don’t really see the rape, and the violence is comical more than frightening, but it’s the constant use of racial abuse, the constant menace, the prolonged threat that make Fight For Your Life an uncomfortable and often hard film to watch. There are very little redeeming features, and many could argue it is offensive for the sake of being offensive.
However, the film is cleverly written, so that the audience have no choice but to side with the Turner’s, and with each mistake Kane makes, and as the police draw ever closer, we know that this racist bastard is nearing his demise. A moment of hilarity see’s Kane order Mr Turner to dance, to which the preacher all but refuses. This leads Kane to fire his gun at the floor, and while we probably shouldn’t, you cannot help but laugh as Mr Turner whizzes around the living room, wobbling his legs all over the place. This moment of madness is followed by a moment of brilliance as Kane decides he now wants Mr Turner to sing for him, to which Mr Turner cries and says he can’t really sing. Forced into doing so, Mr Turner starts singing Glory, Glory Hallelujah, to which his family join in and they all feel a moment of peace and hope, and they bellow out the song. Kane is not amused.
Somehow though, and again this comes from the films excellent writing, Kane has a moment of drunk madness where he bleeds out his heart to the family, telling them partly why he is like he is. You almost, almost feel sorry for him. It’s brilliantly written stuff that a man so horrible, so repulsive can come close to making you care for him. Proof then, that there just might be something deep and meaningful at work here after all, and instead of being a racist film, it’s more a film about victims standing up to bullies, or bullies getting their comeuppance. It just so happened that the racial aspect was something that worked to make the point even stronger, and naturally, cause controversy. Again, you could argue that the directors simply wanted to cause a stir, and they certainly did with this film.
There is some shocking violence which I guess is what deemed the film unfit for UK video stores: a little boy gets his head smashed in with a rock, a white girl is chased, almost raped and thrown off a cliff (a surprisingly effective piece of filming too), there’s a rather nasty stabbing, and a shot to the throat is brilliantly conceived. However, the violence takes second place to the vicious dialogue, and as I said before, I believe it is the films outright disregard for political correctness that has distributors here in the UK not wanting to come anywhere near this.
It’s a shame, because good does triumph over evil, it’s just the enduring journey we have to go through to get there. The Turner family do get their revenge, and once again the film plays out in a unique way whereby the Father orders the criminals to alert the police outside not to come near the house or they will start killing, giving the Father and his family time to dish out some of their own justice. By this point, the audience is cheering, but questioning whether they really should be considering the Turners are reversing the roles in order to dish out their own violence. The criminals asked for it though, so the old saying of an eye for an eye comes into mind, but when does justice become something more? That’s a clever question the film asks, and after what we have witnessed, is it right the Turners should turn into the same monsters as their captors? This is for the viewer to decide, and I like the fact that Fight For Your Life leaves it open to debate.
With the criminals never knowing any different, and with the police turning a blind eye, who are the real victims here? The peaceful family? They are, but they too become nasty, doing things to the criminals just as bad as they did to them. Surely the criminals cannot be the victims due to being let down by society? The police let them down here because instead of serving justice, they turn a blind eye to the Turners fighting back, so in the end everyone here is bad, it just took an incredibly horrible turn of events to turn a peaceful family violent.
Fight For Your Life is probably cleverer than it ever intended to be, if you do more than simply scratch the surface. There are deep rooted issues here with race, with society, with police deciding what is justice and what is not. The film has no redeeming features (the Turners fighting back is satisfying to the viewer, but for them as a family how will they ever live with themselves), and while it is a brilliant piece of exploitation cinema, there is little to actually like. It’s enduring, and you will find the constant racial abuse tiring. I can see why it was banned for its time, and as I said before, this could be a dangerous film, even if released today. But it’s directed, written and acted with frighteningly high quality. Definitely one for the collectors to seek out.
Should Fight For Your Life have been banned: Yes, it’s very offensive, it’s vile, has little redeeming features and could be a very dangerous film.
Should it still be banned today: Yes, today’s generation of political correctness and togetherness will find this very hard to stomach, not for the violence but for the dialogue.