Throughout his life, the late actor Bill Paxton played a lot of different characters on the screen: a heroic astronaut, a sympathetic treasure hunter, a gutsy storm chaser, a goofy Marine. His most unusual role, though, was one of his earliest.
In Taking Tiger Mountain, Paxton portrays a teenage American draft dodger who, at the behest of a radical feminist group, is sent to assassinate the minister of prostitution in a small Welsh village—while his own country is being torn apart by war, disease, and cannibalism. Made long before Paxton became a Hollywood mainstay, nobody’s been able to see Taking Tiger Mountain for decades. The little-known movie screens this week for the first time in Paxton’s hometown at the Fort Worth Indie Film Showcase.
Taking Tiger Mountain was released in 1983, three years before Paxton became a star in Aliens. The film had been shot nine years earlier, when Paxton was 19 and insanely good-looking, not unlike a young Jim Morrison or Gram Parsons. He was living in Los Angeles when he met a director named Kent Smith, a UCLA film school grad. Smith had written a screenplay based on a poem of his about the 1973 kidnapping of the teenage John Paul Getty III, whose ear was sliced off by his captors, eventually leading to his release. Smith wanted to make a memorable art film, something akin to the dystopian noir Alphaville, and he showed Paxton the script.
Paxton, an indie film kid at heart, loved the idea. Before landing in LA, he had grown up in Fort Worth loving visual art and the movies. His dad, a lumber company executive, art collector, and film buff, was constantly taking him and his siblings to galleries and theaters. As a teenager, Paxton and his friend Tom Huckabee made short movies on Super 8 film, with Paxton in front of the camera as well as writing and directing. “He was a dedicated artist by the time he was 17,” remembered Huckabee. “He was the most fearless daredevil I ever knew, on every level—especially if there was film being shot.”
In 1974, Smith and Paxton set off for Morocco, where they hoped to make what Paxton later described to Variety as “a kind of Albert Camus-inspired film…like The Stranger set on the beach.” It would be shot on black-and-white 35-mm film with no sound; dialogue would be dubbed in later. But they ran afoul of local law enforcement while filming and headed to Europe. The two needed a new plan, and Paxton suggested Wales, where he had a friend. In the village of Llandeilo, they found locals enthusiastic about making a movie, both on the crew and in front of the camera.
The script, such as it was, had to be re-tooled. Eventually it became a hazy tale of a young American tourist who wandered off a train in a small Welsh village and had a bunch of adventures with locals, leading to his being stabbed to death on a beach. Much of the footage aimed to evoke a bizarre dream state, and many of the scenes were improvised to make use of elements the filmmakers found at hand. For example, Smith and Paxton met a local who owned a trained vulture, so Smith wrote a dream sequence in which the bird seemed to eat Paxton’s intestines.
The two ran out of money, and after six weeks, with only half the movie shot, returned to LA with ten hours of footage. Paxton then moved to New York to study acting with Stella Adler while Smith worked on the footage and showed it to Paxton’s friend Huckabee, who had followed his friend to LA. Though some of it was out of focus and poorly framed, Huckabee loved the stark look and feel of the images. A few years later, in 1979, he was back in Texas, studying film at UT-Austin and needing to make a feature film of his own for his degree. He remembered the ten hours of dreamy images, which Smith had never been able to turn into a movie, and thought he could come up with a more interesting story. So Huckabee asked Smith to let him try.
At the time, Huckabee played drums in the Huns, one of Austin’s most notorious bands, and he was obsessed with post-apocalyptic films and art. Though he’d studied film, he had never taken a screenwriting class, which he didn’t see as a problem. “I had a punk rock/avant-garde aversion to rules,” he said. Huckabee began formulating a new plot, helped by Austin writer Paul Cullum and other friends. Huckabee was a big fan of the radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who in 1967 wrote SCUM Manifesto (SCUM stood for Society for Cutting Up Men; she would later try to assassinate Andy Warhol). He also loved the work of beat writer William S. Burroughs and had read his recent science fiction novella Blade-Runner: A Movie (which has nothing to do with the 1982 movie of the same name). Huckabee’s story grew to include nuclear war, totalitarian government, legalized prostitution, and an assassination plot.
He trimmed Smith’s footage down to fifty minutes, but he needed at least 75 minutes for a feature film. He padded the cut with duplicate footage of some of the dream sequences and then filmed a new scene (on a UT sound stage) with the group of four feminists from SCUM coming up with their plan (which involved LSD, aphrodisiacs, and electroshock therapy) to have Billy (played by Paxton) kill Major Whitbread, who was trafficking local Welsh daughters overseas. Huckabee added voiceovers and clips from radio broadcasts—as well as some text from Burroughs’s novella—to provide background for the dark chaos ruling this world. It involved war with Russia, radioactive slag heaps, malaria outbreaks, and riots in Toronto and Detroit.
On the screen, Billy meets some of the locals and has sex with a couple of them. He dreams about a vulture eating his guts and about running through a forest. He has a run-in with a sadistic teenager who cuts his lip. Billy sees the major and follows him. The two talk in a pub, but Billy doesn’t kill him. Instead, the teen attacks Billy on the beach and stabs him to death. Taking Tiger Mountain ended up as a jarring and confusing viewing experience—as chaotic as the fictional world it created. The film premiered at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater in March 1983, and critics had mixed reactions. Though one writer noted that the filmmakers were “remarkably successful at evoking an ominous vision of the future,” others said the backstory of how the film got made was more interesting than the end result. “Murky, meandering, and mind-numbingly pretentious,” the Dallas Morning News critic wrote.
Taking Tiger Mountain played in just a few cities upon its release before fading into obscurity. Within three years Paxton was a star, and Huckabee went on to have his own LA career, working for Paxton’s production company but also making films on his own. Huckabee moved back to Fort Worth in 2007 to help take care of his father. The next year, he began teaching screenwriting workshops in Fort Worth and Dallas.
By then the art film had become an object of cult fascination, in part propelled by Paxton’s rise to fame. The only version available was a VHS copy that someone had put up on the internet. In 2016 a company named Vinegar Syndrome contacted Huckabee and offered to digitally restore and enhance it.
Huckabee jumped at the chance. He had been ruminating on the film for 32 years, largely agreeing with much of what the critics had said. Now that he actually knew something about making movies, he saw a chance to fix Taking Tiger Mountain. He digitally edited every scene—reframing, cropping, cutting the duplicate scenes, and adding effects (like a butterfly). He had grown to hate the nihilistic denouement of Billy stabbed on the beach. So Huckabee filmed a new flashback color sequence meant to show young Billy taking a ride in a Rolls Royce with his father. “Billy goes to heaven,” he describes it.
Vinegar Syndrome refurbished the original film to high resolution 4K, then did the same with the new version. Huckabee gave it a new name—Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited—and the movie makes its way to the Fort Worth Indie Film Showcase on July 25. (Huckabee will attend the screening at the Hilton Garden Inn–Medical Center and host a Q&A with cast and crew.) Vinegar Syndrome is also releasing a DVD that features both versions, as well as extras, such as an essay by Heather Drain of Diabolique and a mockumentary Smith shot on a subsequent trip to Wales.
Will you like it? That might depend on how you like your science fiction—in the fashion of ET, Star Wars, and Stranger Things? Or maybe 1984, Brave New World, and THX 1138? Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited is a beautiful tangle of images and sound, with sinister, oscillating music (by seminal Austin avant-garde band Radio Free Europe) and a blanketing sense of doom. If you enjoy seeing a young actor find his way through not one but two different storylines, you will love it. Paxton is calm and unselfconscious before the camera, and his teenage voice carries the same easy drawl as in his later Hollywood movies. Paxton dubbed all his dialogue, sometimes free-associating, and he is spellbinding and funny, whether talking about death, his dreams, or his penis.
According to Huckabee, Paxton knew about the restoration and approved of it. “He had been ambivalent about the film, mainly because he felt it wasn’t a successful one. When I said I’d make it better, he was excited. He trusted me. I’d run his company for six years. We had the same tastes—we both knew when a film didn’t work,” Huckabee said. “His only concern was he wanted it marketed as an art film, not like an embarrassing film from a celebrity’s past. I told him I would. I think he’d love what I’ve done.” Paxton, who died on February 25, 2017, from complications after heart surgery, didn’t get to see any of the changes.
Though much of Huckabee’s motivation in re-releasing the film was an attempt to tend to his own unfinished artistic business, he also wanted it to be a worthy postscript for his friend. “No one reviewed Bill’s performance in 1983, because they didn’t know who he was,” he said, “Now the reviews consistently say how he was obviously going to be a movie star. Part of my intention was to show how good he was, how ready he was.”
This article has been updated to correct an error; Vinegar Syndrome contacted Huckabee in 2016, not 2015.