As the end of the Ormond family box set is in sight, I was desperately hoping one of their religious films would finally break from the pattern of filler worked around a literal sermon. With 1979’s 39 Stripes, my…um, prayers were answered. Unfortunately, what I got instead was Ormond demon spawn Tim starring in a uniquely fundamentalist spin on the chain gang picture.
Prison, as portrayed here, is nothing more than a single shack with beds for eight or so men. Funny, but one could remove the footage of when they are out-o- doors and what is left would be indistinguishable from a no budget Nam flick.
Roughly half of the film takes place outside, when the prisoners are supposed to be engaged in hard labor. Mostly, they just seem to sit around and talk a lot. There’s also a great deal of complaining about the food. I’m not sure what all the hubbub is about the grub—it’s just beans and white bread. I’m sure there could be (and probably is) far worse fare served to the incarcerated.
One guy who refuses to eat it is given 39 lashes from the whip. One of the prisoners says 40 would kill a man, so the guards always give 39. Purely in the interest of science, I really wanted the guard to flail that guy just one more time past the limit.
So how does this turn into yet another Ormond-branded religious tract? There are claims here that Jesus was hit with the whip 39 times. While I don’t treat the Bible as…well, gospel, I don’t recall learning about that in the great many hours I spent in church and Sunday School.
This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to once again relish the suffering of Jesus. This is the same kind of stuff that has always baffled me about fans of The Passion of the Christ. It comes across as torture porn for the Jesus set. Why they would want to see such things done to somebody they love so much is beyond me.
In symbolism I would interpret as blasphemy, 39 Stripes seems to equate the torments put upon their Savior with the punishments doled out to the prisoners here. But I doubt any questions about this material were ever raised by the churches who rented a print of this. The target audience for this type of film isn’t known for being on speaking terms with logical thinking.
As I mentioned earlier, the star of this is Tim Ormond. In one film after another, he radiates a smugness that seriously chafes me. He also has been increasingly looking like Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate. In this feature, the Torgo-fication of Tim is nearly complete.
In one of the few scenes away from the prison, we see his sister and a friend of hers talking in what appears to be some sort of dorm room. I assume they are students at a Bible college, but I was never sure of that. I also got the weird feeling these two were trimming each other’s shrubbery, but I was probably only thinking that because the quality of the acting, and the primitive filmmaking technique, was at the level of 70’s porn.
Speaking of 70’s tropes, music from cop shows of that era soundtracks the opening credits, where we see two criminals fleeing in slow motion. These two are pretty clumsy, so it is more like stumbling in slow motion. Also, at this point in the film, I didn’t know who these guys were, so they could have just been having a light-hearted romp through the woods. Regardless, it is shot in a way that ensures this is exciting in no way whatsoever.
One of these guys is Tim and, as we will later learn in his backstory, he had pawned a Bible and then broke into the shop that same night to try to steal it back. I would have loved to have watched this with somebody who owns such a shop because I bet they would find the idea of such a retailer buying a Bible endlessly hilarious. And then, the store owner puts it in a chest sealed with a lock and a chain wrapped around it, as if he was going to bury it as lost pirate treasure.
Fast-forwarding through the rest of this: friend of Tim’s sister appeals to him directly, Tim’s acceptance of Christ, a conspiracy by other prisoners to kill him, the (lamentable) change of heart at the last second, then a fourth wall break to urge the audience to become saved, and finally the end.
I can appreciate the Ormonds trying to do something different with 39 Stripes, but they only made a bigger muddle than they did with their preceding religious films. They overreach with their comparison of the suffering of Jesus to that of our current prisoners, blurring an already bad metaphor until it is incomprehensible. By the time it’s done with you, you may feel like it whipped you 40 or more times.
Dir: Ron Ormond
Starring Tim Ormond and the usual cast of idiots
Watched as part of the Powerhouse/Indicator blu-ray box set From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family