Monday, 24 August 2020

Wildcat! The Films of Marjoe Gortner

Marjoe Gortner in The Gun and the Pulpit (image: public domain)
On the very few occasions that a book has received coverage on this site, it has invariably been the case that I've had some sort of connection with the title in question.  So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that Wildcat! author John Harrison and I go way back to the 1990s, an era when print media was—shock, horror!—the norm.  Before I moved to Australia, I got in touch with Melbourne-based John in late 1997 with a view to writing for his publication Reel Wild Cinema!  Shortly after arriving in Queensland, I called John and discussed a few ideas for articles for upcoming issues; soon after that chat, he unselfishly furnished me with a list of names and numbers of other local publications he thought I might be able to contribute to.  From then on, John and I would speak at least a couple of times a month via 'phone, and we'd have lengthy conversations about films we'd seen and articles we might write, among various other topics.  It's always nice when you hit it off with someone you've encountered for what might be termed work reasons, and I always thoroughly enjoyed catching up with John; thankfully, we were able to meet up a couple of times before my stay in Australia came to an end, and it was great to have a few drinks with him.  In my 30 years as a writer, I've encountered many fine people (and also some utter heels), and John is definitely one of the good guys.  We kept in contact for a good while after I left Australia, but after a number of years and for no particular reason, we gradually lost touch.

Anyway, to the book: Wildcat!, which thankfully jump-started me into reestablishing contact with John, is a study of evangelist-cum-actor Marjoe Gortner.  For as long as I've known John, he's been fascinated by Marjoe, and I recall an article in Reel Wild Cinema! about Gortner, who was someone I was hitherto only vaguely aware of on the basis of (i) his brief marriage to Candy Clark and (ii) the films Earthquake, The Food of the Gods and Viva Knievel!  Yet I knew nothing of Gortner's background as a child preacher, and I was amazed to learn that he was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Marjoe, which was released in 1972.  Wildcat!, as its subtitle suggests, focuses on Gortner's films, although a helpful amount of information about Marjoe's childhood is included, too; to ignore it would be to ignore the elephant in the room, and the book cleverly assesses the symbiotic relationship between Gortner's private and professional lives.  The writing is lively, entertaining and informed, and John's painstaking research on the project is obvious.  The inclusion of a number of interviews makes for a most welcome addition, and the book sees John catching up with the likes of Starcrash director Luigi Cozzi, Cedric Sundstrom (who helmed the Cannon movie American Ninja 3), and Gortner's Hellhole co-star Marneen Fields; I'm guessing the last of these interviews was the most straightforward one to arrange, given that Marneen is also John's wife!  Anyway, all the interviewees are very good value, and they add a satisfying extra dimension to what is always an engrossing read.  John's efforts to contact the book's subject are also documented, and it's pretty clear that Gortner is someone who really doesn't want to be found.

In case you're looking for a Dutch connection here, there is one in the form of the curious case of actress Jacqueline van Stratten, whose sole film credit was on 1980's Fire, Ice and Dynamite, in which Marjoe Gortner played a TV anchorman.  This movie, which starred then-current Bond Roger Moore, arrived at the tail end of a glut of Cannonball Run-style cross-country race films that had proved popular in the 1970s, although this German production provided its own spin on the formula by making skiing the main mode of transport.  Even in the context of Marjoe's filmography, Fire, Ice and Dynamite is one bizarre film, in which an incongruous selection of celebrities (Niki Lauda, Isaac Hayes, Buzz Aldrin) appear as themselves.  A limited edition Volkswagen Golf was launched on the back of the movie, which frequently seemed to be more concerned with product placement than anything else; following this oddity, Gortner would make just one more film—Walter Hill's Wild Bill, in which he played a preacher—before going into self-imposed exile.  Naturally, Fire, Ice and Dynamite, like every other film in Marjoe Gortner's career, comes under the microscope in the excellent Wildcat!, which can be bought from numerous places including Amazon.  You can also check out John's blog here.

Darren Arnold