A film like Fighting Mad manages to demonstrate real affection and sadness for a fading way of life.
Fomented within the demented laboratory of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Jonathan Demme’s first four features are all responsive works, hatched with the express purpose of riding the coattails of some larger trend or fad. Quickie B-movie cash-ins, to put it bluntly. Yet while so many films of this stripe merely coast by on a perverse willingness to push boundaries, rejiggering their borrowed concepts into bold, shameless new configurations, Demme used the platform to achieve something more delicate, which may explain why so many of these early efforts were box-office disappointments. This may be no truer than in the case of Fighting Mad, the oddball result of a script the director developed from an idea conceived by Corman, intended to feed the weird early ‘70s taste for hillbilly revenge flicks. Examining movies like Billy Jack, Walking Tall and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, the producer determined that the basic recipe for success in the genre was a matter of formula: an unusual mode of transport, an interesting weapon and an off-beat sidekick.
In some sense, Fighting Mad is the sum of these very basic parts, a Rambo-esque action potboiler that finds Tom Hunter (Peter Fonda) returning to his family’s Arkansas horse ranch, only to stumble upon the havoc wreaked by a greedy local developer. Yet it’s also completely removed from the usual scuzzy trappings of these types of movies, more concerned with outlining the rhythms and textures of rural life than delivering pure guts, gore and glory. If Caged Heat found the director experimenting with crafty ways around the standard exploitation beats and Crazy Mama amping up the joy of a crime spree to delirious levels, Fighting Mad is the further expression of such soft-toned subversion, hitting all the obligatory high notes while still managing to blaze a different trail toward its requisite conclusion.
It also picks up on the ending of Crazy Mama, in which a bid to regain wrongly taken Arkansas farmland was defeated by the unflinching tight-fistedness of local bigwigs. Fighting Mad tells a similar tale of rampant injustice, this time in a minor key – a mood matched by drab color palette and a sombre tone, albeit one inflected with ample wit and humor. After his wife leaves him for another man, Tom heads back from the West Coast with his young son, seeking the warm embrace of his family and their ancestral property. He instead finds them hemmed in by an insidiously expanding strip mining operation, which intends to scrub the land clean of its coal reserves and then shove in a shopping mall and housing development. The symbolism is clear, and while the film isn’t subtle, it is serious, treating Tom’s struggle as an Odyssean saga of hubris and honor.
That said, it’s also the rare outlaw movie that puts some trust in governmental process. After being pushed to his limits, Tom takes up guerrilla tactics as a means of fighting back. It’s a move that’s seen as justified, but also a bit rash, with the insistent sense that, provided a bit of patience, the local courts would eventually rule on the family’s side. Yet even as his father repeatedly warns him to bide his time, Tom can’t help but fight back, a choice which eventually dooms his entire family to mutually assured destruction.
The character’s proud over-zealousness is prefigured by an early scene in which Tom backs up a local rancher against a drunken hard-hat who’s nearly taken off the door of his car. It’s an admirable defense, but one also fueled by anger at the same construction worker nearly running him off the road a few minutes earlier, and which quickly escalates to him brandishing a tire iron and doling out car-thwacking blows with gusto. He’s arrested, and while the gesture is in itself heroic, Demme’s thoughtful, compassionate direction instead chooses to spotlight the forlorn look of his young son, watching from a diner window as his father is hauled away by cops.
This shot comes to mind in the film’s final image, a soundless shot of father and son walking the land, which seems like pure fantasy considering the blood-soaked final reckoning that’s preceded it. Here the mandatory mayhem demanded by the trashy B format is satisfied, with Tom riding his motorcycle into a battle he wages solely with a bow and arrow, a skillful, stripped-down hunting raid that reclaims his right to the land in spirit if not entirely in act. Instead of letting this concluding showdown culminate with a victory, Demme instead reminds us that by attempting to save his family with violence, Tom also dooms them to suffer its consequences, preserving his own dignity but taking out the last supporting pegs of his family structure. In doing so, a film like Fighting Mad manages to demonstrate real affection and sadness for a fading way of life, while also sits squarely at its root.