If Jesus Christ came back to Earth and saw the 1971 Baptist propaganda film “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?”, He would convert to Buddhism. This astonishing little movie hits a rare trifecta of foaming-mouth lunacy: barking dogma, Cold War paranoia and Dixie-fried exploitation filmmaking at its unintentionally funniest.
“If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” is the unlikely collaboration of two of the least inspiring men of their respective trades: the Rev. Estus W. Pirkle, a Mississippi preacher who had a minor following thanks to mail order sales of audiotaped sermons, and Alan Ormond, a Grade Z filmmaker who gave the world such nonsense as “The Monster and the Stripper” and “The Girl from Tobacco Road.” Ormond came to Rev. Pirkle’s peculiar theology after being born-again, although his embrace of faith did not include an upgrade in his filmmaking skills. With this film, Ormond simply replaced the buxom starlets of his older flicks with fat redneck broads in polyester dresses shouting “Praise Jesus!” while keeping the rickety and incompetent trademarks of his cinematic style.
In many ways, “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” feels like it was made by people with Attention Deficit Disorder as three completely unrelated stories ping-pong back and forth around the screen. The first is a straightforward and humorless sermon by Rev. Pirkle on how early 1970s America was pushing away God and embracing the foundations of moral ruin. While citing some obvious troubling developments of that era, including the rise in urban crime and violent unrest on college campuses, Rev. Pirkle goes even further in spotting sin. As the good pastor pontificates, drive-in theaters are “spawning houses for sex,” Saturday morning TV cartoons “teach our children crime, sex and murder,” and dancing…oh, don’t get him started on that! “Dancing is just as wrong as it’s always been,” he declares with grumpy stoicism. “It’s the front door to sex, and the thing that’s started on the dance floor is expected to end in a car or a motel room.”
Rev. Pirkle is especially harsh on the state of modern education. One scene depicts an elementary school sex education lesson in which a scuzzy-looking teacher declares that pre-marital sex is necessary before launching into a discussion on “the seven erotic zones of passion in every woman.” The lesson never goes beyond that announcement, sadly, although gutter-minded viewers will get a kick at the illustration of the woman used for this particular lecture (she was clearly inspired by Russ Meyer’s movies).
Rev. Pirkle’s sermon is presented in a church full of very bored-looking people. One woman in the front row can be seen sleeping during most of the sermon, which is a shame since she’s missing the juicy stuff.
The second story line involves Rev. Pirkle’s prediction that the Soviet Union would successfully conquer American within 24 months unless there is a mass revival to embrace his version of Christianity. The film includes sequences of what a Soviet-run America would look like: Stalin-lookalikes dressed in Tsarist military uniforms riding on horses and terrorizing God-fearing hicks, forcing them to work from 5am to 8pm 363 days a year; the two free days are for praising the Marxist way of life. The movie goes out of its way to imagine the depravity of Soviet-style repression. There are constant panning shots of dead bodies lying in bullet-riddled wreckage (although the blood on the victims looks conspicuously like cherry sauce dribbled about pell-mell). And those who don’t give in to the party line that “Communism is Good! Christianity is Stupidity!” face intense torture. In one amazing scene, a small boy is grabbed by a Soviet soldier (with a fairly strong Mississippi drawl, but never mind) and has a bamboo shaft shoved into his ears so he will be unable to ever heard the Word of God. Never mind the lack of bamboo plants growing in Mississippi. The boy emerges from the assault with giant sticks hanging out of both of his ears, at which point he begins to vomit profusely into the camera.
The film also depicts such horrors as having drunken Soviet soldiers bursting into homes, beating up the men of the house and then having their wicked ways with poor screaming housewives. The actual penetration of the housewives is never depicted, but those with overactive imaginations can imagine the horrors of having a Russian peg inserted into an American hole. We also have a stubborn, Christ-proud child who refuses to commit apostasy on a picture of Jesus and is punished by having his head chopped off with a machete by a laughing Soviet officer. The child’s head is triumphantly held up and then tossed noggin into a field like a soccer ball.
The third story involves Judy, the local slut who shows up late in the sermon wearing a psychedelic mini-skirt that seems more appropriate for “Laugh-In” than a Rev. Pirkle revival meeting. Judy is initially bored with the sermon, but as the film progresses she inexplicably gets caught up in the Commie chatter and then begins experiencing flashbacks about her own naughty behavior (which includes hanging out with a shady guy in a cheap cafe and drinking beer out of a styrofoam cup). Judy then recalls her poor old fat and sloppy Momma, who succumbed to a heart attack because Judy would not accept Jesus and forsake her bad behavior. Judy begins hallucinating about her Momma’s funeral and how she cried uncontrollably over the open coffin (but if she looked up, she would have seen Momma visibly breathing when she was supposed to be stone cold dead). Judy makes a spectacle of herself when she goes to the altar, kneels in her mini-skirt (giving a nice view of the Gates of Heaven to those in the front pew) and announces that Jesus is her savior and Rev. Pirkle is her middleman to the Man from Galilee.
Compared to this film, the disco crucifixion from “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a mirror of a Billy Graham hallelujah-fest and the “Life of Brian” screenplay is a mirror of the Gospel According to St. Matthew. If the film was not so thoroughly stupid, it would blasphemous. And the all-white cast would also suggest that Rev. Pirkle and his congregation found a loophole in Christ’s “Love thy neighbor” lesson that kept darker-skinned people out of the neighborhood. But thankfully, Rev. Pirkle was so clueless regarding the chaos he brought to the screen that “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” is an unexpected comedy gem of the same intensity and hilarity of Ed Wood’s anti-classics.
Oh, the title. It seems that Rev. Pirkle considers the various sinful temptations of the world (dancing, TV cartoons, drive-ins) as being the footmen who are running about society trying to drag down Christian goodie-goodies. The horses…well, the animals themselves aren’t all that bad. The hatred should be addressed to the sin-spreading guys in the saddle who are chasing the church-on-Sunday crowd, or something like that. It’s a shame that no one gave the horses the camera and told them to make a film–they probably would’ve come up with something more intellectual and spiritual than anything Rev. Pirkle could pull from his fire-and-brimstone bag of tricks.
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