Friday A/V Club

The Other '80s Blade Runner Movie

Friday A/V Club: Ridley Scott wasn't the only director who filmed a Blade Runner in the Reagan years.


Keep an eye out for replicants. Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner is supposed to take place in November 2019, and November 2019 begins today. In honor of that, the Friday A/V Club is pleased to present the other '80s Blade Runner movie.

What—you thought only one Blade Runner movie came out in the 1980s? Pull up a chair, and I'll tell you the tangled tale of Taking Tiger Mountain.

The key thing to understand here is that Blade Runner took its title and its story from entirely different sources. The script is based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The title comes from The Bladerunner, a potboiler published in 1974 by Alan E. Nourse. I haven't read the Nourse book, but here's how Abraham Riesman described it in Vulture:

starring Harrison Ford as the nurse

It's the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the "Health Control laws"—enforced by the office of a draconian "Secretary of Health Control"—dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don't want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as "bladerunners."…

Billy is a bladerunner, Doc is a doctor who does legal and illegal work, they live in the greater New York metropolitan area (one way in which the novel coincidentally resembles Blade Runner is the setting of a massively overbuilt city where people are often transported via flying car), they run into trouble with the law, they race to stop an epidemic, and their virtue is rewarded by a change in national policy that makes their brand of medical care legal.

starring Harrison Ford's severed footNourse's thriller caught the eye of the Beat writer William Burroughs, who decided to turn it into a "film treatment." I put "film treatment" in quotes because you'd have to look long and hard in Hollywood to find anything resembling the bizarre experimental text that Burroughs assembled. In addition to bearing little resemblance to an ordinary treatment, the work bears little resemblance to Nourse's novel (or at least to Riesman's summary of it): The dystopian politics and medical horrors are still there, but now there's gay sex and time travel too. Deemed unfilmable, Burroughs' text was instead shipped to bookstores in 1979 under the title Blade Runner (a movie).

Now jump back to 1974. While Nourse was publishing The Bladerunner, a filmmaker named Kent Smith and a teenage actor named Bill Paxton were traveling around Wales with some rented movie equipment, shooting a scriptless film vaguely inspired by the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III. Years later, after Paxton was an established movie star, he told Variety about the experience. "We had purchased black-and-white [film stock] from the film Lenny, and we sort of shot things as we came across them," he remembered. "One guy had a Kenyan vulture, so we used that for a scene of eating my entrails. We met some girls and talked them into doing some nude scenes with us. Basically it was a bunch of hippies running around naked. It was all silent, black-and-white footage."

Smith and Paxton acquired hours of material this way, but they eventually had to confront the fact that they didn't have anything resembling a story. So their work sat around incomplete for years—until another director, Tom Huckabee, got his hands on the footage and on the film rights to Burroughs' text. He shot some more material, added some voiceovers drawn partly from the Burroughs book, and edited it all into an indie feature called Taking Tiger Mountain.

And where did he get that name? From Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the eight "model operas" that were allowed to be performed in China during the Cultural Revolution. So now, when you play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you'll know the quickest route from Bill Paxton to Chairman Mao. And from J. Paul Getty to Philip K. Dick. You're welcome.

Taking Tiger Mountain was released, just barely, in 1983, a year after Scott's Blade Runner. I despair at the thought of trying to summarize it, so I'll just quote the IMDb:

In a dystopian future, Europe is unified under a totalitarian patriarchy, where each town is assigned a single economic purpose. In Brendovery, Wales the occupation is prostitution. Arriving by train from London is Billy Hampton, a young American expatriate and draft evader (Bill Paxton in his first lead role), ostensibly there to enjoy a sex-filled holiday. Unknown to him he is a time bomb assassin, programmed by a feminist terrorist cell to assassinate the local minister of prostitution.

That makes it sound rather more coherent than it really is, but it should give you the gist.

A restored version of Taking Tiger Mountain has been playing at film festivals this year, and if you want to see the picture in its full glory you can either make your way to one of those screenings or stream it for a fee at this link. If you'd rather watch the much muddier-looking '83 version, it's embedded below. I can't say it's for all tastes, but you might get some pleasure out of it if you like hallucinatory dystopian visions. Or if you're a Burroughs completist. Or if you're just curious about what Bill Paxton looked like when he was 19 and naked.


(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. If you want to see another installment involving William Burroughs, go here. If you want to see another installment involving Philip K. Dick, go here. If you want to see another installment involving Bill Paxton, you're S.O.L.)

NEXT: When Government Lobbies Government for More Government

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  1. Well, dammit, I started watching it and then realized I had confused Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman. Again.

    1. Paxton’s the one in the Dead shirt in Indian Summer lol

  2. Blade Runner okay but a tad overrated. In the 80’s Scott thought by 2019 we would have robots and and travel to the constellation Orion to battle? No, we just have bots which we battle online over nonsense.

    1. Flying car prototypes were out in the early 90s… With massive gull wing door wings. Killed by regulation.

      1. With massive gull wing door wings. Killed by regulation.

        And practicality.

        There’s already a flying car that’s been brought to market. The Moller flying car was doing it wrong. They built a car that flew… the company that finally brought one to market built a plane that drove. Boom. Problem solved.

        1. ‘Flying car’ is a fundamentally dumb idea. Things that fly have to be as light as possible. Things that drive around have to protect their occupants in case of a crash. Things that fly have to have big lifting surfaces (wings or rotors) and be powered by propellers or jet engines. Things that drive around have to have drive trains that send power to wheels. Combining the two things has always been dumb from a practical perspective — any ‘flying car’ is inevitably going to be ungodly expensive and complicated and crap at both driving and flying.


    1. Damn it!
      That was going to be my reply to Jerry above

  4. If the original really was Bill Paxton’s first role, it seems also to be his last:

    Bill Paxton’s last credited role before his untimely death in February 2017.

    1. “That’s Bill Pullman you fool!”

  5. Wow! The story, I mean, haven’t looked at the video. But the connections also branch in other directions.

    From the model opera it goes to a set of (Collectible? Postal?) picture cards with still shots or artwork, I don’t know which, that were found by Brian Eno in some shop. Having no idea what the opera was about (there’s a recent film adaptation now), he thought it was a good title for a piece and title track, “Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)”.

    That’s fairly ho-hum except for the serendipity. Tiger Mountain is fictional, and there is no such mountain in China, although there is a Dragon And Tiger Mountain there. However, there is a Tiger Mountain in Washington, a popular antenna site for stations serving Seattle-Tacoma. And that’s at least close to the route of the never-completed Russian-American Telegraph line. Eno’s lyrics:

    We climbed and we climbed, oh how we climbed
    Over the stars to top Tiger Mountain,
    Forcing the lines thru the snow.

    The telegraph line was installed that way, first erecting the poles and then climbing to string the line. “Over the stars” can be read as “north of the United States”, i.e. over in the sense of north of on the map, into British Columbia, and “the stars” referring to the Stars and Stripes, i.e. the USA. And indeed they had to force the lines thru a lot of snow in what is now Alaska. Eno had no idea of this, I’m sure, but it fits very well.

  6. And that’s not all! That method of movie making was pursued in 1960 using the new Fairchild 8mm with sound by members John Strathman and David Lindelof of the Bad Film Society of Northwestern U. (and independently by George Kuchar and John Keel at NYU’s not-bad film club) to make Whisper of Evil, now known mostly for the part of Brian Lamb (whom you know from C-SPAN), who played a DJ (which he was then while a student). When whoever had the camera at the moment came upon a silo fire, he chose to use some of their limited film to film it, and then they conceived that as the mummy’s having set fire to the radio station (and tower, which the silo sort-of resembled) to cover his tracks after killing the DJ.

    This won the Society’s award for worst cinematography (abetted by the use of the camera when the battery had run down, made up for by varying the speed of the projector). It was the only original entry, the rest being movies they’d seen on TV at their usual meetings; Edward D. Wood, Jr. tended to sweep most of their categories.

  7. “they run into trouble with the law, they race to stop an epidemic, and their virtue is rewarded by a change in national policy that makes their brand of medical care legal.”

    You know, fiction doesn’t work if it isn’t believable.

  8. the “Health Control laws”—enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control”—dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first.

    Now do welfare.

  9. We could also mention the comic book adaptations of Electric Sheep, or pursue the leg that is Qu Bo’s writings based on his experiences that included the material in Tiger Mountain. The latter is based on a true story of someone’s infiltrating the Mafia.

  10. Holy crap, talk about six degrees of separation.

  11. Hadn’t heard of this other Blade Runner. Just watched a bit of it and reminds me of some college buddies who were big pot and acid heads and would play shit like this on VHS tape. I don’t remember the details too well 30 years later, but I may have seen it.

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