Over the years Kurt Russell has played some very dangerous characters; the anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, the suicidal Captain O’Neil from Stargate, and the psychotic Stuntman Mike from Tarantino’s Death Proof, so it’s almost hard to believe that for the first half of his career he was mostly known for playing lovable goofballs in various comedies. It should also be noted that Russell is one of those rare actors who managed to survive the transition from child star to adult actor as well as overcome the label of being a “Disney Kid” that he earned while under his ten year contract with the studio. Which brings us to today’s topic The Deadly Tower, where Kurt Russell plays real life crazed sniper Charles Whitman, which was about the biggest departure from his typical fare as one could get.
It must have really caught some people off guard back in 1975 when they went out to see Disney’s The World’s Strongest Man, where Kurt Russell played the charismatic college goofball Dexter Riley, and then upon arriving home turned on NBC’s movie of the week to see Russell playing the clean cut sniper who took the lives 15 people, wounding 31 others, during his rampage in the movie of the week The Deadly Tower. If there is a better example of an actor trying to break free from typecasting I can’t think of it.
The Deadly Tower follows the true story of crazed sniper Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell) who on the fateful day of August 1st 1966 orchestrated 96 minutes of terror from atop the tower of The University of Texas and of police officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniguez) the man who ended that reign of terror. The movie opens with a title explaining “Both the character and personality of Ramiro Martinez’s wife and certain scenes about the Martinez family have been fictionalized for dramatic effect” which is to be expected as this movie is an NBC docudrama not a Sixty Minutes documentary. Now some of the changes made I understand as one has to expect a little verging from the truth to make the story more palatable to the viewing public but some of the alterations are a little odd; such as when in the movie Charles Whitman entered the reception area to the observation deck he encounters the receptionist and nicely pushes her into the elevator telling her, “You go on down. Don’t come back if you value your life.” But what actually happened is that Whitman knocked her to the floor and split the back of her skull with the butt of his rifle, she did not survive. Later in the film we see him brutally open on fire a family of tourists that were heading up to the observation deck killing two of them and injuring two others. Why fabricate a moment of him sparring someone and then show him coldly murder some people mere minutes later?
Why the movie would illustrate him showing mercy to the receptionist is a bit of a mystery here, maybe it was a strange way to attempt to humanize Whitman, but being by this point in the film we’d already seen him murder his mother and his wife I’m not sure that was possible. One could consider Charles Whitman as a tragic figure if you take a look at the letter he left behind stating that he wanted his body to be autopsied as he believed something was medically wrong him, but even though a tumor was later discovered doctors have debated over whether it was the cause of Whitman’s violent actions that day.
The movie tries to dance around several hot button issues with mental health being only one of them; early in the film we see Martinez being passed over for promotion and it is clearly implied that this was because he was of Mexican ethnicity. Lieutenant Lee (Pernell Roberts) expresses this belief to Captain Fred Ambrose (Clifton James), stating that Martinez deserves the promotion, but Captain Racist won’t hear of it. Casting Clifton James in this part, an actor most known for playing redneck law enforcement officers, is obvious shorthand in depicting racism in the Texas police department.
The film of course also deals with gun rights and as this horrible event took place in Texas we do see a lot of civilians running around with guns, but the film tries to dance around which side of the issue the filmmakers support; when Martinez arrives on the scene he is confused as to where all these civilians with guns came from, and then when he runs into a fellow officer who explains that they can’t touch the sniper with the “pop guns” they’ve been issued. It’s pretty clear that Network television was not too keen on taking sides on such a volatile topic.
Then in a character that seems like a cross between screen time padding and a bleeding heart liberal we get Lt. Elwood Forbes (John Forsythe) who runs around trying to identify who exactly the man in the tower is, hoping that if he could locate a loved one they could help talk the guy down and thus take him alive. All this despite his fellow officers seemingly more concerned with stopping the shooting spree rather than worrying about who is doing the shooting. There is an especially telling scene where Forbes tracks down the gun store where Whitman purchased many of his guns and much of his ammunition, he confronts the clerk and gives him a hard time even though selling those guns and rifles to Whitman was completely within the law, and after Forbes gets the identity of the sniper from the clerk the poor man asks, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Lieutenant?” and Forbes responds, “Yeah, you know there were a lot of people killed out there this morning, my friend, you think about that.” What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I’m one who believes the United States needs a complete revamping of their gun laws but laying a guilt trip on a gun store clerk like this is just ridiculous and I doubt ever happened.
The events of The Deadly Tower are grim and brutal yet were fairly depicted for a 1970s television movie, the cast is full of well-known television and movie actors, with Ned Beatty popping up as a civilian that joins the police on their run up the tower to stop Whitman, but most of all it’s Kurt Russell who stands out with his depiction of a character that no one could ever truly understand. He does a lot here with very little dialog. It just took John Carpenter to show the world what a super star he was.
Director Jerry Jameson wisely never glamorizes any of the action, and despite censors keeping the blood to a minimum the film’s 95 minute running time just oozes with dread and tension, and I bet The Deadly Tower would have made a decent splash at the box office if it had been released theatrically. The biggest surprise here is that aside from some pop culture references in movies such as Full Metal Jacket and Natural Born Killers this story doesn’t get much play in the media, that all this event really got was this one television movie seems rather odd, and with gun violence exploding across America I’d say a retelling of this story is well overdue.