The Big Bird Cage (1972)

The genius of Coffy director Jack Hill and venerated blaxploitation actress Pam Grier unite again, for this wonderful little exercise in the women-in-prison genre. There seemed to be a slew of these gems produced by Roger Corman and made in the Phillipines back in the early seventies, and thankfully we can still enjoy them now. Women in Cages is another fine example, with Pammy in full-on villain mode in that piece. Here she's still pretty mean, but with some redeeming qualities at least. One of the main attractions of this entry in the 'WIP' pantheon is the humour interlaced throughout, which helps as the nudity, violence and more exploitative aspects are reasonably thin on the ground - for this type of film.

In some backwater Phillipines outpost, decadent American woman Terry (long and lanky brunette Anitra Ford) is going to a club with a friend. Patrons mutter that she sleeps around with local politicians. The two friends enjoy seeing the American Blossum (Pammy) performing a cool number with her band. Then, from out of nowhere, Blossum and the band, including guitarist Django (Sid Haig) turn on the crowd and with previously hidden machine-guns, bail them all up and rob them. Terry is caught up in their getaway, and kidnapped by Django. He bundles her into a taxi as a hostage.

As they drive, Django explains that he's not a bandit, but a soon-to-be revolutionary. He soon recognises Terry as the woman who makes trouble with all the politicians. Minutes later, he abandons her as the authorities bear down on them, thinking she'd be worthless as a hostage, as the Government would rather have her silenced. He's right. As Django jumps into a river, the police take in Terry and without trial, send her off by boat to a forced-labour camp. Django reunites with Blossum, and after a knife-fight in their camp, and a tumble in some mud, the two make love (off-screen), much to the other revolutionaries' amusement.

Terry enters the camp. Warden Zappa (Andres Centenera) is clearly sadistic and half-insane from the outset. He shows Terry the German Shepherd dogs that will tear her to bits, if she tries to escape. The rules of the camp are simple - no fighting and no fornication! The prison guards are all camp homosexuals, just to keep those fornication options down. Some of the prisoners work in "The Big Bird Cage", a huge sugar mill that they either push the giant crushing wheel for, or work high up in the cage-like upper levels. Later, Terry meets the other prisoners. They're a hard lot, but no outright attacks takes place. One of them is Mickie, (Carol Speed from the blaxploitation Exorcist knock-off Abby), who torments an immensely tall - seven foot at least - lesbian inmate who wants her way with her. Terry maintains she's going to escape because of her government contacts but, of course, nobody believes her. Meanwhile, Blossum pressures Django to start his revolution, so she can become the new El Presidente's wife. He does this by letting her lob a grenade (with a strangely burning fuse) at the old Presidente! The bomb fizzles out and Blossum is caught, and sent up the river to the good old, reliable work camp. Django disguises himself as a fussy queen to penetrate the camp and fooled, the Warden hires him as they need new men. Terry tries to escape on her own, and is captured and suspended by her long hair for her transgressons.

Blossum soon becomes the new Queen of the Camp with her aggressive, fighting ways. Yet, just as soon as she does, she's tortured by the Warden for insubordination. They place bullets between her fingers and seem to squeeze them. Nasty, but we're not talking the extremes of some WIP films. Later in her injured state in the infirmary, she's happy to see the heavily-disguised Django, and knows rescue is imminent. The tall lesbian prisoner, in one bizarre and unrelated scene, oils her naked self up so that no-one can hold her, and finally chases down the tormenting Mickie, slapping her around. Later, as the wheel on the sugar mill breaks, the Warden sends the small Mickie in to fix it, while the the tall women holds part of it up. Tragedy strike from above though, and the whole mechanism collapses. Mickie is crushed by falling debris and the tall woman is heartbroken, then enraged. Seizing a machete, she kills a guard then advances on the Warden. Only at the last second is she finally shot and killed. The other prisoners pick up weapons and begin to advance on the outnumbered prison guards.

Blossum, knowing Django's plans, orders the girls to step down. Reluctantly they obey, but later she tells them the rebellion is at dawn. The Warden frantically calls the government for reinforcements. Django leads two of the camp guards on, then kicks one in the nether regions and turns the other over to the women. Let's just say the girls end up on top in this sequence! The rebellion commences, and one of the first casualties is the Big Bird Cage, which is set on fire and falls on the warden as an injured prisoner holds him fast. The army arrives to try to take control of the rebellion. Gunfire and all Hell erupts as the frantic prisoners fight for their lives. Will Blossum and Django escape alive to fight another day? Will Terry escape to freedom?

As mentioned earlier, Jack Hill has crafted a less extreme example of this kind of film. Filmed in a straightforward manner with lots of exteriors, there's a lot of nudity, usually amongst the Filipino extras, but the violence and actual sexual depictions are reasonably mild. What The Big Bird Cage has going for it is two things. Number one attraction is Pam Grier, doing her sexy-tough-ghetto-chick act as nobody else can. Watching Blossum get angry and say cool lines, like "that's Miss Niggah to you!", is worth owning the movie for. Number two is the humour, such as the over-the-top prison guard-queens and Blossum's bumbling assassination attempt on El Presidente. Sid Haig is also amusing as both the straight, roguish and gay, mincing versions of Django. I can only recomend this film for lovers of seventies cinema, as you truly get to see one of the icons of the era, Pam Grier, really cut loose and have a good time with her anti-heroine character.

Still, my world-view is completely confused now. Do hand grenades have lit fuses or not?

© Boris "New Fish" Lugosi, 2006.


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Review written: 02/07/2006 20:48:01