“It’s Living That’s Treacherous”: Pop Culture Reflections of Jonestown

By Michael Grasso / November 14, 2016

jim-jonesCheck with Russia to see if they’ll take us in immediately. Otherwise we die. I don’t know what else you say to these people. But to me death is not… death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous.

—Jim Jones, Jonestown “Death Tape,” November 18, 1978

American society collectively shuddered in November 1978 as news of the Jonestown cult mass death began to filter home from Guyana. Jim Jones, head of the Peoples Temple, commanded the death of over 900 of his followers, as well as the murder of a U.S. Congressman, four journalists, and a defecting Temple member, in a spasm of cult violence never seen before in the modern age. The reaction back home was immediate and long-lasting, leading to a sea change in how the average American looked at fringe religious movements. The Bay Area politicians who’d courted Jones during his time as a political leader in the early ’70s, like Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, immediately tried to distance themselves from the group’s activities, only to find themselves felled by an assassin’s bullets a mere nine days after the Jonestown massacre. The Cult Awareness Network (CAN), originally founded by Ted Patrick in 1971 as FREECOG, took on the CAN moniker and hired Patricia Ryan (the daughter of Peoples Temple victim Congressman Leo Ryan) as its director in the wake of Jonestown.

Awareness of Jonestown penetrated into every crevice of American culture and discourse, gifting American English with the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” and forever enshrining Jones as a particular and unique symbol of evil: cult leader as apocalyptic mass murderer of his own flock. It’s probably not surprising that in the aftermath of the shocking events perpetrated by Jones, popular entertainment hopped aboard to retell—and exploit—the story of the worst mass murder-suicide (304 of the 909 victims were minors) in American history.

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Stuart Whitman as James Johnson in Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979)

First off the blocks was an exploitation flick from a rising star in the late-’70s Mexican film industry, Rene Cardona, Jr. He’d directed a quickie rip-off of Jaws (Tintorera: Killer Shark, 1977) and a film about the then-peaking phenomenon of the Bermuda Triangle, called simply The Bermuda Triangle (1978). This was followed in 1979 by Guyana: Crime of the Century, aka Guyana: Cult of the Damned. While “names have been changed to protect the innocent,” it’s obvious from the outset what the film is about. The jarringly violent opening sequence, which features a typewriter/Telex-style caption: “Press conference….Modesto, California….March 1979,” shows us a man in a dark suit and sunglasses pulling out a pistol and suddenly (with a badly edited cut) shooting himself in the head. This scene (inspired by the mysterious deaths of Peoples Temple members post-Jonestown) sets the tone for the film: a mix of solemn docudrama and half-assed schlock.

The American cast of Guyana: Crime of the Century features a parade of older B-actors and TV vets who had largely made their names in the previous couple of decades. Stuart Whitman (Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, 1965) plays the lead role of “Reverend James Johnson.” Whitman’s only regular lead role on TV was in one of the last attempts at a serialized TV Western, Cimarron Strip (1967-1968), and he is remembered by cult film fans for his role in 1972’s Night of the Lepus. Playing the investigating Congressman “Lee O’Brien” is Gene Barry, who played Bat Masterson (1958-1961) on NBC. Susan Ames, Johnson’s major domo in the Guyana capital of Georgetown (loosely based on Sharon Amos), is Yvonne “Lily Munster” DeCarlo. Even former Orson Welles repertory mainstay Joseph Cotten gets into the act as one of the Reverend Johnson’s two lawyers, who escapes from “Johnsontown” right before the mass suicide.

The American cast, despite most of their careers being solidly on a downward trajectory by 1979, acquit themselves fairly admirably. When they’re dealing with straight reenactments of the events of Jonestown’s final days, most of which was caught on film or videotape by NBC News, the cast has the drama of reality to work with, which lends a certain amount of gravitas to the proceedings. And Whitman, while he never quite catches the hypnotic cadences of Jones’ speech, brings a sense of drugged-out psychosis to his portrayal of “Johnson” that far exceeds any of the other portrayals reviewed in this piece.

But Guyana: Crime of the Century is not a straight docudrama by any means. Whatever dignity that these B-actors or real events loan to the production, it’s still at heart an exploitation flick. Now, there’s a reason Cardona chose to dramatize the events of Jonestown; at their heart, Jim Jones’ final years at the head of Peoples Temple are a chilling example of the most evil, twisted things that human beings can do to each other in the name of power, politics, religion, and madness. The real stories of abuse, psychological torture, theft, kidnapping, brainwashing, sexual exploitation, and murder committed by Jim Jones and his closest acolytes, even before the “White Night” mass suicide, were well-documented. Cardona doesn’t need to exaggerate too much, but for the purposes of selling a film to American drive-ins, exaggerate he does.

Jonestown did indeed have a solitary confinement chamber where misbehaving cult members were sent for days on end. But was it really filled with snakes, as Cardona would have us believe? What about the rampant CIA-style torture in the form of waterboarding and the electrocutions of genitals? Within Guyana: Crime of the Century, there are tantalizing mentions of psychic surgery, which Jones did indeed practice while in the States (along with the traditionally Christian laying on of hands). Cult members were described as “zombies” in the press in the days and weeks following the suicide, but in a sequence where a cult member emerges from solitary unable to do anything but shamble around silently, this description is taken by Cardona quite a bit too literally. Jones did indeed compel both women and men of the Peoples Temple to sexually service him, and did force cult members to sexually perform for him in front of their fellow cult members. But did he arrange a ritualistic sexual tableau by torchlight, where he forced a pair of naked heterosexual lovers—who dared to have sex outside of his express approval—to sexually service a huge black man named “Lazarus” in front of all 900 citizens of “Johnsontown,” as Johnson does in the movie? Certainly Cardona could weakly assert that this sort of titillating sexploitation was “based on real events,” but, overall, the assertion rings hollow.

And in that zone where exploitation and docudrama collide reside the scenes that are the most fascinating and intriguing—in the “can’t look away from a car crash” kind of way. The film ultimately feels like two different movies that occasionally overlap: one shot with American stars and crews in American locations, and one shot with Mexican actors and crews in Mexico. The entire group of newspaper and television reporters who accompany Congressman O’Reilly to Guyana is made up of Mexican actors who need to have their voices dubbed into English (including Quentin Tarantino inspiration and Mexploitation star Hugo Stiglitz); much of their wardrobe looks like it was brought from home, as opposed to that of the Anglo actors. In an awkward scene with Gene Barry in “San Francisco,” the reporters methodically introduce themselves (in badly dubbed English), and you can see a look of “what have I gotten myself into?” cross Barry’s face as he acknowledges each of them while shaking their hands. We then return to the homes of each of the reporters as they say goodbye to their families for a portentous final time; again, all these conversations are dubbed and are fairly obviously shot on grand private estates in Mexico. When the reporters and O’Reilly arrive in Georgetown, the montage of scenes from the streets of the capital has the look of a a Guyanan tourism film. It’s like Cardona had enough footage for a 50-minute Jonestown docudrama and padded the rest with stock footage. Certainly, this is par for the course in exploitation films, but it is jarring considering the topic.

Even so, in its last 20 minutes or so, Guyana: Crime of the Century is positively gripping. The events leading up to the attack on Congressman O’Reilly and the subsequent mass suicide are depicted in a suspenseful manner. The shootout at the airstrip in Port Kaituma, aside from a few profoundly silly stunt miscues (victims flying dramatically backwards from rifle shots), is well-shot, well-composed, and action-packed. The final sequence at Johnsontown features not only a trippy double-exposure sequence as Johnson hectors his followers unto death, but a tricky edit when Johnson is shot that leaves the question of who shot and killed Johnson completely open. This echoes conspiracy theories at the time and still held to this day that Jim Jones did not commit suicide but was assassinated either by his own soldiers or by shadowy forces that had infiltrated the Jonestown compound.

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Powers Boothe as Jim Jones in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)

It wasn’t long before Hollywood proper came knocking at Jim Jones’ door. Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones was a TV movie made for CBS released in April of 1980. Starring Powers Boothe as the actual Jim Jones—no pseudonyms here—it’s more of a straight-ahead biopic of the cult leader than a look at the Jonestown tragedy alone. The screenplay was adapted from the book Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account (1978) by Charles A. Krause. Krause was one of the reporters assigned to travel with Congressman Ryan and was wounded in the Port Kaituma shootout; Krause’s book came out mere weeks after the events in Jonestown.

It’s probably worth bringing in a little bit of context about the now-vanished format of the American network TV movie or miniseries. The miniseries arguably found its zenith in this very time period, from the mid ’70s to the late ’80s. Given the enormous ratings success of Roots (1977) and Roots: The Next Generations (1979) for ABC, miniseries became the three networks’ surefire way to goose ratings and perhaps produce an award-winning prestige project. Guyana Tragedy, meant fairly transparently as a ratings stunt, ended up providing both benefits to CBS; it pulled down a 20.3 Nielsen rating (just over one-fifth of American households watched it) and as of 2004 was the 10th most viewed network miniseries of all time.

CBS pulled out no stops to make this two-part, four-hour TV movie a ratings success. Two stars from Roots, Levar Burton (who played the central figure of the first Roots series, Kunta Kinte) and James Earl Jones (who played author Alex Haley in the modern-day segments of Roots: The Next Generations) appeared in Guyana Tragedy. James Earl Jones played the intriguing figure of Father Divine, an African-American spiritual leader of the middle part of the 20th century who, in his later years, found an erstwhile ally and acolyte in Jim Jones (Jones would later claim to be Father Divine reincarnated). Ned Beatty, by that time a recipient of both Oscar and Emmy nominations, co-starred as Congressman Ryan. The production had a budget, A-list star power, and the support of a major U.S. network, which makes the pedestrian, occasionally melodramatic script and staging, and generic TV-movie score all the more frustrating.

By modern standards, Guyana Tragedy is slow, plodding, tedious, and even somewhat apologetic on behalf of Jim Jones. The first two-hour half seems like the first act of a standard “rise and fall” biopic, with young Jim Jones valiantly fighting racism in Indiana in his early years. True, the eventual inversion of this expected biopic trajectory makes Jones’ later obsession with nuclear Armageddon, paranoia over right-wing death squads, and drug and sex addiction much more unexpected. But at the same time, the attention given to his early days in service to racial justice undercuts the violent, paranoid impact of the Peoples Temple’s final days. All of these scenes are by necessity dramatizations and interpretations, and the script by Ernest Tidyman does not convey the horror of Jonestown, except when it sticks to the actual words of the final days as recorded. Edited to a tighter two-hour movie, there might have been something there. As it is, Guyana Tragedy has little of the subversive, dangerous edge of Cardona’s exploitation flick and sticks too closely to the network miniseries formula.

An interesting postscript to the Guyana Tragedy miniseries is that it did receive multiple Emmy nominations and one win: Powers Boothe for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special. With the SAG/AFTRA strike of the summer and fall of 1980, all the actors up for awards that year boycotted the ceremony—with the exception of Powers Boothe. In his acceptance speech, Boothe stated, “This is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest.”

After Guyana Tragedy, the figure of the deviant, sunglasses-wearing cult leader became shorthand for both Jim Jones and the specifically decadent kind of American fringe that Jones embodied. But in the 1980s, the can-do attitude of the Reagan era turned this ultimate evil into a cartoon, a made-to-order Bad Guy that a team of American action heroes could ably take down.

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John Saxon as Martin James in “Children of Jamestown,” The A-Team (1983)

The A-Team debuted immediately following Super Bowl XVII on January 30, 1983. Benefiting from this no-miss lead-in, the show went on to become a top-rated action hit and a cultural touchstone over the next five years. The A-Team‘s very first mission after its two-hour, post-Super Bowl pilot? To infiltrate the compound of a very familiar-looking cult leader in season one’s “Children of Jamestown.”

The A-Team are hired to rescue a kidnapped heiress from the cult of one “Martin James” (thereby neatly evoking two ghosts of the socially and politically turbulent 1970s: Jim Jones and Patty Hearst). Martin James is played by the always-reliable John Saxon, the go-to ’70s and ’80s B-movie heavy par excellence. Given that this is an episode of the always cartoonishly-scripted A-Team, Saxon doesn’t get a lot to work with, and for a prospective clash of tough-guy titans—the possibility of watching Saxon as a maniacal cult leader go toe-to-toe with George “Hannibal” Peppard—one can’t help but be disappointed when the A-Team’s characteristic narrative-defying silliness takes hold.

The signifiers of Jonestown are all present, however; James’ settlement is called “Jamestown,” and he broadcasts his screeds over shortwave and loudspeaker, just like Jones. The symbolism of his cult is more a combination of Symbionese Liberation Army and Illuminati (his cult’s symbol is a pyramid laden with Masonic-looking imagery), while the cult itself is a bloodless group of stock ’80s action-TV mooks in cheap-looking monastic robes. Saxon is the only one who offers any hint of the evil of Jonestown. The sunglasses hide eyes “high on smack or a speedball,” according to the streetwise B.A. Baracus. James, after initially capturing the members of the A-Team, threatens them with summary execution. But in the end, he can’t withstand the combined assault of the traps, tricks, flamethrowers, explosives, and helicopters deployed by the A-Team. In the 1970s, a massive cult suicide was the inevitable result of James’ breed of madness. But the quintessentially 1980s action team, its members a paradoxical combination of establishment military and rebels, just blow up some guard towers in the final act and bring “James” to account for his sins. No one dies; the heiress goes home to her grateful industrialist father; the U.S. Army can’t capture the A-Team; and James is—allowed to go free? Taken in by a posse of local farmers? It’s all left rather vague in the manner of most of the show’s endings. Since the A-Team members themselves are outlaws, they can’t usually involve the law in the resolution of their for-hire missions.

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Cameron Mitchell as Yarakunda in Low Blow (1986)

Lastly, we have Low Blow (1986), a fantastically ill-advised piece of action schlock designed as a vanity vehicle for Chinese actor Leo Fong, who plays Joe Wong, an ex-cop turned rule-breaking private investigator. He’s a Dirty Harry by way of Canton, patrolling the streets of San Francisco and meting out his own brand of fatal justice in a classic opening scene where he guns down robbers at his corner sandwich shop (the action sequence sting line is “Hey… forget the sandwich”). The film’s editing and script really have to be seen and heard to be believed, as does the omnipresent, soaringly-bombastic rock guitar score by Steve Amundsen. Fong and director/collaborator Frank Harris work through every ’80s action cliché in the book and perhaps invent a few new ones. But for our purposes, the relevant bit is the use of a Peoples Temple-like cult, “Universal Enlightenment,” led by Cameron Mitchell (best known for the TV western The High Chapparal, 1967-1971), as the antagonist.

Again, an heiress is drawn in by the cult. Mitchell’s cult leader, the sinister “Yarakunda,” is unctuously seductive to his charges. Wearing wrap-around sunglasses, a black hood, and a sinister grin, Mitchell chews the scenery for all he’s worth. Yarakunda spends most of the film seated on his throne, immobile, mumbling his lines. But he has his right-hand, played by Akosua Busia (who had just the previous year starred in prestige project The Color Purple), shout out his holy scripture for him through a megaphone. It’s unclear whether it’s Yarakunda the character or Cameron Mitchell the actor we’re meant to assume is too out of it to be able to speak clearly through the megaphone. Mitchell, then, nearly a decade removed from the horrors of Jonestown, is the final iteration of the Jim Jones figure in pop culture: an immobile, chair-bound lech who’s more of a campy deconstruction of the archetypal cult leader than a real threat. Wong assembles a ragtag group of vigilantes to assault Universal Enlightenment’s agricultural compound and take down the cult.

Much like in The A-Team, the dream of the libertarian 1980s stakes its claim—namely, that private, militarized citizens with fists and guns would succeed where President Carter’s State Department, the U.S. Army, and a U.S. Representative protected by “the shield of Congress” failed. If evil cults and political insurgents were coddled by prominent left-wing political figures of the 1970s like Moscone, Milk, and Rosalynn Carter, then the right-thinking private mercenary strike-teams of the Reagan era would take out the weirdos with extreme prejudice—one action sequence at a time.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

One thought on ““It’s Living That’s Treacherous”: Pop Culture Reflections of Jonestown

  1. This is a terrific review. Thanks. Several of these works were unknown to me, though Jonestown haunted my dreams for years after the events that year. I think CBS’ decision to focus (“apologetically”) on the early Jones’ civil rights efforts was an interesting one (and I recall it well since it surprised me so much). The approach, I think, was intended to show how, and under what conditions, Jones’ sort of apocalyptic rhetoric might be occluded by his purportedly left-agenda, and so seduce even the likes of Harvey Milk. This is an embarrassing part of San Francisco history, in a sense, but not one worth shuffling beneath the rug. Great review!

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