The Big Bird Cage – 1972 / Director: Jack Hill

Men who are only half men and women who are more than all woman!

The apparent pre-requisite for any early 70s Pinoy production was the amalgamation of  revolution and women. Dangerous, and wonderfully under dressed, women at that. The former is to be expected. Ferdinand Marcos’ regime of political oppression ran so deep as to permanently scar the cinematic representation of the Phillipines. But the inclusion of women, clearly an exploitative device tacked on by external agents, would lend a curious and relatively successful side effect which would go some way to form an idiosyncratic sub set in the genre sphere of the period.

With the backing of Roger Corman‘s New World Pictures, Jack Hill‘s The Big Bird Cage (preceding Eddie Romero’s release of  Black Mama, White Mama by nearly 6 months, and following on from its sister production The Big Doll House in spirit) is no exception to the Pinoy rule, reconciling as it does  the sensational ingredients of Filipino political unrest with good looking, but hard-done-by, Women in Chains.

Romero’s picture sails dangerously close to Jack Hill’s – the film’s thematic interests are almost identical. Pam Grier, Sid Haig and Vic Diaz would all be subjected to upcycling in their casting, the foxy Women In Prison concept explicitly carbon copied. But whilst AIP’s production might be slicker and ultimately superior from a technical standpoint, it is so only by the skin of its better financed teeth. The Big Bird Cage is a sturdy film worthy of attention in it’s own right.

As if the plot in a Cirio H. Santiago production ever really mattered, Anitra Ford as Terry finds herself caught up in the revolutionary antics of fiery lovers Blossom (Grier) and Django (Haig – seriously, you can’t keep him away from Pam Grier for a second in the 70s). As a result, Terry winds up in a work camp filled with sex starved women run by grotesque, cruel and overtly homosexual prison guards (including the always fabulous  Diaz).

Along the way, there’s some in-fighting (see! Amazonian Lesbians take on Tempestuous Afro Chicks!), some cliched girl-bonding via the route of begrudging respect and a large dollop of comic relief when Django camps it up to infiltrate the prison and bust the oppressed beauties out. Of course, there’s the “Big Bird Cage” too – a towering wooden machine in which the women risk their lives processing sugar as evil warden Andres Centenera looks on, but it’s all largely peripheral stuff.

Make no mistake about it, this is Pam Grier’s film. But it’s Anitra Ford’s too. Because the pair tag in and out of the movie, taking it in turns to play the central role of strong willed woman with smarts and a permanent girlie hard on. This dichotomy, which clearly paved the way for Black Mama… a year later, is the films best indication that the political angle is fundamentally servile. Try as it might to convince otherwise, The Big Bird Cage, is chiefly concerned with “exploiting” women, though this is not a criticism per se – Hill’s film manages to consolidate its interest in revolution with sex in an intriguing, even sensual, way that Romero’s movie ultimately fell short on.

A decent and inevitable breakout sequence takes in an extended shootout, hungry Alsatians and  the imaginatively handled death of the warden beneath his own burning bird cage as the film stock literally blisters and bubbles as a result. What Hill’s film lacks in subtlety, it more than compensates with action, often vicious and always well executed.

The performances of the supporting cast are of particular depth and note. Candice Roman is especially convincing as a feisty and excessively horny convict (“If only I could get laid, by a real man! once in a while… I think I could stand it…”) and it is something of a shame that her career never really took off as a result of this turn. Vic Diaz meanwhile, clearly revels in his typecast villainous role, though fans of the character actor couldn’t expect anything less.

The Big Bird Cage is a surprisingly sexy, surprisingly foul mouthed and, in places,  surprisingly violent film. It’s teeming with dangerous, talented, and beautiful women. It’s one with plenty to enjoy and, though lacking in its promise of political substance, remains plenty of fun, giving itself plenty to be proud of.