A THIEF IN THE NIGHT VHS case (RetroDaze)

The Films of Donald W. Thompson, Part 1: 1973–1975

(Note: This piece follows “The Films of Russ Doughten, Part 1: 1961–1968.”)

When Donald W. Thompson was a nine year old boy in Hamburg New York, his father took him to see the Humphrey Bogart film They Drive By Night (1940). This experience sparked Thompson’s lifelong interest in filmmaking, and as a boy he made a number of 8mm short films. In high school his obsession with motion pictures resulted in his becoming an apprentice projectionist at a local theater. His parents and teachers helped Thompson learn about filmmaking and he made four 16mm silent movies in high school. Thompson enlisted in the Air Force after graduating, and thanks to his experience making films as a teenager he was employed as an Editorial Specialist with U.S. Air Force Motion Pictures while stationed in Florida and Okinawa. During this time Thompson worked on a “TV film series” titled The Magic Island shot in Tokyo and Hong Kong. When his tour of duty ended in 1960, he spent some time in California studying drama and filmmaking at the Pasadena Playhouse. Like many independent filmmakers of the era (including George Romero), Thompson eventually found steady work in industrial films. While on a 1967 production for General Motors in Iowa he met his future wife Beverly and decided to settle down there. He later worked at Des Moines television station KRNT, and for a time was a writer/director/producer for the Iowa Educational Broadcasting Network.

Newspaper television listing for CANDLE IN THE WIND: The Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 27 November 1969. (Newspapers.com)
Newspaper television listing for THE YELLOW SUMMER: The Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 13 January 1971. (Newspapers.com)

While working for the IEBN in 1969 Thompson wrote, produced, and directed a one-hour short feature film entitled Candle in the Wind. Iowa television listings from November of 1969 describe the film as a “Movie produced in Des Moines about Jamie (Teddy Brubaker), a boy experiencing a difficult time when home is a place to eat and sleep and the outdoors beckons.” In 1970, the network aired a documentary special Thompson wrote, produced, and directed about the making of the film The Molly Maguires starring Sean Connery and Samantha Eggar. That same year he produced and directed another film about troubled youth for the network, The Yellow Summer (1970). This film screened in January of 1971, and according to TV listings of the time “…characterizes the life of a parentless child through contrast and comparison of two trans-racial ‘hard to place’ children.” Thompson had also founded a production company of his own called The Filmmakers 7, Inc. whose mission was to “create and present responsible family entertainment.”

While it appears that Candle in the Wind was the only film produced by The Filmmakers 7, its mission statement was very close to what Russ Doughten had always wanted to do with Heartland Productions. According to Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke’s book Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry 1930–1986, Thompson had encountered Doughten in the late 1960s while they were both involved with Paramount. Doughten made quite an impression on Thompson, who later credited their initial meeting with spurring on his own spiritual journey to Christianity. He approached Doughten with the idea to make a Christian film, and after consulting with Ken Anderson — whose Ken Anderson Films was one of the most successful Christian film companies of all time — the two men formed Mark IV Pictures in 1972 as a separate corporation from Heartland Productions. Doughten was president of both companies and they shared the same Des Moines office space, but they wanted to use different names for separate branding: Heartland would produce films geared more toward younger audiences, while Mark IV Pictures would focus on more “mature” productions.

In Lindvall and Quicke’s book, Thompson explains the origin behind the name of the company:

“And so I came across Corinthians VI, which sounded like a Dixieland band, and I came to Mark VII; that was Jack Webb’s logo, and I came to Mark IV and I called Russ on the phone and said, ‘What do you think of Mark IV?’ He said, “What does it mean?” And I said it was a whole chapter in the Bible. He called me back and told me to read Mark 4:33 which was exactly the thing we were looking for.”
Mark IV Pictures determined to release their films based on the model of Jesus’s communication recorded in this passage: “With many such parables he spoke the word unto them, as they were able to hear it” (ESV).

A Thief in the Night (1973)

Opening title card: “Keep a sharp lookout! For you do not know when I will come, at evening, at midnight, early dawn or late daybreak. Don’t let me find you sleeping!” — Jesus Christ

The first feature-length film under the Mark IV Pictures banner would be A Thief in the Night. Before its premiere on March 22 1973 the company had already landed a job producing a television special for popular gospel singers The Lundstroms that was set be aired in syndication all across the country. They were also planning their next film, a 35mm production called Mustard Seed. Doughten had been developing the script for this project since 1970, and intended to shoot it on location in Israel. The men were nothing if not ambitious in the beginning of their partnership, and their confidence was warranted. They screened A Thief in the Night for Ken Anderson hoping he would distribute it. He advised them to instead distribute it themselves as he was certain it would be a huge hit and they would make considerably more money self-distributing than working with a third party. He was not wrong. By the end of 1973 A Thief in the Night had hundreds of public screenings in over half of the United States and in British Columbia, and had even screened on television in some American markets. It was the evangelical filmmaking equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and it kicked off a four-film Tribulation Series the likes of which had never been seen in “Christian movies.”

Patty (Patty Dunning) wakes in a panic in the opening moments of A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. (Iowa Public Radio)

As the film opens, Patty (Patty Dunning) wakes up in a panic: the radio announcer is talking about the sudden mysterious disappearance of millions of people. She stumbles out of her bedroom to find her husband Jim (Mike Niday) but only finds his electric razor buzzing in the sink. The action dissolves to some previous time and introduces the rest of the film’s principal characters: teenage band leader and evangelist Duane (Duane Coller), Patty’s unbelieving friend Diane (Maryann Rachford) and her similarly skeptical boyfriend Jerry (Thom Rachford), and Patty’s friend Jenny (Colleen Niday), who accepts Jesus as her savior early in the film while all of her other friends are having fun taking helicopter rides at the Iowa State Fair. Jenny tells Patty all about it at work the following day, but Patty is ambivalent: “I hope that works out well for you.” The reason for Patty’s attitude toward all this “born again” talk is soon revealed. At her church, Reverend Matthew Turner (Russell S. Doughten Jr.) preaches that the bible is not to be taken literally, just followed in broad strokes. The concept of being “born again” has never been discussed with Patty, and it makes her uncomfortable.

Duane (Duane Coller) talks to his friends about the antichrist in A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. (Wonders in the Dark)

Between hangouts picknicking and waterskiing, Duane talks to his friends about the antichrist and the “end times.” Jerry dismisses Duane with one of his endless Humphrey Bogart impressions, much to Diane’s delight. Patty is uncertain, but Jim is genuinely curious. It’s a good thing, too, because not long after Jim is bitten by a cobra and rushed to the hospital. The doctor tells Patty the only hope they have is a man whose blood can act as an anti-venom, and as he is flown to the hospital Patty is terrified. Jenny, on the other hand, is very calm because she trusts in the Lord. Jim is narrowly saved and Jenny’s pastor (Clarence Balmer) arrives to pray for Jim’s healing and his soul. The following Sunday Jim goes to Jenny’s church where Pastor Balmer tells the story of a young girl who was terrified that her family had been Raptured without her. When they get home, almost the exact story happens to Jenny’s little sister, who shrieks in horror when she can’t find her sister or mother. This incident has frightened her enough that she accepts Jesus immediately afterward.

Jim continues to attend Pastor Balmer’s church with Jenny and her family, although he and Patty are married by Reverend Turner. A montage of still photos shows time passing in the new household of the happy young couple, set to a melancholy Rhodes piano instrumental of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Afterward, Pastor Balmer visits Jim and Patty in their home and explains to Jim the gift of Jesus’s blood sacrifice by using the story of Jim’s cobra bite and the anti-venom blood that saved his life as a metaphor. Jim accepts Jesus, but again Patty is angry and uncertain. The following day while Jenny, her sister, Jim, Duane, and Pastor Balmer are doing their regular morning routines they all suddenly disappear — cue Patty waking up in a panic to the news on the radio. Things move fast in the wake of the disappearance with the formation of UNITE (United Nations Imperium of Temporary Emergency), a seemingly benevolent governmental organization that seeks to restore order in the sudden chaos following this inexplicable event. Another montage shows Patty sadly trying to live her life normally intercut with newspaper headlines showing the progress of UNITE, ending with: “IMPERIUM INITIATES I.D. SIGN.”

The UNITE I.D. on a character’s forehead. Detail of VHS cover. (RetroDaze)

It doesn’t take long before UNITE becomes a totalitarian force, patroling the streets with vans and dragging citizens to “I.D. Centers” (formerly churches) where they are registered for the UNITE I.D. and have it stamped on their forehead or hand. Patty refuses to take the I.D. but discovers that she can no longer shop or find a job without it. Despondent, she sneaks past UNITE forces to seek Reverend Turner’s help but finds him crushed with guilt for having led so many people astray. Patty and Turner are captured and taken to jail where a kindly old lady tries to convince Patty that the UNITE I.D. isn’t the “Mark of the Beast”: “Does this look like 666 to you?” As the lady leads Patty out of the jail to get her I.D., they see soldiers loading up Reverend Turner’s body into an ambulance. Patty manages to escape and flees into downtown Des Moines where the inept UNITE soldiers chase her in their van. She manages to call Diane from a payphone, and Diane tells her to meet at the dam outside of town. After stealing the van and barely escaping from a UNITE helicopter, Patty arrives exhausted at the dam to find she has been betrayed. Jerry radios in for UNITE backup, and when she is completely surrounded by troops and her former friends, Patty jumps off the dam into the waters far below. Just as she hits the water, she snaps awake in a panic — back at the very beginning of the movie, with the radio announcer talking about the disappearance of millions of people. A closing title card informs the viewer that “THE END. . . . . . IS NEAR!”

Before A Thief in the Night, almost no one had been successful in making a “Christian movie” that was technically polished and/or entertaining enough to play with the drive-in crowd. Taking a cue from Don Murray’s hit The Cross and the Switchblade (1970), Mark IV eschewed Biblical period and stuffy “church folk” drama for settings and situations that would be familiar to modern Americans. They shot the film in Iowa and cast local actors. Duane’s band The Fishmarket Combo plays Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” under the opening credits. On the DVD commentary for the film, Thompson explains that the film got flak from some Christian audiences because they thought the female characters’ costumes —including mini-skirts and short shorts, according to the style of the time — were inappropriate. Thompson’s response: “You can’t make a movie about hoboes wearing tuxedos and expect to be taken seriously!” The three couples at the center of the film’s story were designed to show a wide range of experiences, from the born-again Christian to those on the fence to the mocking unbeliever. Thompson and Doughten took care to make the world of A Thief in the Night one that would be instantly recognizable to its viewers as their own. This approach is commonplace now, but in 1973 it was the exception rather than the rule. After all, this was only two years after Ron Ormond had Reverend Estus W. Pirkle preaching directly to the camera between thrift-store dramatizations of the Communist overthrow of America in If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?

Album of Estus W. Pirkle’s sermon “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” (Kill Ugly Radio)

A Thief in the Night made that film look primitive, and it seems likely Ormond recognized this given the bump in production quality between If Footmen Tire You and his subsequent Christian productions. Still, Ormond’s films were defined by their ties to Pirkle’s old-school brand of fire and brimstone preaching, preoccupied with the terrors of Hell to the point of distraction. They were also made for slightly different audiences: Ormond’s films were mostly geared toward churchgoing people who were in need of some incentive — in this case horrific guilt — to encourage them to spread the gospel. Houghten and Thompson also made films that could play in church basements and community centers, but their higher level of production value and polish meant they could potentially draw curious filmgoing nonbelievers to their film’s screenings.

Mark IV was primarily interested in distribution of their premiere production through the “church market.” Many churches across the country had invested in 16mm film projectors for screenings, thanks in part to the efforts of Carlos Octavia Baptista and his pioneering development of the “Miracle” 16mm projector in the 1940s. Lightweight and relatively affordable, the “Miracle” was made specifically for churches to engage in film evangelism. After the end of World War II the market for 16mm projectors in churches exploded as the scarcity of materials needed to manufacture the devices was alleviated. Despite Baptista’s early entry into the church market, the demand for projectors far outstripped his company’s manufacturing capacity and his company sank. Most churches ended up buying name projectors from companies such as Bell & Howell. By the 1970s, the 16mm projector was a standard piece of A/V equipment in a large number of American churches. This gave companies like Mark IV a readymade network of exhibitors to which they could distribute their films.

Newspaper ad for A THIEF IN THE NIGHT listed alongside THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and GODSPELL: Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, New Jersey, 25 July 1973. (Newspapers.com)

Newspaper listings for screenings of A Thief in the Night appeared not just in the “Religion” section of local papers, but often side-by-side with ads for mainstream films playing in cinemas. It was not unusual for screenings of the film to have free admission, although churches putting on the show would often encourage a donation or “free-will offering.” The prospect of free entertainment likely lured in curious viewers who would normally ignore “church movies,” especially given the word of mouth that quickly spread about the film. 16mm screenings of the film were a staple for Christian churches well into the 1980s, and it found a second life in home distribution with the popularization of the VCR. It is likely that many more people have seen A Thief in the Night than any other Christian film before or since. By the time the film was released on DVD, Doughten claimed that over 300 million people had seen it around the world. Considering its wide distribution and the efforts to translate the film into various languages, this seems well within the realm of possibility.

Several of the actors who appeared in the film would become staples in Mark IV and Heartland’s productions throughout the 70s and 80s. Star Patty Dunning was a high school and college gymnast and had done some stage work in school. Her gymnastics career was notable enough that she had been training for the 1972 Olympics (although she did not make it) and was tapped to provide color commentary on televised National Gymnastic Championships events in the early 1970s. She later appeared in Thompson’s All the King’s Horses (1977) and the other Tribulation Series films, as well as The Shepherd (1984) and Life Flight: The Movie (1987). Mike and Colleen Niday also went on to appear in All the King’s Horses and the Tribulation Series, and Russ Doughten’s Face in the Mirror (1982). Maryann Rachford, who Doughten probably met when he was teaching in California in the early 1960s, traveled to Iowa to work on the film and reprised her role in the following Tribulation Series films. She also worked behind the camera on Doughten’s Nite Song (1978) as assistant art director, and later went on to teach graphic design at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. Her husband Thom Rachford had more credits in his career than the rest of the film’s cast combined. Behind the camera, he was production manager on Doughten’s films Sammy (1977), Nite Song, and Whitcomb’s War (1980). As an actor, Rachford appeared in the Tribulation Series and Whitcomb’s War and in the 1980s he appeared on a handful of popular television series including Simon & Simon, Falcon Crest, and Night Court. His career as a film actor continues to this day, including recent appearances in the science fiction films P-51 Dragon Fighter and Listening (both 2014). As of 2014, Thom Rachford was President of Doughten’s Mustard Seed International Ministries, a non-profit founded to translate Christian films into various languages so they could be screened around the world.

Poster for DEAR DEAD DELILAH. (FFF Movie Posters)

The production crew of A Thief in the Night also included a number of collaborators who would work with Heartland and Mark IV over the years. Wes Phillippi edited nearly all of Thompson and Doughten’s post-Thief features. Sound recordist Robert Janus was credited with sound on John Farris’s Dear Dead Delilah and Chris Robinson’s Charcoal Black the same year Thief was released, and later worked on other Heartland and Mark IV productions and Robinson’s Thunder County in 1974 and The Intruder in 1975. Production assistant Joe Stanley returned as assistant director on Thompson’s Blood on the Mountain (1974) and A Stranger in My Forest (1976), and was location manager on Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). Associate producers Herb Brown and his son Herb Brown Jr. both appeared in the cast of Doughten’s Sammy and the other Tribulation Series films. Thompson likely first met cinematographer John P. Leiendecker when Leiendecker worked for Iowa Public Broadcasting as a cinematographer and director. Leiendecker would later act as a second unit photographer on Thompson’s final feature Life Flight: The Movie in 1987. Assistant director Jerry L. Jackson, who had worked as a Production Manager for the Iowa Public Broadcasting Network, appeared in front of the camera for Life Flight: The Movie and later wrote and directed the Christian drama Wrestling with God (1990).

There were two other collaborators of note who worked on A Thief in the Night and had minimal if any work with Mark IV again. Deanna Morse, a former film editor at WGBH in Boston, was credited with “script continuity” and “montage” on Thief. These were her only credits with a Mark IV production. In the 1970s Morse was filmmaker-in-residence for the Columbia Arts Commission in Columbia, South Carolina, and was involved in film and media education including teaching animation techniques. She is an experimental animation artist whose career has spanned nearly four decades. Doughten and Thompson were credited with Thief’s story, but the screenplay was credited to Grant James (under the name “Jim Grant”). Since the 1990s James has made a career in acting and voiceover work on dozens of animated series imported to the States from Japan, as well as feature films and video games based on those properties. These include hugely popular series like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Attack on Titan. He has also appeared in nearly 100 feature films from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF (1989) and modern Western classic Tombstone (1993) to the horror remake Boggy Creek (2010) and Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber To (2014).

James has only one subsequent writing credit under his own name — House of the Generals (2000), a WWII drama — but in 1974 he wrote and directed a film titled The Enemy for Ken Anderson Films as “Jim Grant.” This film was based on a book entitled The Enemy: Satan’s Struggle for Two Boys’ Souls, which Grant claimed was a true story told to him by an anonymous couple he called “Tim and Betsy X.” From the back cover of the paperback:

Cover of the Tyndale House paperback edition of THE ENEMY. (Amazon)

Tim and Betsy* are a Midwestern couple who direct Bible studies and other activities that draw young people to Jesus Christ. Their ministry was not particularly unusual until they befriended the teen-age brothers, Bob and Jack*. Not until they were deeply involved in their witness to these boys did they realize that the brothers were controlled by demons. In the long and fierce struggle which ensued, advances were frequently followed by discouraging setbacks. But Tim and Betsy had set themselves by God’s grace to win Bob and Jack to Christ. The victories came during a tumultuous week when Tim and Betsy summoned Christ’s power against Satan and saw God’s Son triumph over the forces of hell. The Enemy is and almost incredible — but true — story of the activities of the supernatural foes that bedevil mankind in this Age of the Occult. *All names except the writer’s, Jim Grant, have been changed.

The Enemy seems to be the only film James made for Ken Anderson Films, and it features the first screen credit for actress Judith Ivey (who plays “Betsy”). He also earned a credit under the name Jim Grant for the “idea” for Thompson’s next feature film Blood on the Mountain, although that film’s script was written by Thompson and Doughten. Moody Press published Grant’s novelization of A Thief in the Night, and this appears to be the end of James’s involvement with Mark IV Productions. James later appeared in front of the camera in the “Christian scare” film Final Exit (1995) and Christian fantasy/drama I Am… Gabriel (2012), but how he came to be credited with writing the screenplay for the biggest Christian End Times film ever made — and why he saw fit to differentiate his work after 1974 by using a different name — is unknown as of this writing.

Newspaper TV listing for an Illinois station airing TRAVELING WITH THE LUNDSTROMS: Galesburg Register-Mail, Galesburg, Illinois, 24 August 1973. (Newspapers.com)

Traveling with the Lundstroms (1973)

Starting with Traveling with the Lundstroms in 1973, Mark IV Pictures produced a series of eight nationally syndicated television specials for the gospel group led by patriarch Lowell Lundstrom and his wife Connie. The working relationship between Mark IV and the Lundstroms extended beyond the specials, and included songs recorded by the Lundstroms for subsequent Mark IV productions.

Photo of Lowell & Connie Lundstrom early in their “Message for America” ministry. (Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center)

Born in 1939, Lowell Lundstrom had learned to play guitar at an early age and became focused on a career in music while still in his teens. He started a band in the 1950s called the Rhythm-airs and played bars and nightclubs well before he was of legal drinking age. His future wife Connie was performing at similar venues, but she was unhappy. Raised in an Assemblies of God church, Connie felt uncomfortable performing in such unsavory environs. Lowell had also been encouraged to seek the Lord by his grandmother when he was a child, but he found the rock and roll lifestyle more agreeable to his temperament in his teenage years. Not long after he met Connie, though, they both came back to the church and began performing and sharing their testimony. They started the long-running radio program Message for America and enlisted most of their immediate family to join them as “The Lundstrom Team,” and by the 1970s they had become a popular touring act and recording artists.

The bulk of Traveling with the Lundstroms consists of a taped performance by the family at television station WSIX in Nashville, Tennessee. These sequences were directed by Tom Edwards, a producer at WSIX who had also worked on a syndicated program for gospel singers The Blackwood Family. Thompson wrote and produced the special as a whole and directed the “motion picture sequences” that are interspersed throughout. These consist of film footage of the Lundstroms in their large touring bus, giving viewers a snapshot of life on the road. There’s a running joke about Lowell’s brother Larry trying to get him to try a candy bar, asking “What have you got to lose?” Lowell’s retort, inspired by concern for his appearance in their upcoming TV special: “I’ve got to lose about 15 pounds!” There are sequences of Lowell working on a new song on his acoustic guitar with Connie and Larry’s wife Gloria, the Lundstrom wives taking care of the children, and dealing with the unique inconveniences of touring like replacing a tire on the bus in the middle of the night and running over a cow. The studio performances are mostly Lundstrom originals including “Suzy’s Prayer,” a story about a little girl who visits a friend’s house and does not know how to pray when her friend’s parents ask her to bless their dinner. This sequence plays out as a series of still photographs telling the story very similar to the montage of Patty and Jim’s married life in A Thief in the Night, but the credits are unclear on whether Thompson directed this segment. Three-year-old Lowell Jr. sings “Jesus Loves Me,” a bit popular enough to get an expansion in their next television special the following year.

Some of the Mark IV team that worked on A Thief in the Night returned for this production of the special’s film sequences. Doughten returned as an assistant producer, Wes Phillippi edited the film sequences and also served as cinematographer, and Robert Janus was credited with “film sound.” Joe Stanley, a production assistant on Thief, was credited with “lighting” on this special. Georgianna Ames, credited as “assistant to the producer,” later worked in the same capacity on Thompson’s Blood on the Mountain and A Stranger in My Forest and was an associate producer on A Distant Thunder (1978), the second film in the Tribulation Series. She also worked on most of the Mark IV Lundstrom specials in some capacity. Alan Loots, a production assistant on Traveling with the Lundstroms, was also a key grip on Blood on the Mountain.

Newspaper ad for premiere screening of BLOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN: The Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 21 April 1974. (Newspapers.com)

Blood on the Mountain (1974)

Opening title card: “He has removed our sins as far away as the east is from the west” — Psalms 103:10–13

Despite the success of A Thief in the Night — which Thompson later reported made back its budget in 10 months of self-distribution — Mark IV did not proceed with production on Doughten’s planned Mustard Seed project. Instead of Israel, Mark IV traveled to Colorado to shoot their next feature film. The production of Blood on the Mountain was based around Canon City and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and shooting began in August of 1973. A local newspaper story at the time referred to the production as “The Hawk,” which may have been a working title although this name does not appear in any other sources. The location shoot was planned for five weeks, and Mark IV brought along a twelve-person crew. In addition to shooting in various locations around Canon City and employing locals as background extras, Blood on the Mountain would also call for Canon City’s police to help out with the film’s chase scenes. The production of Blood on the Mountain reportedly cost Mark IV $110,000 — nearly double the reported $60,000 budget of A Thief in the Night — much of it raised by limited partnerships that saw the film booked in hundreds of locations around the country well before production began. The Christian film distribution network the company used for A Thief in the Night had guaranteed their next film a place on church and community center screens across the country, even if it was not likely to be as successful as their first production.

On the day Bob Jamison is being released from prison, his old friend Jim “Hawk” Hawker plans to escape with the reluctant help of young fellow inmate Billy Hartman. The two men are they steal a tractor from a work detail, making their way to a landing field where Hawk plans to have Hartman fly them both to Mexico. But before they can cross the border, Hawk has some unfinished business with Bob and his former fiancee Karen — who Bob married while Hawk was in jail for the murder of a young woman in a robbery the two men had pulled years before. Bob testified against Hawk and received a suspended sentence, but not long after that he stole some tools from his job out of financial desperation and ended up going to prison for a year. While Bob has been incarcerated, Karen has accepted Jesus and has come to forgive Bob for his actions and written him letters saying as much. She’s nervous about seeing him, but excited to tell him about her new faith and hopes they can make their marriage work.

Hawk and Hartman — who is only serving a two-year sentence that may be overturned for a crime he didn’t commit — manage to steal a church van by hiding in the back and surprising John, the teenager who is picking it up for the youth group. After a close call when the van is pulled over for speeding, Hawk taunts John about being religious. Hartman is confused by John’s insistence that one must be “born again” to be saved because he went to church every week before he went to jail. John tries to explain to the men that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. I mean, you guys are runnin’ from God!” Hartman wants to know more, but Hawk is annoyed and threatens to kill the kid. The two fugitives fight and John manages to escape safely, making it back to the road just in time to tell the police which direction the men ran. Their further adventures include a side trip to steal a truck from a nearby mine, but they unknowingly wander into a blasting area on the way. While they try to keep from being killed by the dynamite blasting all around them, Hartman has his own personal “come to Jesus” moment while huddling under a rock. He accepts Christ as his personal savior, much to Hawk’s amusement since the first thing he does as a Christian is steal a truck.

Lundstroms compilation album featuring “A Fugitive from God,” the theme song from BLOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN. (Discogs)

At the Canon City police station, word is out that the men have escaped and the Chief grounds his deputy Buck. Buck’s wife was the woman killed by Hawk in that grocery store robbery, and the Chief knows Buck won’t be able to control himself if he’s on the manhunt. Buck follows orders until he gets a call from Bob and Karen at their home. They’re worried that Hawk will come looking for them, so they call the police to keep an eye on them until Hawk is caught. While Buck makes his way across town, Karen tries to explain Christianity and forgiveness to Bob. He desperately wants to believe — he sees that her faith has made Karen “a different girl” — but he has a hard time accepting God would forgive him for the wrong that he has done. Karen finally convinces Bob to accept Christ, and just in time: minutes later, Hawk and Hartman arrive at the house and force the couple to leave with them in the stolen truck. The police have all exits from the city tightly blocked, and before long their winding path of escape leads a police chase into local tourist attraction Buckskin Joe’s Frontier Town & Railway (which a sign points out was a location in the 1965 film Cat Ballou).

After stealing another car they lead the police to Royal Gorge, where Buck manages to get into position with a sniper rifle to take down Hawk as he is coming out of a cable car. Hartman sees Buck and jumps in front of Hawk just in time, taking the bullet meant to kill him. Before Buck can fire again, the Chief shoots the rifle out of his hands and other police arrest Hawk. As Hartman dies on the stretcher, the Chief informs him that his sentence had in fact been overturned, but it’s too late. In the police car leaving the Gorge, Hawk can’t figure out why Hartman saved him. The Chief explains: “Love, Jim. A very special kind of love that only Christ can give. Two beautiful people died and shed their blood to save you. What are you going to do with that, Jim? Billy Hartman took your bullet. And Christ died on the cross for you.” Hawk scoffs, but the Chief tells him the story of the thief who was crucified with Jesus that went to Heaven because he believed. Hawk has no response to that, and the film ends with a final title card: “Let them turn to the Lord that He may have mercy upon them, and to our God, for He will ABUNDANTLY PARDON” -Isaiah 55:6

The titular creature from SNOWBEAST. (The AV Club)

As with many Heartland and Mark IV productions, much of the cast of Blood on the Mountain had few if any subsequent acting credits. Richard Jury had appeared in dozens of television series in the 1950s and 1960s including Gunsmoke, The Munsters, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He had a handful of feature film credits including The Brothers O’Toole (1973) with John Astin, which was also shot in Canon City, and The Ski Bum (1971) starring Zalman King and Charlotte Rampling (and with a rare on-screen appearance by Penelope Spheeris). After Blood on the Mountain he had a few feature credits but mostly worked in television series and movies, including 1977’s Snowbeast (starring Bo Svenson and Yvette Mimieux) and three Perry Mason made-for-TV movies in the late 1980s. Liz Jury also appeared in Snowbeast and a few other TV movies, and had a small role in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Ladybugs (1992). Tim Jones’s next film credit was in Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy in 1983, and he appeared in an episode of CHiPs that same year. His only other feature credit was 1984’s Up the Creek, and he made handful of other television appearances in the late 80s and early 90s including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Dear John.

Video cover for THE DEMONS OF LUDLOW. (IMDB)

In addition to returning crew Wes Phillippi (editor), Joe Stanley (assistant director), Robert Janus (location sound), Alan Loots (key grip), and Georgianna Ames (assistant to the producer), Blood on the Mountain brought some new collaborators to the Mark IV fold. Cinematographer Tom Spalding not only worked on some of Thompson and Doughten’s later films, he had worked with Doughten many years earlier as director of photography on The Blob (1958). Spalding also worked on The Blob director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s films 4D Man (1959), The Gospel Blimp (1967), and Way Out (1967), and shot four of the five feature films directed by William T. Naud: Thunder in Dixie (1964), Hot Rod Hullabaloo (1966), Black Jack (1972), and Island of Blood (1982). Blood on the Mountain was the first credit for sound mixer Ric Coken, who worked on most of the following Mark IV and Heartland Productions films and had a long career that lasted into the 2000s. Coken composed music for Bill Rebane’s The Demons of Ludlow (1983), but he was mostly a sound mixer and effects editor whose work included a number of classic cult and genre films such as Rebane’s The Alpha Incident (1978), Tim Ritter’s Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986), and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and The Borrower (1991). Coken was also the sound mixer on Steve James’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams (1994).

Sally Roddy was credited with script supervision on two other very different films in 1974: William Girdler’s Abby and Joe Camp’s Benji. Roddy worked on a few of the later Mark IV and Heartland productions, and had a long career as script supervisor for film and television. She worked with Girdler again on Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977) and earned a few other credits on two subsequent productions with Blood on the Mountain cinematographer Tom Spalding. Roddy was production manager on Paul Leder’s Sketches of a Strangler (1978; Spalding was credited as a “technical advisor” on the film) and line producer on William T. Naud’s Island of Blood. In the 1980s, she transitioned into almost exclusively TV work for the rest of her career through the 2000s. During this time she acted as script supervisor on a wide variety of series such as Hardcastle & McCormick, Baywatch, Judging Amy, Gilmore Girls, and NCIS.

Lowell Lundstrom composed and performed Blood on the Mountain’s theme song “A Fugitive from God.” The film’s world premiere was held in Des Moines at the Hoyt Sherman Auditorium on April 25 1974, and before the year was out the Lundstroms would return with another Mark IV television special.

Newspaper ad for THE LUNDSTROMS LIVIN’ HAPPY: The Winona Daily News, Winona, Minnesota, 13 September 1974. (Newspapers.com)

The Lundstroms Livin’ Happy (1974)

As Livin’ Happy opens, the Lundstroms are back on their tour bus, rolling through the highways and byways of America. A police car watches the bus pass and the driver ominously says “The Lundstroms sure are going to be surprised,” then flips on the siren and chases them down. He pulls over the bus and the two cops walk over as Lowell comes out to see what the problem is. As it happens, they’re just fans who wanted to meet the Lundstroms in person and to ask when they’re going to be on TV again. A bemused Lowell informs the police that the Lundstrom bus is in fact en route to Nashville to tape their next TV special at that very moment.

Like Traveling with the Lundstroms, Livin’ Happy is a mix of studio performances (again directed by Tom Edwards and taped at WSIX in Nashville) and filmed sequences. The crew who worked on the filmed sequences is virtually identical to the first special, and it appears that Thompson recycled at least a few shots from the previous special here. After an introductory song, Connie Lundstrom introduces the core members of the band by name and reveals the name of the drummer and third Lundstrom brother is Leon. The Lundstroms again perform mostly their own songs, although there is a segment in which the younger Lundstroms come out to sing that includes some surprises. 10-year-old Londa sings “Top of the World” by The Carpenters with some modified lyrics incorporating “God” and “Jesus,” 4-year-old Lowell Jr. sings “The B-I-B-L-E,” and 3-year-old LaDawn sings “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” As in Traveling, there is a song called “Tommy’s Prayer” (about a boy whose father is an alcoholic) that is presented with a series of still photos telling its story, although this time the credits state that Jeff Ames shot these photographs.

Album of The Lundstroms’ LIVIN’ HAPPY. (Discogs)

The filmed sequences in this special are more elaborate than in the first. For the song “Sin Is Breaking Up Our Home,” the Lundstroms are not shown at all — this segment is a full music video with actors depicting scenes of domestic strife and eventual reconciliation and repentance. It looks very much like a test run for Thompson’s 1977 film All the King’s Horses, which tells the story of a young married couple dealing with similar problems to those discussed in the song. Quite a bit of time is spent in the Lundstrom tour bus, and in one scene the bus pulls up to an all-night gas station/diner. Two waitresses look out the window and one moans “Oh no, a whole bus?” The other happily replies “Hey, that’s the Lundstroms!” During the family’s late-night meal, they sit around the table and imagine the things they will do when they are on break from tour — riding motorcycles, doing laundry, shopping — while their song “Cherished Moments” plays. The next day in the bus, Lowell and Connie discuss the idea of putting together a photo album to include with their next record. Connie is hesitant, worrying that it would be expensive to produce. Lowell sneaks in some subtle guilting of the audience, assuring her that people would certainly send in a generous donation to get such a nicely packaged album. There is a lengthy montage of life on the road and the Lundstroms at a rally, with voiceover by Lowell (“When you’re servin’ the Lord, you’re livin’ happy.”) and testimony from a man whose family was saved at one of their performances.

Another major difference between the two specials is that Livin’ Happy has a pointed message at the end. Traveling with the Lundstroms ended with Lowell giving a generalized sermon/altar call about accepting Jesus; Livin’ Happy has a similar structure, but the sermon this time begins with the exclamation “America is running out of time!” After the easygoing previous forty minutes, Lowell’s sudden harangue feels wildly out of place. He immediately starts talking about the epidemic of alcoholism and the massive spike in gonorrhea cases in the early 1970s. He condemns people who think “freedom OF religion” means “freedom FROM religion,” and compares America’s rejection of Jesus to Patty Hearst’s rejection of her father’s ransom payment. For Lowell, all of America’s problems boil down to the fact that “You can’t have a Christian home unless Dad is servin’ the Lord.” This is a theme that Thompson will return to later in All the King’s Horses, which features an on-screen appearance by the Lundstroms and a brief speaking role for Lowell as himself.

Newspaper ad for SURVIVAL world premiere: The Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 19 March 1975. (Newspapers.com)

Survival (1975)

Opening title card: “MAN IS NEVER SATISFIED” — Ecclesiastes 1:8 (Paraphrased)

Mark IV’s next feature production once again took them out of Iowa. Shooting for Survival began in September 0f 1974 in Arizona, taking place on location in Sedona, the Coconino National Forest, and the Superstition Mountains. The Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix also appeared in the film and was an important base of operations for the film’s airplane sequences supervised by local pilot Douglas Perkins. As with Blood on the Mountain, Mark IV brought many familiar crew members along with them to work with local talent for this ambitious adventure story.

Survival opens with a text crawl read by an omniscient narrator (Thompson) discussing modern man’s focus on materialism: “How many of us today are like Solomon, tasting the knowledge and pleasures of this world, power, sex, fame, and relying on possessions and self-righteousness?” It ends with an all-caps question: “HOW LONG WILL GOD HAVE PATIENCE WITH US BEFORE HE DOES SOMETHING DRASTIC TO GET OUR ATTENTION?”

In the Arizona desert, a man shoots wildly at a cougar stalking him. He misses and the cougar kills him, although it is injured in the process. Meanwhile, the Ryan family is preparing to fly to a family reunion in San Diego. Young Mike (Robby Sella) wants to go to a survival camp instead, but his mother Carol (Alberta Eacret) forbids it. Mike asks his older sister Debbie (Pearl Braaten) to back him up, but she tells him he has to honor his mother’s wishes. Carol asks Debbie “Do I owe this respect to your newfound religion?” We learn that since Debbie went to college, she joined a church and accepted Jesus. That is also where she met her fiancé David (Terry Griffin), the pilot who will be flying the family to the reunion in a prop plane he shares with a group of other Christian pilots. Debbie and Mike’s dad Howard (Ralph McTurk) is unconvinced about this Jesus stuff — his survival advice to Mike is “Do unto others before they do unto you!” — and he gives Debbie a hard time about it during the flight. When the family is flying over the Superstition Mountains, a bird collides with the plane and the family is stranded in the desert when David has to make an emergency landing on top of a remote mesa.

The film’s other main storyline follows Hank (Buster Shaver), the local sheriff who is intractably set in his ways, and his deputy Billy (Jed Nolan) as they fight about modern policing methods and try to track down the cougar that killed the man in the opening scene of the film. The narrator points out that “Solomon also noticed that even the wisest man who says he knows everything… doesn’t,” underlining the danger of Hank’s refusal to change his ways. While out looking for the cougar, Hank is nearly attacked by the cat and Billy learns Hank has been taking nitroglycerin pills for a heart condition for several years. On the mesa, Mike tries to convince his parents to let him strike out into the desert for help while David talks to Howard and Carol about God’s plan for their lives. He speculates that maybe they’re in their current situation because God is trying to get their attention so David and Debbie can witness to them. Mike sneaks away and heads toward a town they saw in the far distance from the mesa, but when a rescue copter picks up the family the next day the pilot informs them that the town — called Copper City — is a long-abandoned ghost town.

Hank and Billy arrive in Copper City shortly after Mike, who has bravely made his way through the desert thanks to the information in his survival guide (although he lost it while en route). Unfortunately, the cougar has been following the boy and it also arrives around the same time. Mike is asleep in the ruins of an old hotel when Hank arrives, the cougar hot on his tail. Hank ends up poking around in the wrong place and finds a den of snakes. In his panic, he fires his rifle and wakes Mike. He also fumbles with his bottle of pills and dies before he can retrieve his rifle from the floor where it is surrounded by snakes. Mike finds Hank and manages to use a stick to pick up the rifle, and then promptly shoots the cougar with it just before Billy arrives. Billy is impressed that Mike has survived, and makes an observation that has some unpleasant implications for Hank’s eternal soul: “Poor old guy. Henry, you thought you had all the answers. Hank here sometimes thought he knew more than God himself.” Mike is reunited with his family in the hospital where Howard is being treated for a broken arm. Mike tells them he is sorry he has lost his survival guide, but Carol happily tells him she has a new one for him: a Bible. Debbie and David have convinced Howard and Carol to accept Jesus as their lord and savior.

Pearl Braaten in newspaper ad for the Bobby Ball Total Talent Center: Arizona Republic, Phoenix, Arizona, 19 November 1972. (Newspapers.com)

Other than Terry Griffin — a stage actor and television writer from Iowa who had previously appeared in Thompson’s Candle in the Wind and worked with Mark IV as production manager on The Lundstroms Livin’ Happy — Survival’s cast members were all Arizona locals. Pearl Braaten had performed in high school and dinner theater productions and was featured in a local newspaper ad for the Bobby Ball Total Talent Center, the company that was hired to cast Survival. Alberta Eacret and Ralph McTurk were occasional cast members in the Scottsdale Community Theater and Phoenix Little Theatre and later appeared onstage together in a production of Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Buster Shaver had been active in Arizona theater since the early 1960s and had appeared in a number of films and TV series. He was in several episodes of the long-running Western series Death Valley Days with Ronald Reagan and had a small part playing against Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan in How the West Was Won (1962). He continued to work on stage productions after Survival and was vice president of the Glendale Little Theatre for a time in the 1980s.

Two members of the Arizona Survival cast had long careers behind the scenes as well as on the stage. Jed Nolan grew up in Scottsdale and had been active in theater and performance with singing groups in high school. As a college freshman at Brigham Young University in 1965 Nolan was selected to be a member of the singing ensemble of the Valley Music Hall. He served as understudy to the male leads in the company’s productions including Harve Presnell, who had made his big-screen debut in The Unsinkable Molly Brown the year before. After college Nolan returned to Scottsdale and began plans to start a dinner theatre. In 1972 he appeared in a episode of Love, American Style, and in 1974 he was named chairman of the Screen Actors Guild Arizona Coordinating Committee. He opened Jed Nolan’s Music Hall in the Scottsdale Mall in 1975, where it remained until it closed in 1984. In the 1980s he served multiple terms as part of the Fine Arts Commission for the Scottsdale City Council, and in the 1990s Nolan became involved in feature film production. He directed one film, Angel on Abbey Street (1999), and produced several others including David Heavener’s Dragon Fury (1995) and Mike Mendez’s The Convent (2000). Nolan moved to Laporte, Indiana, and passed away in 2015 at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Robert Sella in the 2015 Broadway production of A.R. Gurney’s SYLVIA. (Huffington Post)

Robert “Robby” Sella had a few stage credits and was part of a group called Sunshine Machine that released one single (“Summer Love”) before he was cast in Survival. After the film, Sella continued to act in Arizona stage productions and appeared in veteran TV director Jerry Jameson’s 1978 TV movie A Fire in the Sky starring Richard Crenna, Jenny O’Hara, Merlin Olsen, and Michael Biehn in one of his earliest screen roles. Sella later studied theater arts at UCLA and acted in a number of student films, and after graduating he moved across the country to attend Juilliard. In his senior year there, Sella landed a role in the New York premiere of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America. He continued to work on Broadway and in touring productions through at least the early 1990s before returning to New York, where he remains active in the theater to this day. Sella has also worked in film and television, appearing in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (2016), and the TV series Gossip Girl, The Good Wife, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Mr. Robot.

The crew of Survival consisted largely of Mark IV veterans. Russ Doughten acted as executive producer with Georgianna Ames as his assistant. Tom Spalding was director of photography with Don Clark as assistant cameraman. Wes Phillippi edited the film, Bob Janus was on location sound recording, and Ric Coken mixed the film’s sound. Sally Roddy did double duty this time as both script supervisor and makeup artist. Otto G. Stoll III was production manager, and Joe Stanley returned as assistant director. Richard Girvin, who had acted as music editor for Blood on the Mountain, composed the score for Survival and some of the later Mark IV and Heartland productions.

Another company that worked with Mark IV on Survival would become an important regular collaborator going forward. Due to the film’s reliance on animals for several sequences, Mark IV contracted The Lion Wild Animal Rentals of Hollywood to provide trained animal actors. The Lion was founded in 1973 and run by film stunt performers and animal trainers Monty Cox and Susan Backlinie, who had worked together on the TV series Gentle Ben in the late 1960s. Cox has had a long career in stunt work — as of this writing he has worked on around a hundred films, his most recent credit being Kevin Greutert’s 2016 film Jackals — and Backlinie would achieve cinematic immortality as the first victim in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, released three months to the day after Survival’s world premiere on March 2o 1975. In addition to their work on subsequent Mark IV films, Cox and Backlinie worked with animals on a wide array of films from lower-budget productions like William Girdler’s Day of the Animals to major studio pictures like Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 2 (1989).

Newspaper TV listing for THE LUNDSTROMS: HEADIN’ WEST: The Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 8 December 1975. (Newspapers.com)

The Lundstroms: Headin’ West (1975)

The third Lundstroms special was a more “story”-oriented affair than the previous two. It opens with a classic Western shootout setup: A man standing in the main street of a dusty town, preparing to draw his pistol. The townsfolk watch on breathlessly. But when the camera pans up to the man’s opponent, it’s 5-year-old Lowell Lundstrom Jr. (“Tiny”) in his play cowboy outfit with a sheriff’s badge. He draws fast and shoots the hat off his opponent’s head and the gun out of his hand, sending him off in a fast-motion sprint out of town. The townsfolk celebrate Sheriff Tiny’s win and his little cousin LaDawn runs over to kiss him on the cheek. He awkwardly climbs into a carriage and falls asleep as it heads out of town, and the scene dissolves into the interior of the Lundstroms’ touring bus where Tiny sleeps dreaming of cowboys and the rest of the family sings the intro song for the new special.

This time the Lundstroms are heading to Los Angeles to perform for a studio audience at the CBS Studio Center. Tiny is excited to see there’s an “Old West” town on the studio lot (the same one from the opening), and while the family performs their first number he sneaks off to play. While introducing the family after the first song, Lowell realizes Tiny is not in the studio. Lowell and Connie go looking for Tiny and find him in the Old West town carrying a hunk of gold he claims was given to him by an old prospector. They shrug it off and head out in their bus to visit friends Earl and Phyllis Norgard at their ranch in Dickens, Iowa. The family performs a song in the Norgards’ living room (which is clearly a set) and then Lowell performs another song solo: “Cindy,” the story of a young girl whose father discouraged her from praying and receiving the Lord (doing her “eternal harm”), and whose subsequent death shocked him into accepting Jesus.

Then it’s back on the bus to Los Angeles, where the family unwinds at Busch Gardens California before the part of the show where the kids sing. After the older girls Londa, Lisa, and LaShawn finish their song they go backstage to commiserate on where Tiny might be. Londa prays “Lord, you better get Tiny back here soon unless you think he needs a spankin’!” while LaDawn sings “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” The camera pulls back to show Lowell watching the special on an editing deck in the studio, and Connie comes in to inform Lowell “that son of yours is missing again!” They once again find him in the Old West town, but this time Tiny takes Lowell to meet the old prospector, an actor who likes to hang out in the cave set, thereby solving the mystery of Tiny’s gold.

LP of THE LUNDSTROMS HEADIN’ WEST. (Discogs)

Lowell’s message this time is much longer than in the previous two specials, but it’s not quite as “fire and brimstone” as the one at the end of Livin’ Happy. He opens by asking “Does God exist?” and proceeds to his sermon on the five “footprints” that lead the way to the Kingdom of God. The first is Creation (which Lowell says proves God’s existence), followed by the Commandments (set by God for the good of Christians: “God doesn’t want someone rapin’ your daughter, or your wife, or your sister!”), the Cross (“Nuclear scientists do not understand what holds atoms together. The Bible says Jesus holds them together!”), Conscience (“You know, there’s a little preacher in every one of us!”), and Conviction (“The Holy Spirit comes to a man when he needs God and activates his soul.”). As in the previous specials, during Lowell’s altar call he mentions that you can come to Jesus no matter where you are, whether “you’re watching in a hotel room or a motel room, maybe you’re sittin’ on a bar stool….”

Donald Thompson was credited on Headin’ West as writer, producer, and director. Instead of alternating taped footage in the studio with filmed sequences, this whole special was shot on tape and structured with a light storyline and brief character moments for various members of the family. In addition to shooting at CBS Studios in Los Angeles, parts of the special were shot in Nashville at Opryland Productions. Tom Edwards, who directed the studio segments of the previous specials, edited the studio performances this time and Wayne Caluger was credited as “videotape editor.” The following year, Caluger worked as technical director on Dolly Parton’s syndicated variety show Dolly! Russ Doughten was credited as an associate producer on Headin’ West and Georgianna Ames as assistant to the producer, and Tom Spalding ran lighting for the Nashville shoot. Much of the rest of the crew were probably staff crew at the various studios where the special was shot, although production manager Jack Thompson had appeared as a flagman in Doughten’s Fever Heat (1968) and worked on some of the Mark IV films following Headin’ West.

Dolly Parton performs “In the Pines” with her family on DOLLY! (Vimeo)

In addition to Mark IV’s Survival and Headin’ West, Russ Doughten and Donald Thompson also revived Heartland Productions in 1975 and Doughten returned to the director’s chair for the first time since 1968’s Fever Heat. The late 1970s were an extremely busy time for the partners: from 1975 to 1979 they would produce eight feature films and four more television specials through their twin companies. With the return of Heartland Productions Doughten was able to fulfill his mission of creating family-oriented Christian films starting with Happiness Is… in 1975.

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