Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Kill or Be Killed’ (1980)

Kill or Be Killed was marketed as “the greatest Hollywood martial arts movie ever made!”

That is a lie. It is not.

But if you’re into Nazis, little people, and possibly fake diamonds, this might be right up your alley.

Kill or Be Killed is a South African production. Last time I checked, South Africa is not Hollywood. I could be wrong. It was made in 1977 but not released in North America until 1980, a smart move orchestrated to cash in on the popularity of movies starring Chuck Norris wearing stretchy jeans that didn’t bind his naughty bits while he kicked people in the face.

Tough dude James Ryan plays Steve Hunt, a karate master who finds himself in a desert fortress with other karate-type people, including his sweetheart, Olga (Charlotte Michelle). The compound is run by the nefarious Baron Von Rudloff (Norman Coombes) and his trusty sidekick, a little person named Chico (Danie DuPlessis).

Von Rudloff is a Nazi. We know this because of the framed picture of Hitler in his study, the flashbacks to World War II, and the gigantic silver swastika pendant he wears around his neck. Who said subtlety was dead? He makes Richard Spencer look like a cheap hack. Chico doesn’t come right out and say he’s a Nazi, but he considers the Baron his best friend, so you can make that assumption. And that’s weird, because didn’t the Nazis famously send an entire family of little people to Auschwitz?

The Amazon synopsis of the film says Von Rudloff is assembling a crack team of martial artists to avenge his karate team’s loss to the Japanese team during the 1936 Olympics. However, Von Rudloff himself says the competition he lost was in 1941 in Berlin, with Hitler himself watching the event. There’s also the fact that karate won’t become an official Olympic event until 2020. More lies!

Meanwhile, the leader of the old Japanese team, named Miyagi (not even kidding about that, Daniel-san), is assembling his team for the event. He has only agreed to do it because Von Rudloff has diamonds. Lots of them. He pays for everything with those shiny things, carrying loose stones around in his pocket like 1950’s grandfathers hauled around butterscotch candies. Miyagi loves two things: diamonds and karate. But how much does he really know about those precious stones?

There’s a scene where a surveyor in the desert claims he’s looking at the richest deposit of diamonds in the world. That’s neat, until you realize that you don’t find diamonds in the desert. There are such things as “desert diamonds,” but they are actually comprised of semi-crystalline quartz.

This movie sits on a throne of lies.

Steve Hunt wants no part of this crazy fighting-larger-people scheme. He has an Olga to marry and pectoral muscles to flex. After he and Olga help Chico escape from some mean men who steal his hand puppet (yes, a freakin’ hand puppet), Chico agrees to help them escape. He arranges for a car to pick Steve and Olga up that night, and they drive into the desert in a Volkswagen Beetle.

They run out of gas. Steve is attacked by German Shepherds, a common desert breed, which he karates mercilessly until they scamper away. Then he and Olga make sweet itchy sand love. The next morning, Steve disassembles the car with a hatchet and transforms it into a windsail with some rope, a bedsheet, and a tall metal pole. I don’t know where that pole came from. Maybe it was buried out there near the diamonds.

At last, they’re free! But if you had the thought in your head that Olga would be kidnapped by the Baron’s goons and Steve would be forced to fight in Von Rudloff’s contest to rescue her, hooray! You got it right! You must have seen a movie before.

Who will win the final karate showdown? Golly, I wonder.

Kill or Be Killed is the kind of movie that sets up shots, supposedly in London, by showing us still pictures of the Royal Guard and scrolling the word “London” across the screen. It takes us to the American South by showing four guys in overalls eating lunch in a scrap car in a junkyard while fiddle music plays in the background.

It’s cheap. It’s laughable. And it opened in the number 2 position on the US box office charts. There’s a sequel to this thing! Can you imagine?

People watch these movies for the action sequences, though, and those are okay. The script for the third act must have literally said, “Everybody was kung-fu fighting.” James Ryan does this weird thing before he attacks where he flutters his fingers and whistles. Is he supposed to be a bird? A deflating tire? A falling barometer? I’m not sure. Maybe all three.

If the writer had done even the tiniest bit of research, the movie would have had some more credibility and gravitas. Those aren’t plot elements normally considered important for drive-in programmers like Kill or Be Killed, but they are things that help make some low-budget films enduring classics. At most, this movie could be considered a guilty pleasure. Now, if only I believed in guilt.

There are far better ways to spend your time. Try researching the history of karate in the Olympics during the Second World War. That’s fun.

Kill or Be Killed is available to watch or be watched on Amazon Prime US.

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