Doom Asylum: Exiled in America (1992)

Dave continues his look at the work of Paul Leder by examining the writer/producer/director’s reunion with fellow B-movie veteran, William W. Norton.

“William W. Norton Dies at 85; Screenwriter Became Gunrunner”. [1]

With an obituary that reads like a pitch for a particularly extravagant Hollywood blockbuster, it’s no surprise that Norton spent his working life on the cusp of Tinseltown.

Born in Utah in 1925, Norton’s parents lost their ranch during the Great Depression. By the early ‘40s, he enlisted in the army and served in Europe throughout World War II. Norton joined the Communist Party shortly after, and, in 1958, he found himself before the House of Un-American Activities Committee for his backing of Henry Wallace.

“I began to study all those theories,” he told Jeff Cramer shortly before his death. “That shaped my relationship to other folks. I couldn’t see any sense at all in the economic blight that is caused by competition of rival capitalists who break the market and make money by it.” [2]

Norton’s upbringing and early experiences gave him the desire to write, and he began by penning plays that would be performed by local theatre groups. The early ’60s saw his first screen work, which grew from a partnership with actor/producer Paul Leder and director John Hayes, though it would be the end of the decade when he broke through with the Sydney Pollack directed western, The Scalphunters (1968). A conveyor belt of cult classics followed in the ‘70s — from White Lightning (1973) and Big Bad Mama (1974), to Gator (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977) — and then, in the mid-’80s, a new home in Ireland. It was here that Norton found himself angered by the attacks on Catholics north of the border. So, along with his wife, Norton decided to lend support to the Irish National Liberation Army by purchasing a load of guns from America and smuggling them into his newly adopted homeland.

He was caught.

Sentenced to four years in prison by French authorities (the weapons were seized in Le Havre), Norton managed to get out after nineteen months. Subject to a U.S. arrest warrant on gun smuggling charges, both he and his wife were granted asylum in Nicaragua. However, after an armed robbery in their home, whereupon Norton shot and killed one of the intruders, they relocated to Cuba and then Mexico before finally sneaking over the U.S. border sometime in 1990.

All such wild adventures bring us to the foot of EXILED IN AMERICA (1992), which started shooting shortly after Norton’s return to the States. Based on a play he wrote, the script was adapted by director Leder, himself a committed activist, and tells the story of a Central American revolutionary by the name of Filipe Soto (Edward Albert). Captured and tortured by government forces, he manages to flee the country of his birth in search of exile in a rural part of America. He’s welcomed by a Christian group and given sanctuary, while his wife, Maria (Kamala Lopez), adopts the name ‘Amy’ and takes a job in a diner ran by the disabled Sonny (Stella Stevens) and her son, Joe (Maxwell Caulfield). Alas, the solitude of Filipe and Maria’s new home is soon shattered when a CIA agent (Gary Werntz) and a Central American general (Valentin de Vargas) arrive…

To trace Norton’s affinity for Central America, you’d have to go back to 1984, just prior to his adventures in The Emerald Isle. Retirement was beckoning for the screenwriter — and as his son, Bill L. Norton (the director of Cisco Pike (1971)), said just after the elder Norton’s passing in 2010, his father had “wanted to do something important with his life”.

Norton was already a supporter of a number of Central American charities, and it was through this connection that he made friends with an activist who persuaded him to — as he would go on to do in Ireland — help obtain weapons for a guerilla group in Guatemala. So he did. He bought arms at local gun shows and handed them to contacts at shady parking lot rendezvous.

Norton’s sympathies with these regions are easy to empathise with. The civil wars and communist revolutions that sprang up across this part of the world from the late ‘70s onwards were despised by the America government. They feared that communist victories would cause South America to become isolated from the United States, so to combat it they supported right-wing governments backed by the elite classes in order to quash the left-wing guerrillas.

Considering the history behind it, it’s a shame that Exiled in America doesn’t quite cut it. The themes close to the hearts of Norton and Leder are, as expected, woven throughout the script, but the latter’s deviations from the simplicity of the play (originally titled Sanctuary) are the movie version’s downfall. Endemic of this is the focus on Sonny and Joe. Caulfield is woefully miscast, delivering shoddy lines like “Your wheelchair is my prisoner, but how long do I have to serve?”, and nudging what should be a thought-provoking political drama into the realm of soapy hysteria. Still, there’s a pertinent and socially relevant picture bursting to get out and for that alone Exiled in America is worth persevering with — if only to bask in a handful of monologues that tie in with Leder’s go-to ruminations on immigration, wealth, and the Holocaust.

Entertainment Weekly wrote that “the astounding cast list of Exiled in America reads like a Playbill from the Hades Dinner Theatre” [3]. Albert is superbly understated in his performance as Soto, and Viveca Lindfors is remarkable as the left-leaning shrink who aids his concealment. It’s Wings Hauser, though, as the Sheriff seeking re-election who really shines, bringing a nuanced sympathy that bends your expectations of the generally more bombastic star.

Shot in and around Acton, Los Angeles County, Exiled in America landed on U.S. video in November ’92 via Prism Entertainment and surfaced here in the U.K. through Columbia-TriStar a year later, its name truncated to ‘Exiled’.

[1] Obituary: William W. ‘Bill’ Norton Dies at 85; Screenwriter Became Gunrunner by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, 10th October 2010.
[2] A Very Candid Conversation with William Norton by Jeff Cramer, jeffcramer.blogspot.com, 16th January 2010.
[3] Review: Exiled in America by Doug Brod, Entertainment Weekly, 6th November 1992.

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