During an early scene in Bob Chinn’s Hot Legs (1979), modeling agency head Richard Pacheco is on the phone with his boss, played by Delania Raffina. The audience can only make out his side of the conversation as her side is built out of of shrieking, garbled nonsense that blares through the phone’s earpiece and directly into Pacheco’s brain. At one point, his eyes grow wide as she threatens to come down to visit the set to see how things are going. He quickly convinces her that a visit won’t be necessary and, when he gets off the phone with her, he breathes a sigh of relief like he REALLY dodged a bullet.
Unfortunately, Bob Chinn didn’t get to dodge that bullet (or many others, for that matter) when he made the lavish WWII action epic, Prisoner of Paradise, for Gail Palmer and Harry Mohney’s Caribbean Films in 1980 as, one day, Palmer DID descend upon the set with a television crew in tow that eventually turned into a screaming match between her and John Holmes which, according to legend, became physical. Despite her co-direction and co-writing credits and the staggering five times her name appears on the original one-sheet for the film, outside of her admittedly important and regular function as its co-producer, the set visit may very well have been Gail Palmer’s most significant contribution to the production.
And this was but one struggle of many to get Prisoner of Paradise over the finish line. What began with the highest of hopes and, according to Chinn, a tremendous production budget of around $75,000 quickly amassed the kind of issues and pitfalls that were also hitting mainstream films of larger ambitions at the same time. But unlike the crew having to wait around for, say, cloud patterns to move for Michael Cimino on the set of Heaven’s Gate, the poor souls working on Prisoner of Paradise had to wait out John Holmes’s cocaine-induced impotency to resolve itself.
On the surface, Prisoner of Paradise is about Joe Murrey (John Holmes), a petty officer in the Navy who is fighting in the Pacific Theater in WWII. After the bombing death of Sue Lee (Mai Lin, credited as Miko Moto), a Japanese prostitute and Joe’s true love, Murrey’s ship is torpedoed and he washes to the shores of a remote, tropical island. There, Murrey stumbles across a couple of SS officers, Ilsa and Greta (Seka, Sue Carol), and follows them to their compound where Allied radio communications are monitored by the power hungry but loyal Hans (Elmo Lavino, credited here as Heinz Muller). The baddies are also holding Gloria and Carol (Brenda Vargo and Jayne Paygan, credited here as Nikki Anderson), two American Red Cross nurses, captive and are always kept under the watchful eye of meek Japanese guard, Suke (Jade Wong).
Prisoner of Paradise is also a tale of two Johns as its first twenty minutes has Holmes going through something of a successful, hands-on rehab. Forced to be without cocaine when he traveled to the Hawaiian islands with Chinn, Holmes was able to stay level and present while Chinn shot the first bit of Prisoner of Paradise and a lot of unrelated footage he planned to work into an epic Johnny Wadd film to be entitled Waikiki Wadd.
And in the footage that was shot for Prisoner of Paradise, Holmes puts in an extremely physical performance as he wades through heavy surf, hauls shit through the jungle, climbs trees to cut coconuts, beats his wet clothes clean by slapping them against a rock, pretends to spearfish, stands next to a powerful waterfall and allows it to pelt the absolute hell out of his naked body, and hacks through the very real brush with a machete. Even the lyrics to the song laid over all of these images feel like they have a double meaning as they talk about growing and surviving after a love has gone from your life. An inspirational music montage and an ode to the love he lost in Mai Lin’s character, the tune also has a real Narcotics Anonymous subtext to it that went completely unheeded by Holmes once the production shifted back to California.
For once we get into the thick of the story, we’re back in the lower 48 and the trouble begins. Here, the film’s tone dips and dabs between the forbidden outrageousness found in Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and the utter cartoon buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes where we hear a lot of Richard Wagner music and Lavino ensures that “my” is always pronounced “mein”. But none of that is really the problem as literally no Naziploitation film hangs on its historical or Germanic accuracy. The problem is that, quite simply, this is an adult film in which the marquee’s star most important piece of equipment is quite visibly out to lunch and, unfortunately, he’s the ONLY stud on this ranch. Luckily, the very thing that makes Bob Chinn’s films unique (especially from this period) is that his assignment to make a fuck picture always came with a larger self-obligation to an actual movie so if one half of the assignment was lacking, the work will likely have spilled over into the other half. In short, I don’t exactly know if Prisoner of Paradise is great adult cinema but it is pretty great Naziploitation.
This is because Holmes makes for a much better action star than one might think due to his love for hiking, camping, and traversing the great outdoors, all of which took root during his formative years in Ohio. The climactic end which has Holmes running about the burning camp and firing off a machine gun into Seka’s general direction is actually pretty thrilling and Holmes looks both toned and tanned in the role. And for her part, Seka not only commands the screen with her striking presence that gives Dyanne Thorne a run for her money, but she also fully delivers with the appropriately snarling, lip-smacking attitude and is one of the film’s non-technical highlights.
Though she was never much of an actress, Mai Lin was most certainly a welcome presence in whatever adult film she popped up in and her opening scene with Holmes is the film’s best by a country mile. According to Chinn’s own memoirs, Holmes and Mai Lin had an enthusiasm for each other’s company that lasted well after Chinn called cut on the scene and, apparently, also through the production’s entire lunch break. The pair’s natural heat and the obvious enjoyment shared by both performers helps in throwing a life line to Holmes’s performance issue. For by making her the love of his life, Holmes’s inability or struggle to maintain an erection for anyone else, notably at gunpoint AND while being screamed at by a fat, drunken Nazi, makes a certain amount of narrative sense. But, obviously, when you’re making an adult film, the underlying dramatic reasons for being sexually dysfunctional are going to be of little concern to the vast majority of the paying audience.
One wishes John Holmes were in a better headspace for the California part of the production because the technical aspects of Prisoner of Paradise are superb and you can really see every dollar on the screen. The lighting outside of the brothel as it spills out into the beautifully constructed and impeccably detailed alleyway is absolutely superb and reveals the best of the “movie-ness” in Bob Chinn’s work. It’s obviously a set in the same way that every inch of Los Angeles in The Big Sleep is a set but still remains totally immersive in its cinematic vision. Vincent Earle, who had earlier crewed on both Telefantasy and Blonde Fire, steps up as art director and does a pretty amazing job as the interiors of the hut and brothel are colorful, sharply designed, and well dressed. Ken Gibb brings his usual flare but gets in some really great nighttime photography at the end that climaxes with Chinn and special effects man John Harhay (credited as J. Fingers Harry) exploding the absolute hell out of the exterior sets before Holmes guides the two nurses to safety in silhouette against the burning rubble.
Prisoner of Paradise may not have been an easy experience for Bob Chinn and company to go through (perhaps something an understatement since the crew, tired of waiting on Holmes, actually went on strike at one point). But all these years later, it stands as a very nice-looking action adventure, a mighty fine entry into the Naziploitation subgenre, a fascinating exhibition of the ambition and scope of adult films at their zenith, and that there is no shame in shooting for El Cid but, due to force majeure and other sundry things completely out of the filmmaker’s hands, only getting Major Dundee. Because, ya know, despite it all, Major Dundee is STILL pretty great.
(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain