The Deadly Tower (1975)

deadly tower

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sniper in the tower.

This made-for-TV movie chronicles the events of August 1, 1966 when 25-year-old ex-Marine Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell) climbed to the top of the University of Texas campus tower and shot and killed 16 people while wounding a total of 32. The story intercuts between scenes showing Whitman preparing for the shooting while also looking at the private life of Officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniguez) who eventually climbed up the tower to stop Whitman’s slaughter.

For the most part the film is taut and methodical and well above average for a TV film although Gilbert Roland’s voice over narration was unnecessary and a bit cheesy. The only time there is any music is during the scenes showing Whitman killing his mother and wife with a knife, which gets a bit too overly dramatic, but otherwise it comes off almost like a documentary making the viewer feel that they are right there as it is happening. It was filmed at the Louisiana State Capitol, which looks a bit different than the actual clock tower, but still similar enough that it works.

Russell who had just come off starring in a long line of Disney films is perfect in the role and even closely resembles the real Whitman. The fact that he has very few lines of dialogue is an asset and helps to make the character more foreboding and threatening. The rest of the all-star cast does pretty well although Forsythe’s character seems added simply to promote the gun control issue. Clifton James appearance as one of the police sergeants was misguided because he had already done a comic caricature of a redneck sheriff in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, so it was hard to take him seriously here and it took me out of the movie a bit because it kept reminding me of that one as well as his goofy policeman role in Bank Shot.

The film also takes liberties with the actual events in strange ways that makes no sense. For instance in the film when Whitman comes upon the tower receptionist he simply guides her to the elevator and tells her to leave, but in real-life he knocked her to the ground and split her head open before later shooting her. Also, in the film the first victim that he hits from the tower is a male, but in the actual incident it was an 18-year-old female who was eight months pregnant. The story also erroneously credits Martinez with the one who killed Whitman when the later autopsy found that all four shots that Martinez fired at Whitman missed him and it was actually the two shots fired by Officer Houston McCoy who stepped in after Martinez had emptied his rounds that proved to be the lethal hit. In fact Officer McCoy’s name gets changed here and is listed as C.J. Foss and is played by actor Paul Carr as a minor throwaway part that is barely seen at all.

Both McCoy and Martinez sued the producers for the inaccuracies. Martinez was upset because his wife was portrayed as being pregnant and Hispanic when in reality she had been German-American. The sidelight drama of some marital discord between the two was also apparently untrue and should’ve been left out completely as it adds nothing and bogs the thing down as a needless Hollywood-like soap opera.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Director: Jerry Jameson

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD (Warner Archive)

5 responses to “The Deadly Tower (1975)

  1. Not bad for TV at the time. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets is a far better exploration of the subject. Though it isn’t trying to be historical, it’s obviously based on Whitman, the same way Badlands is based on Charles Starkweather without calling him by that name.

  2. It was interesting to me to read about the lawsuit filed by Martinez after the airing of this movie. I thought that both the focus on the Latino officer–rather than the white guy who actually shot Whitman–as well as the gun control plea, were two elements of what would now be thought of as a “liberal media” presentation of the story. However, it sounds like they initially thought that Martinez had shot Whitman, and that that impression lingered over the years.

    On the other hand, I thought that Martinez’ wife was the only woman in the story who wasn’t simply portrayed as a hopelessly passive do-nothing, which is not exactly a “liberal” portrayal of women. Thus there was a certain irony that the producers were sued for the way they presented her.

    Overall, though, I thought it was a good movie, with palpable tension throughout. And I think a tip of the cap needs to go to Ned Beatty for chipping in to make this a solidly ’70s TV movie.

    • I realize that initially everyone including Martinez had thought that he was the one who shot and killed Whitman, but the autopsy found that it had been the bullets from McCoy’s gun and that had been done just a couple of days later, so by the time this movie had been made, which was 9 years after the fact, they knew full well whose gun it was that had killed him, so in the fairness of accuracy they should have tried to make that more clear.

  3. Pingback: Witches’ Brew (1980) | Scopophilia

  4. ohhhh boy. Are ya’ll in for a lot of BIG surprises…..

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