Welcome to “Original Outlaws,” a column that seeks to canonize cinema’s greatest works of exploitation. Think of it as the Criterion Collection of skeeze and sleaze, a discovery portal for those looking to dive into the deep end of disreputable filmmaking.
Spine Number Thirteen is the regional car chase docusploitation oddity, Polk County Pot Plane (1977).
he old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” is perhaps no truer than when applied to regional exploitation filmmaking. An authentic hotbed of modern mythmaking, the principal players in scandalous real-life events often got involved in telling their own stories at provincial drive-ins. After all, Hollywood might as well have been Tahiti for some local-yokel dreamer in Texarkana, and Joy’s Outdoor Twin was certainly a more appropriate campfire for their tales to be told around, beamed up on a towering, tattered screen via a rickety 16mm projector.
Let’s travel back in time to Polk County, Georgia, August 1975. Robert G. Eby was arrested, along with four associates, after being linked to an aircraft carrying enough South American skunk to keep every nearby trailer park joker stoned until Christmas ’76. Eby was the pilot for a Douglas C-54 Skymaster that landed on top of Treat Mountain. Following a tip regarding the suspicious low-flying aircraft, law enforcement officials discovered the plane on a rough-cut, thousand-foot airstrip that had been bulldozed into the peak’s dense forest just a week before by a few of Eby’s buddies. Somehow, the C-54 stopped in half the strip’s length, at night, while being guided by nothing but a string of 100-watt light bulbs.
Now, first things fucking last: This was not Eby’s freshman go in the drug-smuggling game. Far from it, Junior. No, the Skymaster was actually a refurbished junker that the former Army pilot had discovered in a Tucson, Arizona, scrapyard. Tuning it to operational status, Eby flew a trafficking mission just a few months before, where he landed on a similar muddy runway in the middle of Colombia. Stuffing the plane with as much pot as it could possibly carry, Eby piloted the Skymaster back to the States, where the drugs were unloaded for distribution in various spots between Atlanta and Michigan. This was back before the DEA or FBI had developed sophisticated measures to stop this sort of high-flying operation, and it became a lucrative hobby for vets unable to apply their military skills elsewhere.
Upon responding to the Treat Mountain touchdown, officers confiscated 10 burlap bags of marijuana, totaling approximately 287 pounds. Most of these sacks were taken from a rental truck that police stopped after it fled the scene, with Eby and his co-conspirators winding up in cuffs for hauling the clandestine cargo. Yet this stash was a much smaller piece of a gigantic haul. Once the Polk County pot plane’s travels were investigated, it was linked to nearly 8,000 pounds of below-the-border bud and hashish. Nevertheless, Eby and his crew had to be released, as the police could not prove he had been piloting the craft at any point, and the remainder of their case was tossed by the judge due to lack of admissible evidence on the prosecution’s part.
Here is the wildest bit: After authorities impounded the airplane, they put it up for auction, not knowing how the hell they were going to get the bulky beast off Treat Mountain. For reference, a Skymaster C-54 is roughly the same make and model as the old American Airlines DC-4*, which could safely hold approximately 54 passengers. Thanks to the DIY nature of the airstrip the plane currently called home, it would either take a master aviator to safely achieve liftoff, or a Herzogian feat of strength to haul it down, piece by piece. Either way, the Polk County police were screwed, as here was a 120,000-pound paper weight just gathering dust in the Georgia highlands. Might as well sell it and make the hunk of shit someone else’s headache.
Enter James West Jr. A Marine who had been elected to the State House of Representatives following his service, West was mostly known for authoring a bill allowing women to carry handguns in their purses, and for “driving” himself to work at the capitol building every day via personal helicopter. A true outlaw of the highest order, West’s daily commute is actually how he laid eyes upon the C-54 for the first time. After the bust went down, West flew Georgia Governor George Busby to Treat Mountain, which was surrounded by the ATF, the FBI and deputies from the Polk County Sherriff’s Department. How the man got the inspiration is beyond this author, but evidently, he told Gov. Busby on the spot that he was going to buy that Skymaster and make a movie about it.
Turns out, Jim West didn’t just buy the plane. He bought the mountain, too, or at least the land comprising the airstrip from Eby’s associates, along with the rights to their story after interviewing each of the perpetrators. Thus, Polk County Pot Plane (1977) was born. Both a bit of regional drive-in lore as well as a good-ol’-boy celebration of everything country, Polk County Pot Plane superficially appears to be nothing more than a cash-in on Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit (1977), which netted $300M at the box office the very same season West’s only feature endeavor hit screens on the Georgia circuit.
Arriving at the tail end of Summer ’77**, roughly three months after Burt and Hal’s Southern mega-hit, Polk County Pot Plane combines the smash-‘em-up ethos that drove that classic to success with an authentic hangout vibe all its own. From the opening jangly, comedically scored credits, we know we are in for something outside the usual exploitation jam. Some of these amateurs, and even their characters, are only assigned nicknames. “Big Jim” (“Whozitt,” aka West) plays The Pilot. “Sandy” (St. Armour) plays “2nd Kingpin.” Adding to the meta-texture, our central bootleggers are simply “Oosh” and “Doosh,” and played by related longhairs Don and Bobby Watson, who are perhaps accidentally referred to by their birth names within the narrative itself. Hell, the plane receives billing as “Big Bird” (aka N67038 DC-4). It’s a community affair, crafted by folks wanting to see their own image projected on celluloid.
The first 20 or so minutes of Polk County Pot Plane are an embellished intro to this world of twangy bootlegging. Big Jim brings Big Bird in for its mountainous descent, the boys unload the weed into a rickety looking RV, and the cops are immediately in hot pursuit. The ensuing hunt is a lo-fi wonder: Our new favorite aircraft clips a police car on its way out, and a bulldozer being hauled by a sandwich-chomping yokel (Willard Burnham) crashes into a few more before the back half of Oosh and Doosh’s recreational vehicle is demolished (yet those burlap bags of pot stay put). How does this seemingly interminable set piece conclude? With the boys in cuffs (after trying to off-road into the overgrown brush) and a crotchety geezer (Ralph Hamilton) creeping his now crushed Cadillac into the yard flanking his backwoods abode, limping to the outhouse as if he’s about to shit his pants while his wife (Corabell Hamilton) chides him about what the heck happened to the dang car.
But you can’t have your feature presentation run 20 darn minutes! Nobody at the drive-in would be able to finish their smuggled tallboys in time! So West, along with story scribe Jim Clarke (just kidding, that’s another pseudonym***), concoct a pulpy rednecksploitation riff, wherein the local crime bosses (Paul Weiner, Sandy St. Armour, Don Pierce, TC Jones) meet to decide whether to off Oosh and Doosh, or bust them out of Clayton County jail. Thankfully, they opt for the latter, to employ the hippies on a second massive pick-up. Staging a daring heist that lifts the smugglers off the prison’s roof, the sequence where Don and Bobby Watson hang from the bottom of Jim West’s helicopter ranks pretty high in the history of backyard action. It’s clear these proletarians are performing their own stunts, and if they slip, that could mean “adios” for Oosh and Doosh beyond just the big screen. Seeing how the whole production seems fueled by booze and smoke, it’s worth wondering how much “liquid courage” the Watsons ingested before attempting this foolhardy feat.
Polk County Pot Plane’s second bout of demolition derby involves a tractor-trailer chase, with Oosh and Doosh hooting as the police are again right on their tail. Chugging down a golden-lit highway, cruisers have their tops shaved off after running into the massive vehicle, before West stops the film dead to perform its biggest stunt: careening the big rig through a literal house that has been dropped in the middle of the blacktop. In another minor exploitation miracle, the windshield of the trailer’s cab is the only sufferer of severe damage, as the beast blows through the prefab unit, causing the crib to collapse while its owner attempts to figure out just who the hell is going to be liable for the wreckage.
Now, West was no dummy. He knew these good ol’ boys couldn’t act a lick beyond boozing it up around a pool table, and never asks them to perform as such. So, the closest we ever get to receiving any character development in Polk County Pot Plane is through an armored car heist Oosh and Doosh pull in order to pay back their $150,000 debt to the bosses (you know, for all the vehicular carnage and that initial lost shipment). In the shoot-out’s wake, we are treated to some sad guitar music after they leave their cohorts’ corpses behind only to be engaged in the yet another car chase, this time in their souped-up getaway Camaro.
Keeping it all speeding along at 100 mph and feeling like, well, an actual movie, was editor Angelo Ross. One of the few tried-and-true pros working on the shoot, Ross was also the editor on Needham’s Smokey & The Bandit, so he had some real experience cutting together a bevy of deep-fried Evel Knievel bullshit into something vaguely resembling a narrative. Ross was an industry lifer, splicing together everything from true weirdo gems such as Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) to the religious anti-gang picture, The Cross and the Switchblade (1970). It’s fair to say that, without his steady hand, nothing in Polk County Pot Plane would work at all.
To be fair, everything described above is merely thrill-kill filler for the movie’s main event: restaging Big Bird’s famed landing atop Treat Mountain, complete with a local radio DJ (WQXV’s Van Q. Temple) announcing that the plane is going to be put up for auction after it does so. Really, this is West’s moment to grab the spotlight for himself, firing the C-54’s engine up and lifting off that fabled dirt runway, capturing it all with shaky aerial footage. Michael Loren’s “Pot Plane” serenades Big Bird as she soars toward a final freeze frame, immortalizing her in the minds of all who were able to catch one of the few prints of West’s masterwork that were minted.
Jim West never made another movie. Neither did the Watson boys, nor the majority of the folks who appeared in Polk County Pot Plane. After all, they had to return to the very lives they were portraying onscreen. This was the one story they had to tell, and tell it they did. Were it not for the regional exploitation circuit, this state rep would have remained a maverick politician. Instead, he became a chronicler of his people’s lore, trapping this bizarre moment of local history in celluloid amber. The various car crashes were simply an added bonus for shits and giggles.
*In December 1941, the US War Department actually commandeered all manufacturing orders for the DC-4 and turned them into military transport C-54s following the country’s WWII entrance.
**Though the majority of viewers would discover this film way later on Paragon Video’s re-titled In Hot Pursuit VHS release, which remains the only way to view Polk County Pot Plane outside of 35mm (how this writer first watched it) or a crappy YouTube upload.
***As far as this author knows, any time you spot a “Jim,” “Big Jim” or “James” in the credits, that’s more than likely West, though it can’t be 100% confirmed, as the wild man passed in 2014. From writer and actor (“Big Jim,” “Jim Clarke”), to camera operator “Jim Young,” the dude did it all with zero previous experience before heading out on this bugnuts adventure.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas, whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.