A must-have primer for every would-be romantic kidnapper out there. Warner Bros.' essential Archive Collection, their on-line service of M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) library titles, has released Sweet Hostage, the 1975 ABC made-for-TV romance drama starring Linda Blair and Martin Sheen... which WB has inexplicably listed in their horror section. An exploitation film in search of some exploitin', Sweet Hostage is gussied up with some high-falutin' poetry spoutin' and discussions about freedom and love, but its casting is problematic...as are the conclusions it draws. No extras here for this okay transfer.
Boston, Massachusetts. Mental patient Leonard Hatch (Martin Sheen) stares off into space until his hospital captors request his presence at dinner. Fed up with imprisonment, Leonard escapes via the laundry chute and makes good on Horace Greeley's command, "Go west, young whacko!" Meanwhile, in the sparse desert of the American southwest, 17-year-old Doris Mae Withers (Linda Blair) has about two things to look forward to: fumbling back-seat dates with handsy creeps, or meaningless drudgery on her loser father's (Bert Remsen) busted cattle ranch. When not arguing pointlessly with her insufferable husband, Doris' mother (Jeanne Cooper) cries to Doris that this isn't how her life was meant to be―self-indulgent whining that tough-as-nails Doris shrugs off as life's due course. A busted radiator on the outskirts of town gives Doris the chance to accept a ride from the passing Leonard, who immediately lays a load of hippie existential b.s. on her before he yanks her hair and kidnaps her off to an abandoned cabin up in the hilly woods and scrub. Will Doris escape from Leonard's booby trap-laden lair and his unceasing grammar lessons, or will she fall madly in love with the poetry-spouting crazy in the puffy shirt?
I distinctly remember the buzz over Sweet Hostage when it came out in 1975. Linda Blair was still dealing with the outraged notoriety that came along with her startling performance in The Exorcist two years before, so it was natural for ABC to play off the hype of having the 16-year-old Blair involved in a storyline where her youth was yet again exploited for sexual titillation (as it was in her other TV movie classic, Born Innocent). Looking at the movie poster that adorns the cover of the DVD case for Sweet Hostage, I would imagine at some point this was re-released to theaters, either here or more probably overseas (as was often the case with high-profile TV movies that aired here first). The poster advertises Sheen from Apocalypse Now (so we're talking '79 or later), and Blair still from The Exorcist (such was the trajectory of her career), but more importantly, in its tag line, it offers a direct clue as to how the movie was sold, while clearly pointing out the exploitation aspects inherent in the story: "When He Captured a Girl...He Unleashed a Woman!" Was racier stuff shot during production for inclusion into the overseas version (as was also often the case with bigger-budget U.S. TV movies)? Hard to say...but it's not included here. And that's too bad, because this premise screams for the drive-in treatment.
After all, that's what the story is really about―will she or won't she succumb to his charms; the title is Sweet Hostage, for all that conveys―regardless of how well-intentioned its other themes are presented. There's no question the script by Edward Hume, based on the novel, Welcome to Xanadu by Nathaniel Benchley, is literate and well-constructed. Hume, a veteran screenwriter with a remarkable pedigree (big screen movies like A Reflection of Fear and Two-Minute Warning, along with TV fare such as pilots for Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, and Barnaby Jones, as well as the TV movie event, The Day After), keeps the dialogue crackling as Sheen winds himself up for numerous impressive soliloquies, inbetween little throwaways and amusing moments (I loved Dehl Berti's Indian gas station owner, who sends everyone off with a Spockian, "Live long and prosper."). We even get that rarity in '70s TV movie-land: a sheriff (Lee de Broux) who isn't a gun-happy dunce or bigot; he's shown to be kind and quite wily.
However, Sweet Hostage avoids some potentially big sticky wickets by simply ignoring them. Why was Leonard incarcerated at the mental hospital in the first place? Did he kidnap some other girl? We're not told, giving the viewer a "blank slate" on Leonard that's a bit too convenient, reinforcing the implication that he's somehow been put away unfairly (the old, "it's the world is crazy, not me" angle). More importantly, Sheen believably switches from thoughtful and caring to scary-violent in a second, but the movie refuses to comment on those mood swings―or condemn them. Blair is the viewer surrogate, and while she tries to escape several times, more often than not she's supposed to be intrigued by this obviously unbalanced person. When he explodes about her grammar, or her lack of imagination, or his basic manhandling of her, she takes it either placidly, or as her due. We never know when he's going to blow...but she doesn't seem to care.
It reminded me of the English film, Morgan, where we're encouraged to find loveable the obviously disturbed David Warner, with the movie asking us to accept as adorable, behavior that is anything but adorable. Sweet Hostage is no different. Leonard may be educated and cultured and well-read and surface-romantic...but you better not piss him off, or he'll yank your hair out or tie you up. And of course, the movie doesn't go near the notion that he's taking advantage of this young girl; in one of the oldest dodges for these sorts of films, it's naturally assumed that the young kidnapee will find not disgust and hatred for her captor, but love and fulfilling sex after he corrects her grammar and buys her a pretty dress―a sort of Henry Higgins Meets Ted Bundy storyline that always ends in unbelievable romance (a big clue for that intent by the filmmakers is the dopey love song―Strangers on a Carousel...yeech―and bird-chirpy, sappy music that filters through the whole thing, signaling us that everything's going to be all right in the end).
All of that could have worked better in Sweet Hostage, had someone besides Martin Sheen been cast as Leonard. Now don't get me wrong: Sheen is technically quite proficient with the flowery poetry scenes, and he's got the crazy aspect of Leonard down pat. Sheen was coming off a remarkable string of TV movie appearances when Sweet Hostage was made, including That Certain Summer, The Missiles of October, The Execution of Private Slovak, and my favorite, The California Kid (where Sheen's emotional distance and turbulent, suppressed rage were perfectly utilized). However, Sheen just can't deliver a disturbed character that also functions believably as a romantic figure. Sheen has never been that kind of sympathetic actor who can go beyond himself into a larger-than-life, romantic leading role. When Sheen spouts his poetry and looks kindly at Blair, all we see are those scary, flat, angry eyes, and we stay off balance. Now...had the filmmakers gone with that, and actually made Sweet Hostage about how a character like Leonard, despite his education and yearning to be a romantic, can't turn Doris into his willing lover, then Sweet Hostage would have been perfectly cast...and far more interesting, for that matter. Instead, director Lee Philips and the screenwriter really want us to believe that Blair would fall for the violent, unsteady Sheen, and it just doesn't work on any kind of level other than genre cliché. Interestingly, considering the bad rap she always gets for her later roles (and her times in the tabloids, bleeding over into reviews of her films), Linda Blair is terrific here as the tough-but-vulnerable Doris. Alternately wary and bemused and expectant, Blair doesn't ring false once (except when the script asks her to do silly things), making the viewer wish she had secured more roles like this one before she descended permanently into Grade Z exploitation fodder.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.