As we enter a second month of shutdowns and quarantines (if we live in one of the smart spots of the world, that is) one’s ‘to-be-read’ book stack is probably dwindling. So it’s a great time to check out the recently released biographies of the men who brought us the Cannon ninja films of the 1980s.
Stories from the Trenches is Marco Siedelmann‘s biography of beloved Cannon films director Sam Firstenberg — the man who gave us Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Avenging Force, and the first two American Ninja films. And like most people involved in the Cannon era of exploitation filmmaking, man does he have stories.
As does the career stuntman who doubled most of Firstenberg’s ninja, whose autobiography Steven Lambert: From the Streets of Brooklyn to the Halls of Hollywood is delivered in such a casual stream-of-conciousness manner you get a feeling he’s leaking all sorts of stuff that might otherwise never see the light of day.
I’ve been reading both books in tandem, right now knee-deep in each man’s recollections of Revenge of the Ninja. It’s a nifty exercise is both differing perspectives and different methods of delivery.
(Sadly, the painted image above does not adorn the side of my black conversion van with shuriken-shaped bubble windows and a hamster-wheel on the dashboard.)
Trenches is composed of interviews, augmented with scrapbook style pages of behind-the-scenes photos, ad materials and publicity stills. The director is rather candid about Revenge of the Ninja being his first action/martial arts pic, the critical collaboration with Sho Kosugi (whose multi-faceted role as star, fight choreographer, weapons and props master, ninjutsu advisor and talent broker for his show-stealing son Kane would probably land him a producer credit today) and the rather loose build-the-plane-as-we-fly-it production philosophy Cannon allowed him to thrive under. At times he makes the Sal Lake City, Utah shoot seem like the funnest gig on earth and at others it being a miracle no one died on set, and halfway in between they all delivered a hugely successful film that would essentially define the 80s ninja craze.
Lambert reveals in his very personal, un-filtered voice how he was one of the people that somehow didn’t die on set. A relative newcomer who fell into the job somewhat by accident, his gusto nearly led to catastrophe when they shot the zip line scene between the two office towers. An initial but originally un-sceduled safety run with a dead weight instead of Lambert himself, insisted upon by the more travelled stuntman Don Shanks (the tomahawk-weilding “Chief), saved him from a fatal fall when the rigging malfunctioned. Less life-threatening but just as entertaining stories like him being wrangled into playing the campy Village People-esque “Cowboy” in the park fight ensue. He brings it all full circle, going from playing the silver-masked ninja in the film to decades later donating that same silver mask to Burbank California’s Martial Arts History Museum.
The anecdotes from these books are particularly valuable to us shinobi-files, as apart from Ninja III getting a couple of extras-laden Blu-ray releases, the films of the ninja craze did not generally get the Criterion-level commentary tracks and making-of documentaries they so so deserved. And reading the bios in tandem, often with a film-by-film cadence as the two worked together several times, gives multiple perspectives and all sorts of closeted goodies exposed.
One minor word of warning about these books — and this is no fault of anyone involved, as I do understand large sections of the publishing industry want this trend for various sales and marketing concerns — is their massive size. Averaging 8.5x11ish in size and 750 (yeah, seven hundred and fifty) pages each, they actually become awkward for the reader and from experience in the trade, I’m thinking the binding will become seriously strained as years go on. Plus, you try to read one of these laying down in bed you could practically break your sternum.
(The two books with a 3-3/4″ GI Joe ninja for scale. Pfew…)
But think about it, both of these guys had enough stories from their days on sets of movies we’ve adored for decades to fill these epic-sized tomes, and that’s pretty damned amazing. And I haven’t cracked the chapters on Domination and American Ninja yet.
Both books get the Vintage Ninja seal of approval, and are highly recommended. If nothing else, dead-lift them a few dozen times and you’ve got an instant home workout routine during quarantine.
And in this time of pandemic, here’s wishing safety and health to both these men, who I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with on a few occasions and couldn’t be happier about it…
KR – April, 2020