Last fall, a group of elite Fort Worth, Tex., high school youths suddenly became celebrities. What drew nationwide media attention, however, wasn't this all-white group's academic achievements, but their off-campus exploits.
Calling themselves the Legion of Doom, these self-styled teen-age vigilantes--including a football star, a future valedictorian, a National Honor Society member and a distinguished yearbook staffer--terrorized suspected vandals and thieves at Paschal High School.
Armed with 30 guns, including a .357 Magnum, an HK-91 assault rifle and a homemade rocket launcher, the legion broke into lockers, firebombed a car, beat up homosexuals, painted swastikas and neo-Nazi slogans on school walls, hurled Molotov cocktails at a suspected vandal's house and repeatedly taunted neighborhood blacks with crude racial epithets.
According to Fort Worth police, an area grand jury found Legion of Doom members guilty of more than 30 felony and misdemeanor charges, though none of the members have been sentenced or have served time yet.
But the teen vigilantes' exploits did not go unnoticed by Hollywood.
--"Brotherhood of Justice," an ABC-TV movie about a group of clean-cut youths who form a secret society aimed at ridding the local high school of undesirables, airs Sunday at 9 p.m.
--"Dangerously Close," a theatrical film dramatizing a series of violent incidents involving affluent suburban high-schoolers, has just been released by the Cannon Group.
--"Knights of Terror," a CBS-TV project about teen vigilantes, is currently "in limbo," according to screenwriter Angelo Pizzo.
"We got all sorts of calls after the first stories came out," said Fort Worth Police Department public information officer Doug Clarke. "(Writer-director) Paul Michael Glaser called me personally four or five times, 20th Century Fox phoned too, and I got a big long letter from Lorimar Productions telling me what a high-class operation they were.
"Then everyone went away. I guess the film makers figured out that the story was really in the public domain. But I always told them that if they needed someone to play me, I thought Tom Selleck would be perfect."
A persistent question worries those connected with the films: Are such projects part of the problem or part of the solution?
Today's cinematic images, largely culled from popular action and avenger film and TV shows, apparently have made an indelible impression on many youths. According to a Rolling Stone account of the Fort Worth incidents, the Legion of Doom videotaped most of its mayhem and prepared for vigilante raids by watching such films as "Red Dawn," "The Road Warrior," "Rambo" and "Apocalypse Now."
The ABC-TV movie specifically mentions "Rambo" at one juncture, while "Dangerously Close" outfits its teen enforcers in guerrilla-style masks and Army fatigues clearly patterned after those in recent films.
"We were terrified that this story could somehow become a 'how-to-become-a-vigilante' story," acknowledged Judy James, an Off-Broadway producer who co-produced the ABC-TV movie. "Obviously that's not the message we wanted to send, so we tried to get something on the air that's an honest statement about kids, that shows the dangers of this sense of powerlessness and racism."
"Dangerously Close" director Albert Pyun agreed. "We felt it was very important to show that these kids are transformed by their actions and are going to be messed up forever. It's not like films like 'Rambo,' where you don't really see any moral choices. We want people coming out of this film to be aware that these kids are going to have to live with the wrong moral choices for the rest of their lives."
However, not everybody involved is so sure this message will get across.
"I think what's scary about these movies is that because of the patriotic mood today, a lot of young men are going to cheer for the vigilante guys in the films," said 23-year-old actor Don Michael Paul, who by a casting coincidence appears as a gang member in both "Dangerously Close" and "The Legion of Justice."
"There are so many movies like 'Rambo' and the Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson films that glamorize vigilante behavior that if you're a kid watching, it's hard not to associate the vigilante character with being the hero. They really force you to identify with him."
John Stockwell, who stars in "Dangerously Close" (and co-wrote the script), is also concerned about what messages are being conveyed.
"It could be really dangerous. I think people understand that 'Rambo'-type movies are fantasies. But I wonder what people will make of this film, which is more realistic, and probably more disturbing. If you put something within a kid's range of possibilities, then you sometimes inspire more fantasies.
"In the movie, the kids definitely learn something about themselves. But of course in real life, kids don't always learn from this kind of stuff."
The film makers interviewed by The Times insisted that their projects were under way before news of the Legion of Doom surfaced, noting that they also drew from research about similar incidents around the country. But the events in Fort Worth, subject of a lengthy feature in Rolling Stone last fall, brought a striking immediacy to both projects.
"We had an outline of our story about vigilante kids at least three months before we heard about the Fort Worth case," said Margot Winchester, a veteran documentary producer who co-produced the ABC-TV movie in conjunction with Phoenix Entertainment Group, a new TV production company.
"To show what was going on, we also brought into the network a copy of 'The History of the Third Reich,' with excerpts from Hitler's 'Mein Kampf,' and put it on the table as we laid out our ideas.
"It was a good way to attract attention, but it also had a shocking similarity to the events today. The Fort Worth incident did certainly help get things going, because it was, after all, pure TV."
At Cannon, director Albert Pyun reworked what he said had been largely a "slasher" script, called "Terror at Miller High," into a similar vigilante story.
"We wanted to do something to capture the mood of the country," said Pyun, a 30-year-old film maker. "I'd read about an incident in Santa Barbara where these kids, who were actually looking to beat up a Hispanic kid, hunted down a derelict and stabbed him to death. As he was dying, they brought in all their friends, as if they were on a guided tour, to watch him die. After seeing the Rolling Stone piece and reading 'Less Than Zero' (a best seller about bored, violent kids), it started me thinking--'Hey, these kids sure are a lot different than when I was in high school.' "
Both films focus on bright, affluent student leaders whose efforts to clean up their schools escalate into mindless violence.
"I think a big problem today is that kids are under enormous pressure to fit in," said Pyun. "We tried to show our kids as really handsome, affluent and well-spoken. They have their Porsches and all the right clothes. They're everything we were taught to aspire to be. And yet they're desperately unhappy. There's clearly a price for that kind of perfection."
It is no coincidence that swastikas and other symbols of fascism, which have been popular badges of rebellion for many young punk rockers and heavy-metal fans, were also embraced by the Legion of Doom vigilantes. According to James, many youths today have grown up without any sense of "the moral context of history."
"The symbols of Nazism and fascism have shockingly different meanings for kids than for us. They have an arrogance, a sense of elitism and privilege gone awry. It's no wonder they're fascinated by futuristic films like the 'Star Wars' series. I think a lot of them feel as if they need to start all over because the world right now hasn't worked out right.
"My teen-age son has a favorite poster on his wall. It says, 'If the world ended today, what would you like to be doing today?' "
At 25, John Stockwell isn't much older than the vigilante leader he portrays in the film. Yet he senses a change in goals among teens today.
"Now the whole sense of coolness with kids is all caught up in power," he said. "If you can obtain power within the context of school, you're in. It used to be that everyone laughed at the school president, but now everyone wants to be that, 'cause they figure that's the ticket to success.
"It's all part of the new materialism. For a lot of kids, it's a big goal to have a new BMW and if someone rips it off, then they feel as if it's OK to beat the hell out of them."
Yet this moral righteousness may have its roots in a lingering sense of powerlessness. "We were particularly intrigued by how impotent these kids feel," said Winchester. "It's as if they're trying to make order out of chaos, but the order turns out to be worse than the chaos was. But without any sense of history, kids can only learn from the images of today, which unfortunately are very fragmented and confused."
Night training in "Dangerously Close," a theatrical film just released by the Cannon Group.