Friday 29 January 2016

The Capture of Grizzly Adams (1982)

Director: Don Keeslar
Stars: Dan Haggerty, Kim Darby, Noah Beery, Keenan Wynn, Sydney Penny, June Lockhart and Chuck Connors
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
If Dan Haggerty’s first pick was a surprising one, a recent slasher flick conjured out of a tall tale, then his second was a more expected choice: a TV movie in which he stars as his most famous character, James ‘Grizzly’ Adams, who I watched avidly as a kid on television. Back in the late ’70s, of course, it was just a show to me; I had no clue that the character I watched every week was real. He was John Adams, though he went by the James Capen Adams that was given to the man on TV, and he was a zoological collector, someone who captured and trained wild animals, such as grizzly bears, for menageries and circuses. He retired after being mauled by a Bengal tiger, but then embarked on a life that was even more worthy of being fictionalised, as it was by Charles Sellier, who wrote a novel, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. This was adapted into a feature in 1974 and then a TV show in 1978, both carrying the same title as the book. Eventually, this 1982 TV movie wrapped up the saga neatly, with the entire run a single story.

I believe that Haggerty was perfectly cast as Grizzly Adams. He grew up around animals, with his family owning and operating a wild animal attraction. I’ve seen some of his other work and have to admit that he wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he had a lot of characteristics that translated easily to this role. At 6’ 1”, he wasn’t as tall as I imagined him, but he was a big, burly and barrel chested man, easily cast as bikers or villains. However, he seems to have been a nice guy, something very much underlined on the occasions I met him at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale, AZ, and he always did better as nice guys on screen. Adams is a simple man who speaks simple dialogue but means it. He’s big enough and tough enough, not only to bring up a bear as his friend but also to tell the truth, even when it’s the hard thing to do. He cares about his daughter, of course, but he also cares about all of humanity, intrinsically not through choice, and all of animalkind too. So Haggerty was a easy casting decision.
In The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, the feature of 1974, he’s falsely accused of murder and he runs to the mountains, leaving his daughter behind with his sister. While he struggles to survive, he saves a grizzly cub whom he names Ben and raises as a friend. This was an independent movie, made for a mere $140,000, but it grossed $65m in theatres, $45m of which was domestic, making it the eighth highest grossing film of the year, ahead of The Longest Yard and Benji and only $2m behind The Godfather Part II. When it aired on NBC in 1976, drawing a 43% market share, the network eagerly greenlighted a show, which was produced quickly, launching in early 1977 and running through to March 1978. This followed Adams and his bear, along with a trader called Mad Jack and Nakoma, a native American, as they helped wildlife and anyone else on the mountain. The two hour finalĂ© in December 1978 was Once Upon a Starry Night, but it didn’t wrap things up as it should have done, prompting this TV movie to do that properly.

And it does, as much as it’s clearly a TV movie in most regards. The story is predictable and the direction is dire but it plays well anyway because of the locations and the cast of respected television actors. Many of these show up right at the outset, as Cora Adams, Grizzly’s sister, is buried. It’s believable small town stuff, with this talented cast grounding proceedings without even trying. The town doesn’t have a priest, so Sheriff Hawkins, played by Noah Beery Jr, leads the service. The son of Noah Beery Sr and the nephew of Wallace Beery, he’s surely best known today as James Garner’s father in The Rockford Files. Young Peg Adams, Grizzly’s daughter, wants to stay with Kate Brady, played by Kim Darby, the little girl in True Grit. Instead the sheriff’s wife, Liz Hawkins, in the aging form of June Lockhart from Lost in Space, takes her in, until the orphan’s home can come and pick her up. Given that this will surely bring Adams down from the mountains, Frank Briggs, played by the Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, wants him promptly caught.
I never met Connors, who died in 1992, but I get the feeling that he was also a nice guy. As Lucas McCain, the title character of The Rifleman, he was a widowed father trying to bring up his son in the best way he could, even against the odds. It ran for 168 episodes over five seasons and typecast Connors for life. The odd thing is that he was a fascinating individual far beyond that groundbreaking role. During the Second World War, he taught tank warfare at West Point, then became a professional sportsman, who was signed for the NBA, MLB and NFL. He played basketball for the Boston Celtics, for whom he became the very first player to shatter a backboard, and baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. While he joined the Chicago Bears, he never played for them. Of course, we know him as an actor, whose commanding 6’ 6” frame meant that he was always the tallest man on set. Typecast as the good guy, he took the role of Mr Slausen in Tourist Trap because he wanted to ‘become the Boris Karloff of the ’80s’.

This performance is very much in that vein, but he’s wooden for the first half of the film, just throwing an evil look at the camera, or anyone who mentions Grizzly Adams, and hoping that’s enough. ‘He killed my partner,’ he tells his men after Cora’s funeral. ‘I want him to pay, trial or no trial.’ As the title suggests, of course, Adams is captured alive. He sneaks into town under the noses of Briggs’s men to grab Peg, but is noticed heading for the woods and takes a shot to the leg. He soon collapses, about to get caught easily by the pursuing posse right after the first commercial break. It’s easy to see where the breaks are, as the direction seems to care about nothing more than how to pace things so that they can break every fifteen minutes. Only one section runs a little long, prompting the following one to run short to get it all back on track. It’s scary when this is the most accomplished aspect of Don Keeslar’s direction. I truly hope that he was hamstrung by static television cameras, because otherwise his work is painfully unimaginative.
It’s easy to see why Haggerty chose this film for me to review. Not only does it wrap up his celebrated run as Grizzly Adams, but it plays in a whole bunch of genres as it does so. It’s a drama, but one phrased as a period piece and then a western. After the burial, we watch Adams be the stereotypical good guy. First, he helps one neighbour by setting a trap in the river for her to catch fish, then, when he’s told about a forest fire (that mysteriously vanishes as quickly as it arose), he hightails it over on horseback to save old Bert and his burro, Stanley, even leaping into the river to fish him out after he idiotically tries to put out a fire on a powder keg by waving his hat at it and the whole thing explodes. It’s only the clothes that date this to being a period piece, but the posse that goes out to catch him firms it up as a western. Once he’s back in town, of course, it turns into a legal thriller, with Adams finally standing trial for the murder he’d been accused of eight years earlier. Briggs is the accuser. Adams, ‘doin’ his own lawyerin’’, pleads innocent.

The trial is well staged, full of simple words delivered by simple men who sit on simple wooden benches. For all the dismal direction of Keeslar, who rarely moves the camera and has his editor cut back and forth in conversation without any apparent realisation that there’s more to cinematic art, it plays well because his direction is as simple as everything we’re watching on screen. Of course, the jury finds Adams guilty because the evidence says so, even if the key witness is clearly lying; we’ve watched enough legal shows to see that the hypothesis Adams comes up with is obviously true. I was more engrossed in Tom Quigley, the prosecution’s star witness, a new man in town at the time who was promptly employed by Briggs in the aftermath of the murder and is doing well as the foreman on his ranch. He’s played by G W Bailey, a good actor who looks a lot younger here than he would as Lt Harris in the Police Academy series, starting only two years later. He does a good job too, another simple man struggling because he has to lie.
You could write much of this plot yourself, because it’s the feature that had to be made to wrap things up for Grizzly Adams in the fairest way possible. The only real surprise comes when he walks out of the town jail to be hanged from the neck until he is dead and, no, I don’t mean the bevy of ladies who lock arms to block passage to the hanging tree. I’d conjured up possibilities in my mind as to how Quigley could come clean in a believable way, but I never expected a real act of God. The tornado that rips through town isn’t badly handled. This period western turned legal thriller promptly becomes a disaster movie with a strong set of effects as houses collapse, wagons fly and people are whisked along the ground, through windows and off balconies. I guess Arthur Heinemann, who wrote the script, wanted to make absolutely sure that we had no doubt that Grizzly Adams was innocent all along. Not only do the town ladies underline it with their protest, but even God is on the mountain man’s side!

I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes that follow, even if they were predictable. Once the last commercials are over, everything is so obvious that you might think that you’re writing the script from your armchair and the screen is merely reacting to your ideas through the magic of telepathy. Fortunately Connors is able to move now and add some body language to his pursuit of Adams, his tall, thin body standing out against even the gorgeous mountainous landscape of Utah. The predictability takes the edge off but the dialogue and acting brings it back a little. Even Sydney Penny, a ten year old girl who couldn’t dream of the future soap opera career she’d carve out with runs in Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful, All My Children and Days of Our Lives, gives a strong showing as Peg Adams, hauled along in her fugitive father’s wake. It’s sentimentality up the wazoo, but she does it very capably indeed, adding emotion to scenes even as her more experienced co-stars play it a little calmer.
I have to admit that I got a real kick out of The Capture of Grizzly Adams, as obviously flawed as it is in a whole host of ways. It’s a simple story for simple characters, but the cast, led by Haggerty, endow it with sincerity. I felt that we could have done with more screen time for a few of the supporting actors, such as June Lockhart, who only gets a couple of scenes here to highlight why she was cast, and also Ben, a bear who had become beloved by millions during the TV show but is rarely used here and oddly uncredited to boot. The bear in the show was really Bozo, but I don’t know if it was Bozo as Ben here. Also missing and never mentioned are the co-stars of the show, Don Shanks as Nakoma and Denver Pyle as Mad Jack, the latter vaguely replaced by Keenan Wynn in a coonskin cap and white beard as Bert Woolman, who shows up early and late but spends the majority of the film recuperating off screen. I wonder if their absence is down to the standard contract negotiations or just the goal of focusing on the star as he ends his story.

Fortunately Haggerty was on strong form here. He was so closely tied to Grizzly Adams that it’s strange to discover that a couple of other actors took on that role in later years, including Gene Edwards, who was a stunt double in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Haggerty owned the role and, four years after the TV show was oddly cancelled, given its spectacular ratings, he fell right back into it without appearing to even try. No wonder he made so many other films that were clearly Grizzly Adams knockoffs, even one in between the original feature and the show, named The Adventures of Frontier Fremont; much later on, in 1997, he’d make Grizzly Mountain, with his son Dylan, and its sequel, Escape to Grizzly Mountain. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the Grizzly Adams show but I felt right at home watching this. It may be of lesser quality than the original film and perhaps the series but it’s half a dozen films in one and it ends things neatly. Haggerty wasn’t yet diagnosed with cancer when he picked this, but it’s a fitting epitaph.

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