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Mountain Man
(a.k.a. Guardian Of The Wilderness)
(1977)
 

Director: David O'Malley                               
Cast:
Denver Pyle, Ken Berry, Cheryl Miller


Another rare non-documentary from those relentless folks at Schick Sunn Classic Pictures, though unlike the later movie Earthbound, Mountain Man was actually made and released to theaters - in Dolby Stereo, and with a score performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London! But even then, there's little else to distinguish it from most other 70s "wilderness" films. In fact, for what's supposed to be a true story about "A man of courage and vision," as the opening title crawl tells us, the movie hardly contains any moments that we've not seen before in other movies. And if you thought that these clichéd scenes were dumb before seeing this movie, they'll seem quite sophisticated after seeing how they have been rendered in this "family film". Obviously, this movie was trying to go into the Disney vein, but didn't realize that in the 70s, the Disney's view of a "family film" was to aim strictly for very moronic children. Which explains why Disney movie grosses fell into the crapper until the mid 80s, and why Mountain Man is as obscure as many of the Disney movies of that era.

I must confess, though, that even though many of these "wilderness" movies are quite dumb, there's something about this genre that I find irresistible. There have been a few I liked; the one that comes to mind immediately is the 1974 Vanishing Wilderness (which was endorsed by John Wayne!) So Mountain Man had an immediate attraction to me. Plus, it promised to tell the true story of Galen Clark (played here by Denver Pyle), the man who helped create Yosemite Park in California. I'd never heard of Clark or how Yosemite was founded, so I was confident that at least I might learn a little history. Boy, was I wrong. The producers must have felt that the true story wasn't exciting enough, so they added a bunch of cute animals, cute kids, and a cute Indian. And they've made Galen Clark cute as well, blessing him (or, should I say, cursing him) with gooey-sweet dialogue. One example of this is when after Clark quickly befriends a mischievous raccoon, he utters, "I'm going to call you 'Trouble' - 'cause that's what you are!" Dagummit, now ain't that a purty thing to say? But it shore don't beat the time when Clark tells his daughter and her husband, "You two have been grinnin' like two kids with a sack of candy!"

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The movie opens in "The Far West 1861", where we see Uncle Jesse - sorry, I mean Galen Clark - working in a mine. Now, seeing a mine at the beginning of a movie means that there will be a collapse in the tunnels in just a few seconds, and this movie is no exception. Injured in the collapse, and treated by Mr. Roper from Three's Company (Norman Fell, in a guest appearance), Clark is told that he suffers from consumption and will probably be dead in a month. Muttering with regret, "I wish I done something important....", Clark decides to travel deep into the western wilderness to die. (Actually, he already traveled there - my research on Clark, after watching this movie, revealed that he actually arrived and settled in the Yosemite area in 1856 - but who cares about historical accuracy?)

Clark packs, and after surviving a long tumble down a mountain and being swept down a raging river for the better part of a mile, he still thinks he's going to die. So he buries himself except for his face (how did he bury both of his arms?) and waits to die. But who should come along but John Muir (a famous naturalist of that era), who gives Clark one of those cliché motivational speeches that seems to dispel the myth that months or years of psychiatric help can be good, and suicidal thoughts can be dispelled with a minute long monologue. After Muir leaves, Clark's spirits are strong again, and he teams up with a friendly Indian name Teneah in the area, both of them building a cabin (with only a hatchet) and shacking up together. But before the movie can tackle the gutsy topic of gay interracial sex, Teneah rejoins his tribe. That leaves an opportunity for Clark's daughter to somehow bump into her father in all of this wilderness, dragging along a couple of cute kids to entertain the kiddies in the audience who haven't already fallen asleep.

Like you are probably thinking right now, I was wondering at this point when the heck an actual story was going to start. Actually, around that point, Clark finds out that the valley is threatened with destruction by loggers, and with the help of all his friends and family he launches a campaign to save the valley. No time at all during this conflict did I feel that Clark was in danger from the loggers or their evil plans. For starters, the three main loggers act goofy and moronic in the worst Disney tradition; there's even the inevitable scene where the three of them are chased into the woods by Clark's pet bear, while Clark and his family yuk it up. And in fact, there's not as much time devoted to this conflict in the second half of the movie as you might think. Instead, the director gives us vignettes like a pet goose that likes to pull down clothes from the wash line. And a lot of the more serious moments are instead irrelevant material, such as Clark's bear helping him though an earthquake, or a cougar attack on the cabin while the men are out for the day.

Since director O'Malley didn't seem interested in working with a stronger story, it must be assumed that he didn't seem interested in historical accuracy. There are anachronisms, such as electric lights in the Sacramento Legislature building. Plus there are a lot of incidents hard to swallow; I sincerely doubt that in real life Clark brought deer, a bear, and other wildlife animals into the Legislature building to show all the politicians. Also, O'Malley didn't seem interested in proper spectacle - we hardly see anything of  this valley that makes Clark want to fight for it so hard. Mostly we just see grassland and ordinary looking forests. It's interesting to note that the credits reveal that most of the movie was actually shot in Utah and Wyoming - not exactly near Yosemite.

Near the end of the movie, there's a curious edit. One shot ends with the close-up of the rear end of a horse, then cuts to a close-up of someone's back, who then walks away from the camera. I think that edit sums up the production of this movie - that it was made by horse asses who didn't want to stay and work to make this movie stronger. Instead of what it could have been, Mountain Man was turned into a poorly written, childish and amateurish movie teetering on the edge of utter boredom. The only positive thing that can be said about it is that it's not as unbearable to watch as many of the Disney movies of this period that it tries to emulate.


UPDATE: Lita Karlstrand sent this in:

"Gotta tell you - I'm saving this review in my scrapbook! You might have hated the movie, but Galen Clark was my great great grandfather, and although they used a little creative license, the underlying story (sort of) fits! This is a great site!"

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Didn't You Hear, The Rivals, Earthbound

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