The Giant Of Thunder Mountain

Director: James Roberson            
Richard Kiel, Jack Elam, Marianne Rogers

It goes without saying that whenever there is a mention of actor Richard Kiel anywhere, just about everyone will instantly think of his most famous role, as Jaws in the James Bond movies The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. (Though according to a recent interview with Kiel, many young people nowadays recognize him because of his small role in Happy Gilmore.) Aside from those roles, I think it's safe to say just about anyone knows nothing else about Kiel. The main reason is simply that most of the movies he's been in over the years - among them Gus, Now You See Him Now You Don't, and The Las Vegas Hillbillys - have been pretty forgettable, and are not the kind of movies that generate star power or keep it strong. Though another reason is that in recent years he hasn't made that many appearances in movies and on TV, and the reason for that brings up some interesting personal facts about Kiel. A devoted Christian, he has spent a lot of his time with his faith and promoting it to others. Another passion of his is writing; for several decades he has not only written several screenplays, but has spent a great deal of time writing a biography of the controversial 19th century slave abolitionist Cassius Clay, which he hopes to eventually get produced as a feature film.

So it will probably not come as a surprise that at least one time he attempted to blend both of these deep devotions in a single project. That project was the family movie The Giant Of Thunder Mountain. Not only did Kiel star in the movie, he co-wrote the screenplay and was one of the executive producers. Though the movie is relatively wholesome in its tone and is well-meaning because of its attempt to deliver a few messages - the main one being to show the various evils that can come out of prejudice - when it comes to being an entertaining romp or even at the level of a serviceable drama, it ultimately fails at being both. However, the movie is At least the stock footage of this Thunder Mountain is better than the one in "Force From Thunder Mountain"not a total loss; among other things, it manages to answer a few questions. Among other things, it suggests why that, apart from this screenplay and his autobiography Making It Big In The Movies, Kiel previous scripts and manuscripts have remained unsold. The end results, which include some apparent desperate post-production tinkering that will be later discussed, also give plenty of evidence to suggest why upon completion, the movie was subsequently shelved for several years before its near-invisible theatrical release. Still, if you for some reason have a desire to penetrate the psyche of Richard Kiel, this movie will be the best opportunity for you to do so.

Though in real life the cowboy era was essentially dead by 1896, The Giant Of Thunder Mountain argues otherwise, at least in the small town of Weaverton, smack in the middle of the northern California wilderness. One piece of gossip that has been going around the town for years is the story of... well, the giant living on that nearby mountain mentioned in the title. The rumors range from this hermit giant being crazy to him having killed his parents years earlier. Naturally, the citizens of Weaverton that are most fascinated by these rumors are the children, and you know how it usually goes in stories aimed at children that center around a mysterious hermit. That's right, a child or children who desperately want to become members of a secret club (made up of snobbish peers that hold their meetings in a dilapidated clubhouse) have to pass an initiation ritual that will involve them getting into the general vicinity of the mysterious hermit. Though in this case the two brothers that are being initiated are just simply told to climb the mountain, where all they will have to worry about is the possibility of encountering the nasty and bloodthirsty grizzly bear (Bart the Bear, of The Bear and The Edge fame) that also lives there.

Of course, during their trek they stumble across the giant's empty cabin, and they are scared off when the giant (played by... well, duh!) suddenly thud-thud-thuds home after a hard day of... well, whatever hermits do in the woods all day before making a lot of noise coming home. Due to circumstances both too boring and unbelievable to get into here, the boys make a return trip to the cabin. By now, you are probably wondering "Where is the pesky and precocious little sister that inevitably comes up in stories like this?" Well, even though there is indeed one and she turns out to be a major catalyst in the movie, she only makes a proper appearance at this point in the movie. Amy (played by Noley Thornton of Beverly Hills 90210) gets wind of their departure and quickly follow behind. And naturally, when she gets to the cabin and sees the giant, she instantly shows no fear of him in what is no doubt an homage (read: rip-off) of Frankenstein. If this particular giant immediately threw Amy in the water and started a rampage in the nearby rural town like Frankenstein's monster, this movie probably could have ended up being quite entertaining. But no; Amy befriends the giant (named Eli), and discovers the big scary giant is actually a lonely but otherwise normal guy (barring little things like hinted alcoholism and various childhood traumas that lead him to live life in isolation.)

Of course, if the movie had just stayed with the developing friendship between Eli Kiel recycled the beard he used playing the Russian in that Midas commercial ten years earlierand Amy, as well as Amy's attempts to break Eli out of his self-protective shell, it would have been pretty boring. So conflict gets thrown in along the way, but it's of such a brainless and contrived nature that in the end I have to wonder if taking the boring route would have been less painful. The first incident of trouble comes when Amy escorts the reluctant Eli to the carnival in time, and while playing one of the test-your-skill games on the sidelines Eli discovers that the proprietor has dishonestly set up the game. Eli understandably gets mad once he discovers this, and when he starts being stern with the proprietor, the nearby townspeople immediately become hostile to him, feeling that Eli is simply bullying the crook. (Which soon leads to catcalling and insults, along with the frequently parodied device of filming laughing people's faces up close with a distorted lens.) Let me ask you this: If you were Eli or Amy, what would you do in this situation? That's right, you would speak up to defend and justify your actions, or at the very least unveil the proprietor's crooked scheme right in front of everyone. Incredibly, neither Eli or Amy even attempt to do any one of those two things. Though I admit that Eli's subsequent "I don't need any of you! This is why I live alone!" monologue before storming off, and the shamed reaction of the townspeople to this are both not badly executed at all, the fact that Eli and Amy didn't previously do the most obvious and natural thing in the situation is so unbelievable that the little good will found here in the end just seems as artificial as their reactions.

The primary conflict in The Giant Of Thunder Mountain is equally unbelievable in how it's unchallenged, and also could easily have been resolved if someone just said something. The conflict originates from the shifty character of Hezekiah (Elam, a veteran at playing old shifty coots in westerns) who runs - yup, that traveling carnival - with his two equally shifty sons played by William Sanderson (Lonesome Dove) and B movie actor George "Buck" Flower. When they get wind that Eli has a stash of gold in his cabin, they naturally come a-knocking when he's not around. As it turns out their presence at Eli's cabin at that moment, along with a few unbelievable coincidences that just happen at the same time there and elsewhere, Eli quickly finds himself a wanted man, and soon finds himself being hunted down by several dozen bloodthirsty gun & torch-wielding vigilantes. At one point he even gets a big blood-splattering bullet wound to the leg, no doubt in an attempt to give the watching kiddies some extra spice. Or maybe it was an attempt to try and distract any kids with reasonable intelligence from thinking about not only how unbelievable it is how Eli got into this situation, but how long he finds himself in this situation. When Amy flees from the attacking grizzly bear and runs in tears to her mother, what does she say happened to her? During her hysterical rant, Amy utters "He tried to attack me." Not "The grizzly bear", but "He". So of course, mother thinks Eli attacked Amy, tells the townspeople this, and... sigh.

Incredibly, when mother thinks that Eli attacked Amy, Amy does nothing to try and correct her at the time. And it's only much later that Amy takes an attempt to try and tell her mother the truth, but busy mother You don't want to say "Eat my shorts" to *this* Bart...just dismisses her by uttering "Hush!" Even kids at this point will be wondering why Amy doesn't just scream, "I WAS ATTACKED BY A FREAKING BEAR, YOU IDIOT!" The movie seems not only unable to generate a conflict by introducing twists that feel more natural, but it has an inability to bring any conflict to a satisfactory conclusion. There's that whole subplot about the bear, for one thing. Though there is plenty of talk about how mean this killer bear is, and it is revealed that it was the bear that killed Eli's parents and has been stalking him all these years, this bear situation is never resolved. At the end, the bear is still around, and so are Eli's apparent inner demons surrounding this bear. The resolution of the main plot concerning the persecution of Eli is equally unsatisfying. Eli's final action is actually more believable than what you might be expecting, especially for a movie like this. But it's the characters of the townspeople who are at fault here. They are made to put on plastic smiles and say kind things, and it comes across as extremely phoney and forced; you can't buy it. These people aren't characters having a change of heart, they are just a bunch of stock characters acting out what the screenplay tells them to do what they can't think on their own.

There is, in fact, a strong feeling of helplessness in this movie, as if everyone involved were all clinging to the screenplay because they were unable to make any kind of personal contribution. Playing Amy's mother, Hee Haw regular Marianne Rogers isn't in a position to try to attempt any humor (not that her cornpone humor would have improved things), so she just ends up standing around. And since you can't expect comedian Foster Brooks to put on his famous drunk act in a film of this nature, he ends up contributing as much as Rogers. As for Kiel's performance, well, for better or for worse like in pretty much every other movie he's been in, he is basically playing Richard Kiel. It's not like a more professional actor could have added much more to this part, because Kiel hasn't written Eli to be much more interesting apart from the fact he's tall. With the exception of a moment where Eli recalls what happened to him when he went into town when he was twelve years old (brief but very memorable), we really don't learn much about him at all, at least enough so he can firmly become the sympathetic central character this movie needs. In fact, the other characters in the movie are all so poorly written so they either come across as familiar stereotypes or little better than stock characters.

It's not just the actors that seem unable to make anything work with what they've "First lesson, kid: Ya got to know when to hold them..."been given, but in the direction as well. It seems at times James Roberson (The Legend Of Alfred Packer) - when not busy directing one of many scenes that do absolutely nothing to advance the story - was determined to direct the movie in the dullest and most workman-like way possible. The action is flat, attempts at tension don't even register on the scale, and none of the characters come across the least bit interesting. There apparently was some realization behind the scenes that the movie was essentially hollow inside. Even if you don't read the closing credits to find out that the narration by the reminiscing adult Amy (provided by Cloris Leachman) was in fact written by a third screenwriter uncredited in the opening credits, it becomes very obvious that her narration was added post-production by its utter redundancy, with almost all of it made up of her telling us what is going on at the same time we can actually see all of this that is going on in front of us. It just adds to the aggravation generated elsewhere, which ends up being so strong that all the grinding your teeth will go through as you sit though The Giant Of Thunder Mountain will make you too drive you to the dentist in order to get a new and stronger set of choppers.

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Check for Richard Kiel's autobiography "Making It Big In The Movies"

See also: Escape To Grizzly Mountain, Hysterical, White Wolves