The Legend Of Alfred Packer

Director: Jim Roberson
Cast: Patrick Dray, Ron Haines

Sometimes truth is stranger - or more horrific - than fiction. Both of these apply to this true story, which happened in the American West in 1873. That winter, people were waiting for the spring, in order to stake gold claims in Colorado. A group of amateur prospectors hired tracker Alfred Packer to get them to the prospecting area before the spring thaw. Circumstances lead them to be lost and starving in the wilderness. Only Alfred Packer made it out alive. The reason for his survival might be summed up in the movie's tag line: "How far would you go to stay alive?" Subsequently, Packer was imprisoned for 17 years. To his dying day, he would swear his innocence.

This was an American National Enterprises movie; all of the movies I've seen released by them all qualify to be reviewed at this site. All are painfully low-budget, sentenced to late-night TV on independent channels (with a few long-deleted exceptions on video). With this in mind, maybe that's why they chose to imitate Republic by using an eagle for the studio credit at the beginning.

The movie opens after the events, where reporters are attempting to get a pardon for him, under protest from the general public. In a very contrived scene, a Chicago reporter talks with one of the Colorado reporters about the events. Not only is this introduction not needed, the people in this introduction are never seen again.

The rest of the movie is about the events in question. Not knowing much about the incident myself (even after doing some research), it was hard to determine what the filmmakers made up for dramatic purposes, and what was actually true. Since there was only one living witness to the events, I can understand why the filmmakers felt they were short of facts. But I doubt very much the exhibition met up with two crazy mountain men right out of Deliverance (and try to recreate one of the notorious scenes from that movie). But aside from those scenes, everything else that is portrayed in the movie might very well have happened. (In fact, the remarks by the judge at the end of the movie are indeed what were said by the actual judge.)

Technically, the movie is poor. The indoor scenes seem to be only lit by the prop lights on the set. The outdoor scenes aren't much better - with some shots, one half of the screen is acceptable, while the other half is poor. Acting is acceptable.

After a slow first half, most of the second half of the movie - the long, painful walk home - is surprisingly effective. Using the natural environment and weather, the director manages to convey the pain the men are facing. One disturbing scene has the starving men find a calf stuck on a log. The men pounce on the calf and start to tear it apart, and as the camera turns away from them, we hear frantic eating noises. Once the movie returns to civilization, it returns to mediocrity, unfortunately.

For an independent low budget movie, TLOAP has interest. For movies in general, it is only average.

FOOTNOTE: (Read no further if you don't want to know what Alfred Packer did) A few years ago, the creators of South Park (Matt Stone & Trey Parker) made a feature-length musical about the events called Cannibal! The Musical. And in 1977, the US Department of Agriculture named their staff canteen after Alfred Packer! Not knowing what he did, they said "Alfred Packer exemplifies the spirit and fare that this agriculture department cafeteria will provide." A few months later, they found out what Alfred Packer did, and they renamed the cafeteria.

UPDATE: Reader Al Sirois informs me that the spelling of the name of the real-life "hero" of this movie is Alferd, not "Alfred". Though since writing this review, I've come across several articles on Al, and I've seen his name spelled both ways! Looking up the title of this movie in two of my reference books, I found it spelled "Alfred". So that's how it will remain in my review, unless I come across the movie again and I see it spelled the other way.

UPDATE 2: Scott Andrew Hutchins sent me this information:

"I just watched it tonight. It is Alfred. Alfred was his legal name, but he spelled it Alferd, since that's how he said it. They don't say it or spell it "Alferd" in the film, though. I have a biography of Packer by Paul H. Gantt and it might have info about the trapper scene, which seems similar to the Frenchy scenes of Cannibal! The Musical."

UPDATE 3: Scott Andrew Hutchins contacted me again with this:

"I finished reading Gantt's The Case of Alfred Packer the Man Eater. It consistently spells his name Alfred, except when quoting written documents, in which his name was frequently signed "Alferd." "Alferd" was also tattooed on his arm. The book also explains the opening sequence with the gunman. He was W.W. Anderson, who was promised a reward if he helped Packer pay his legal fees. The Denver Post accused him of stealing Packer's money,--allegedly Polly Pry jumped in front and her skirts slowed the bullets enough that the newspaper executives, whose names were Bonfils and Tammens, survived after long hospital stay. The Trapper & Weasel scene was definitely made up, as the Cyclops scene was in Trey Parker's version. In case you were wondering, Polly Pry is a pseudonym. The Post was a very progressive paper, and she was known as their beautiful blonde reporter, always known as "Miss Pry," despite being Mrs. Leonel Ross O'Bryan. I sent the IMDb updated character names, providing the full names of all the historical people that were portrayed in the film. Lauter, Alan David Gelman's character, made up the account that Dashiell Hammett repeated that formed the basis of the recent film, Ravenous.

The reporter, McMurphy, however, was also made up--a reporter from Harper's Weekly named James Randolph (sometimes erroneously reported as Reynolds) found the body, but he doesn't seem to have anything to do with this character. I frankly believe that the end of the film ended up on the cutting room floor, leading to Nessin's voiceover at the end. Presumably, this would have explained what was going on in the opening, since it has a basis in historical fact, in addition to being an intriguing moment that holds your interest so that you expect such an implication. The fact that it falls at exactly ninety minutes seems to reinforce this hypothesis.

UPDATE 4: Karen Maley sent this along:

"I thought you might be interested to know that the student cafeteria at the University of Colorado Boulder campus has been called the "Alferd Packer Grill" since 1968.  From 1968 to 1995 the school also held an annual festival called "Alferd Packer Day" in honor of our local cannibal.  The unfortunate cancellation of this tradition was apparently caused by a wave of political correctness.  Trey Parker and the other film students who created Cannibal: The Musical were attending CU at the time they made the film.   Incidentally, Alferd Packer's grave is in Littleton, Colorado, Trey Parker's hometown.

"My guess is that the US Dept of Agriculture cafeteria that you mention was surreptitiously named by someone who knew exactly what Packer did, and quite possibly by someone who attended CU or had dined at the Alferd Packer Grill in Boulder.

"Locally, a well-known and much-beloved part of the Packer legend is that he spelled his first name "Alferd."  For some reason this has become controversial and people will argue until they are blue in the face, even if they don't give a hoot about more substantive aspects of the case, such as whether Packer was innocent of murder.

"Perhaps the most infamous part of the legend holds that the men he ate were all Democrats.  Could this have anything to do with the fact that a bust of Packer was reportedly (I have not seen it myself) placed in the Colorado state capitol building in 1982?  The Republican Party has always been strong in Colorado, but I think if you consider the enduring celebration of Packer by university students in liberal Boulder, it's clear that Packer's legend transcends politics.

"I'm not aware of how much of a celebrity Alferd Packer is outside of Colorado, but apparently author Dashiell Hammett was quite fascinated by the Packer case, which is discussed in great detail in the 1934 novel "The Thin Man."  I suspect that Packer was a very thin man prior to committing his crimes.

"Just thought you might like to know.  Hope this email is non-frivolous enough to meet your standard.  Thanks for keeping track of bad movies. You're doing a great job.  And someone's got to do it."

UPDATE 5: I got this from "PACmaster":

"I was there when the Alferd Packer plaque was affixed to the USDA lunchroom wall. We certainly knew what Alf did. We were all members of the D.C. chapter of the Alferd Packer Society. The plaque was taken down because an anal General Services Administration bureaucrat complained to Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland that we had defaced government property. Bob said he didn't need any trouble and asked that we take it down. Today, the plaque is in the member's bar of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. It is there as a memorial to the late Stanley Weston, an extraordinary and gentle soul who left his home in Colorado to work at the USDA. The whole episode was a joke and remains funny today, at least among those few news reporters who were on hand for the ceremony."

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See also: Bad Company, Duel At Diablo, Cheyenne Warrior