The Legend Of Black Thunder Mountain

Director: Tom Beemer         
Glen Porter, Ron Brown, Dick Albertson

Ah, the 1970s family wilderness movie. Previously I've expressed a personal fondness for these movies, though to be honest I'm not sure what I find so appealing about them. Maybe it's because the outdoor settings and the characters going through actions in a decidedly less-technical fashion remind me of the many westerns I have seen and loved. I know I'm not the only one even in this day and age that enjoy them, and I'm not just talking about regular people who watch films. There are a lot of film producers who love these movies as well, though their main enjoyment of these movies comes not from an artistic viewpoint, but more on a financial level. After all, when you think about it, these family wilderness movies can't cost very much to make. You don't need expensive special effects to take the audience's breath away - all you have to do is find a spectacular view in the wilderness, and film it for several seconds. Animals can bring in some instant charisma and "awwww" factor, and while you'll have to hire an animal trainer, it won't take much money to pay him to get the animals to walk in front of the camera for a few seconds. Though you do ultimately have to hire some actors, you don't have to spend much there as well. With kids being the principle players most of the time, you can get away by paying them the minimum amount the SAG requires. Even if you have to hire a "star", you can easily cut costs by not only hiring someone who's pretty washed up, but save even more money by shooting his scenes in just a few days.

Knowing all this, it's kind of surprising that not more family wilderness movies have been made. Even in the 1970s, the amount of these kind Yes, it's one of those movies that cuts every few seconds to an animal looking on curiouslyof movies wasn't exactly a bombardment. Still, there have certainly been several instances when the low-cost factor of family wilderness movies has encouraged people with the dream of making a movie to finally make a movie - even if the "low cost" that they ultimately claim is substantially lower than the one that's associated with relatively stable filmmaking and production values. The Force On Thunder Mountain is one such movie that was strained for resources, and I couldn't help but think back on that movie when I came across The Legend Of Black Thunder Mountain stuck in the video section of a secondhand store. Still, the movie didn't seem to be a sequel or a prequel, so I decided to give it a chance, despite the nagging that began in my head when the box revealed it was put out by the good folks at Goodtimes Home Video. Sometimes you need to approach a movie with faith, just like the front of the box asked ("If you believe with your heart... The Legend Of Black Thunder Mountain ...really happened!") I believed, believed enough to plunk down several dollars to buy it. Believed in it hard enough to take it home with me over several hundred miles when subsequently returning back from vacation.

I kept believing when I finally sat down to watch it, even when my VCR immediately told me the movie was transferred into LP mode. The movie then began and... well, many beliefs that I have trusted for years were shattered, starting with just the first two minutes. The movie opens with various shots of a volcano erupting, and sparks and lava spewing. I used to think that when lava was flowing and leaving a long and fiery trail behind, it had to be on the ground. But in one shot, we clearly see it flowing in the sky, hundreds of feet above a ridge. Then as we get more volcanic footage, the credits start. After reading "A Tom Beemer Film" and getting the title, I believed the next credits would be the actors. But instead, we first get the executive producer (Harriet Bullett), then next credits for the movie's narrator (Dick Albertson) and vocalist (Don Brown). Then we get the most prominent credits. No, not actors, but several lines of credit concerning - get this - the volcano photography, among the credited parties being two television stations, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Royal Ontario Museum. More shots of volcanic footage (none of which matches) follow, two instances of which have two badly-imposed silhouettes of children running from the left side of the screen to the right. Judging by how close these children are to the lava in each shot, you'd think they'd be instantly overcome by the extreme heat coming from the lava. But I believe, I believe.

We then get the writing credits (two screenwriters, and three additional people credited with "additional material"), credits for the animal handlers, sound, editing, etc., The kids followed, curious to see what exactly a bear does in the woodsending with a credit for the direction. Still no credit for the actors, though even at this point of the movie I was starting to suspect possibly why. But I kept telling myself I had to believe, darn it, so my thoughts quickly drifted to the then unfolding story, taking place sometime in the land and the time of the cowboy. I could believe that there was a violent lava-spewing volcanic eruption back then - I haven't read every history book, after all. As two cowboys poke around the spread-out wreck of a covered wagon, we hear the thoughts of one of them. "Black Thunder Mountain - I'll never forget that name! 'Black thunder', you know, is the Indian name for 'earthquake'. They say its the earth speaking from inside her soul. And that fire and smoke from a volcano is a warning, that the earth is angry with man. Well, it turns out the earth had good reason to be angry." (I won't joke, won't joke... I believe, I believe) "It all started when an army captain named Ingalls found a valley full of gold. And of course, other people started looking for it. Then one of the wagons of our wagon train wandered off, so me and Sodbuster set off to find it." Lesser people might ask questions like: Who is this guy? What does this wagon train have to do with a valley of gold? Isn't all this excessive narration an extremely cheap and lazy attempt to set up the situation without actually having to show it? Not me - I'm a believer.

Some vague link between the wagon train and the valley is at least made before the narration ends, and we find out that the two men are looking for the missing Mr. Parrish and his two children. The nameless man who narrates concludes that it was actually white men who tore apart the wagon, reasoning, "All these rocks, hot sun, rattlesnakes, and mountains brings out the meanness in a man." Sodbuster mentions that if the missing Mr. Parrish makes it out alive, his wife will kill him for not letting his children "stay by her fire, eating donuts." Somehow concluding Mr. Parrish and his children are separated, the narrator hopes none of them are headed up to the volcano, even though it's now quiet, mentioning there are cougars, bears, and wolves up there. Well, even though the children were running away from the volcano and the lava earlier, when we return to them they are climbing the surprisingly green and lush side of the volcano again. And during their climb, stock footage wolves and cougars look on the struggling brother and sister. Their dialogue at least explains why they are risking the volcano again - to escape from the men pursuing them. What men? Why are these men pursuing them? What the hell is going on here? (Believe, believe...)

The children, who are named Anna and Jamie, come across a small cave. Anna calls in, "Hello? Is anyone there? Any bears or anyone else?" Getting no answer, they crawl in and settle for the night. "We can sleep like spoons!" Anna says enthusiastically, though Jamie is clearly preoccupied by his recollection of his father being bloodily bashed in the head by a rifle. As they go to sleep, I believed then their dreams would flash back to just exactly how they got in this situation. But once again a belief of mine was shattered by this movie; instead, we get a montage of stock footage and a song:

Lost in the new dawn
With just a wind song
And the sun in the sky

I face the new day
Horizons ever-changing
And forget how to cry

Maybe I'll find my way back home tomorrow
My way back home
Way back home
Maybe I'll find my way back home tomorrow

Lost on a mountain
Watching the birds
Flying far over me

They know where I'm going
Where I am and where I've been
I wonder what they see               
(But you just said...)

Maybe I'll find my way back home tomorrow
My way back home
Way back home
Maybe I'll find my way back home tomorrow

Lost after sundown... (ENOUGH!)

We then cut to another location, where we find that Mr. Parrish is alive, though that bash in the head has him drifting in and out of a comatose state, and he is being held captive by two men that assumedly are the two men Quick - can you guess who is the know-it-all leader, and who is the dumb follower?that have been previously mentioned. Describing the two men as Laurel & Hardy types is pretty accurate, though Ollie never put a razor to Stan's throat when Stan pissed him off. The scene does at least answer the remaining lingering questions by revealing Parrish had a map of the gold from Ingalls, the map was in his notebook, and that the children now have the notebook. I believed this... though at this point I was starting to believe that the movie had taken far too long to explain every who and what. Anyway, the next morning the children have pretty much forgotten what happened the previous day and that they are being pursued, and look for breakfast while the shotgun-toting L&H pursue them. Coming across some stock-footage raccoons, Jamie tells Anna they should introduce themselves - maybe the raccoons will invite them to their place. Ultimately, they decide to watch some more stock footage of animals, then shuck off their clothes and take a bath together in the river, afterwards looking in their father's notebook to see what plants are edible. Exciting stuff, especially the subsequent scene of them eating blueberries because of dramatic music playing on the soundtrack. Believe it or not.

Actually, it seems the dramatic music might have been placed there because all of a sudden a slow-moving and unferocious grizzly bear staggers out of the blueberry bush. You know, at this point I truly believed my internal feelings, that the music would have been appropriate if some danger was hinted at before the bear staggered out. Anyway, a bear is a bear, and understandably the kids run. Jamie drops down and plays dead - smart kid. Jamie then says out loud, "Oh please, old bear, please don't be hungry!" - stupid kid. Apparently this bear doesn't like ham, for after sniffing Jamie the bear opts for the berries instead. Though when the kids walk off in order to engage in the excitement of a slow stroll in a forest full of stock-footage animals while another insufferable song plays, the bear decides to tag along so that there is something of real interest in this sequence. Ultimately the bear takes the lead, and leads the kids into a stock footage valley. While the bear cools off in a creek, the kids engage in a particularly deranged conversation, part of which follows:

JAMIE: Why are we following this bear?

ANNA: Because we are!

JAMIE: We're lost, aren't we?

ANNA: Nope!

JAMIE: Are you sure?

ANNA: Yep!

JAMIE: Well, where are we?

ANNA: We're right here, and you're not lost when you know where you are!

Soon afterwards, the kids go and hide in the bushes when they hear the equally deranged "The shoot was a nightmare... the script was being rewritten each day... the kid actors kept insisting on knowing their "motivation"... don't you dare identify me!"ranting of a passing mountain man, one who is so schizophrenic that when walking with his back towards the camera, his arm movements never match with what he is saying. Meanwhile, the Laurel & Hardy duo, upon realizing the children must be good and lost, decide the best course of action to take would be to pretend they are a rescue party. This doesn't involve them changing their appearance or voices, but hey, no plan can be perfect. Time passes, another deranged conversation, and the kids decide to name their bear benefactor "Mrs. Mullen". (The end credits state that "Mrs. Mullen" was played by a "Bozo", so the only conclusion I can come up with is that all female bears offered this role turned it down flat.) Then... well, let me get back to that key word "believe". But more exactly: Do you believe? That is, do you believe after all this padding, the movie is not even halfway through? Do you believe it's necessary for me to further describe what happens? Your answer doesn't really matter, because I don't believe I will waste any more of my precious time on this movie.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Against A Crooked Sky, The Force On Thunder Mountain, White Wolves