The Savage Wild

Director: Gordon Eastman  
Gordon Eastman, Carl Spore, Maria Eastman

Way way back in the year 1975, American singer John Denver released on one of his record albums the song, "Thank God I'm A Country Boy", which rocketed to the top of the charts. I was a little too young to listen to the radio when it first was aired on radio, but the song's popularity at the time make it a popular choice for local dee jays in my area in subsequent years to dust off and play again every so often. It was in those subsequent yearst that I first heard the song, and even though I was still quite young, my initial thoughts upon hearing the song were, "Are you crazy?!?" You might be confused about that reaction of mine when I reveal that when I was growing up, I too was a country boy of sorts, raised in the outskirts of a fairly small town. But even at my young age, I was finding out that living in the country for me at least had its share of problems. I had to walk over a mile to school five days a week, no matter the weather, and then walk a mile back home after school. And during the weekends, being that my family lived some distance from town, that meant that I often had to stay home and try to mine the limited resources I had to try and entertain myself. The summers in my country environment brought some new problems for me every year. My parents had a large vegetable and fruit garden, which meant that when it was time to harvest what they had grown, they recruited me and my siblings for the task, which resulted in hours of us shucking corn and picking raspberries. As the years went by, problems with country living just built for me. For example, one summer when my parents considered me old enough, I was assigned the weekly task of taking out the family lawnmower and mowing all of the grass on our property.

Eventually, after a number of years passed, I moved out of my parents' house, left the area, and I settled in an urban area of considerable size. Right from the start, I loved my new environment, and I see myself living where I am until the day I die. Every so often I hear a rebroadcast of "Thank God I'm A Country Boy", and the song makes even less sense now as it did when I was a child. Why would I want to get myself to listen to an old fiddle when there are plenty of clubs with live music nearby? Why would I go to the trouble of making cakes and putting them on the griddle when I can walk a couple of blocks and get a Whopper with cheese? And life to me is never "a funny funny riddle", because living in an urban area I have access to high speed Internet and I can get all the answers I need via a trip to the Google search engine. Yes, life is sure comfortable for me in the city living my grown up years. But at the same time, I have to admit that occasionally there were some experiences during my country youth that have stuck with me all these years. I remember when I was in a car with my father in the countryside, and both of us seeing a coyote crossing the road. Another time with my father, we we hiking through the wilderness and we saw a deer make a brief appearance before vanishing into the trees. And I remember that there were a number of times when I would explore the local parks, but going off the well-worn trails and exploring the small forests, or visiting the creek that ran through the parks and trying my hand at fishing with an abandoned fishing pole that I had found. I admit that I look fondly at memories such as these, memories that certainly surpass the pleasure of a Whopper with cheese.

So as you can see, while I am glad to live in a fairly big city, I do have some fond thoughts about the wilderness of my country. If it were a perfect world, I would be able to instantly transport myself to the wilderness on those occasions when my city with its share of all problems becomes The Savage Wilda little too much to bear, and then be able to instantly transport myself back to the city when I have had my fill of nature. Of course, this isn't a perfect world and I'm unable to do that, so I have to find other ways to satisfy my occasional taste for what's found in the wilderness. Mostly I do that with watching movies that are nature-oriented. The 1970s put out a lot of movies involving wild animals and the wilderness, and I've seen quite a few of them. Though finding new ones in recent years has been hard, because DVD distributors don't seem interested in resurrecting such movies to a new audience. But a couple of years ago The Savage Wild got a movie-on-demand release. It's a movie that involves both wild animals and the wilderness, and mixes both fact and fiction in its narrative. The central figure in the movie is director and star Gordon Eastman. At the beginning of The Savage Wild, he has arrived with his dogs and fellow researcher John (John Payne) in a remote area of the Yukon. The intent of both men is to capture wolf cubs and study them up close. They eventually get wolf cubs of various ages by their own efforts as well as when one day several months later when a friendly trapper Charley (Charley Davis) brings some wolf cubs he has found. With some help from Gordon's young daughter Maria (Maria Eastman) during the summer months, both Gordon and Charley soon start to learn more about wolves and their interactions with humans. However, there is potential danger nearby. The authorities of the Yukon have placed a high-paying bounty on wolves, a bounty that has attracted a hunter named Red (Spore) and his sidekick Arlo (Arlo Curtis). The money-hungry Red and Arlo don't care where they get wolves from in order to cash in on the bounty, so there's a real danger that they may kill Gordon and John's wolves.

Based upon that above plot description, there's a strong chance that you might think you know how much of The Savage Wild plays out. But if you were to actually watch the movie, more likely than not you will find the way it plays out to be surprising - and not surprising in a positive way. Take, for instance, those wolf-hunting characters of Red and Arlo. You might think that they present a potential and constant threat to Gordon. Indeed, there is one good suspenseful sequence where the two men in an airplane start taking potshots at one of Gordon's dogs. But later, somewhere around the halfway mark of the movie, the two men crash their airplane (an equally well done moment that will make you wonder how the filmmakers pulled it off), and they have to hike out. Seconds after one of the men leaves the crashed airplane and starts trudging through the snow, both men are never seen or heard of again. The only reason the two characters seem to be there is to provide a couple of scenes that, while thrilling, don't really affect the plot or principle characters at all. Another thing that viewers may not be expecting is what Gordon and John learn about the wolf with the ones that they keep and study. As it turns out, not that much. Although the movie has real life wolves to work with, most of what is revealed is stuff that we already know or presumed, like that wolf cubs can scratch and bite. There is surprisingly little information that will be new or unusual to the audience, and viewers wanting to learn a lot more will be frustrated with this film's reluctance to inform its audience. If you are looking for a movie that will really teach you a lot about wolves and their habits, you would be better of tracking down a copy of Never Cry Wolf. I think even the Liam Neeson actioner The Grey will teach you more about wolves than the little The Savage Wild has to offer.

It's not just with the wolves where The Savage Wild is lacking in detail and explanation. As I watched the movie, a whole bunch of questions (which eventually stacked very high) formed in my mind, questions that were never properly answered. These questions included: What was the point of spending so much time at the start of the movie with a community's dog race/dog pull tournament? For whom was Gordon doing all of this wolf research for? (If for himself, how was he handling all the expenses this research demanded?) After Gordon and John were dropped off in the wilderness by a small airplane, where did they pull out a snowmobile? How is the wilderness that Gordon and John set base in (only a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle) able to transform from plains covered by deep snow into green fields with flowers in only thirty-five days? Why didn't Gordon and John wait until spring to arrive, since they only start their search for wolf cubs when it is the spring? Who does Maria live with outside of the summer when she is not with her father? For that matter, what responsible guardian would allow a small child to go deep in the wilderness to live with untamed wolves? Why does the narration at one point say the wolf cubs have doubled in size when they look exactly the same when they were first captured? When one wolf gets shot and its leg wound gets gangrene, resulting in the leg having to be removed, how exactly did Gordon and John get the wolf's leg removed safely while being deep in the wilderness? Is it really a good idea to transport multiple wolves from one location to another by putting them in steel drums that are attached to the underbelly of a helicopter? And why do we only see two steel drums under the helicopter when Gordon and John have three adult wolves that need to be moved?

There are plenty of questions like that throughout The Savage Wild. It should therefore come as no surprise that writer/producer/director/actor Gordon Eastman only made two other movies, movies that have drifted into the same obscurity that this movie was in until its unexpected DVD release. Yet I have to admit that this movie worked for me, to some degree at least. Though the movie has more than its share of embarrassing points, there are also some positive things to be found here. For starters, the movie looks great. It is not only expertly photographed, but Eastman chose a lot of spectacular Yukon locations to shoot on, and the one-two punch is a knockout. Second, the character the events of the movie center on - Eastman himself - comes across as a pretty likable guy, even if he doesn't explain everything with enough detail. He's pretty chatty in his narration, in a way that keeps you interested. He has a great respect for animal life, and convinces us through his narration that the ecosystem is valuable, even the much demonized wolf. Yes, he does capture wolves, but in the end of the movie, after much conditioning and training, he returns the wolves to the wild, - which is where they belong. This is not the only interesting part of the movie. Though I said that the movie is woefully lacking in explanation in many areas, the movie all the same manages to have at least a kernel of interest at any time. I can't honestly say I was bored at any moment, since the movie moves for the most part at a brisk clip, and new things to observe pop up every few minutes. I admit I am kind of hesitant to recommend the movie as one to spend money on as a purchase or rental - you will at the very least be let down with some of your expectations. But if it comes as a viewing on cable or some other free viewing experience during a slow weekend, you'll probably find it an acceptable way to pass one hundred minutes.

(Posted June 4, 2014)

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See also: The Golden Seal, Trap On Cougar Mountain, White Wolves