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Baker's Hawk
(1976)

Director: Lyman Dayton 
Cast:
Clint Walker, Burl Ives, Diane Baker


After spending several decades of life on this planet, I am able to compare what life is like now to what life was some time ago in many areas. One of those comparisons I can make is with what life was like as a child back in the 1970s to what life is like for a child in the 2010s. When I start comparing, it doesn't take me very long to conclude that I was lucky to start growing up in the 1970s instead of growing up in the 2010s. Schoolyard bullying seems to be even worse, for one thing. Also, I recently heard that schools are going to phase out cursive writing and teach kids how to type instead. While at first this seems like a good idea in this computing age of ours, what are kids going to do when as adults they have to sign a contract or a check? But one thing makes me glad to be a child of the 1970s more than those two modern facts, and that is when it comes to popular entertainment. Specifically, movies. When I look at most modern movies aimed at children or at a family audience, I am filled with despair. Sure, the sets and special effects in these movies more often than not are better than films in decades past, but the writing in these movies has gotten a lot worse. For example, there is the reoccurring element of toilet humor. Now, I know that kids often find toilet humor funny, but that doesn't mean I'd want kids of mine to be exposed to it. Another thing found in family movies nowadays is product plugs. Escape From Planet Earth, for example, had heavy advertising for a certain convenience store chain, and Looney Tunes: Back In Action had at one point its animated characters saved by them stumbling across a certain retail store chain while lost in the middle of the desert.

When I see kids nowadays lapping up these substandard family movies, I can't help but feel sorrow. Part of the reason is that they seem to like these substandard family movies. Yes, I know many kids don't exactly have the best taste when it comes to any kind of entertainment. But I remember when I was a kid, and I seem to recall I often looked for entertainment that was more cerebral, more smartly constructed. Why can't more parents be like my own, and condition their kids better? But if they were to do so, I have a sneaking suspicion that because of the influence of outside society, kids would most likely reject better entertainment. Just compare kids' tastes decades ago to tastes of today. For example, kids years ago were deep into westerns, just like their parents. But nowadays, if you were to try and get a kid to watch a western, even a shoot-em-up kind, the kid would loudly protest and call the movie "boring" and "old fashioned". And if you were to try to get your typical modern day kid to watch a family movie taking place in the wilderness and involving animals, more likely than not the kid would say something like, "Where are the explosions and special effects? This movie is boring and old fashioned!" With tastes like those, it is tough to figure out what could be done in order to get kids to appreciate the kind of family fare that was popular in the past. The only thing that might do it is if there's a world-wide zombie breakout, and when kids are in fortified compounds and cut off from various kinds of media bombardment, they would be hungry for any kind of entertainment you play for them via a portable generator-powered entertainment system.

As you might have guessed from what I've said up to this point, I have a soft spot for many of those family movies made in the 1970s. I love westerns from any decade, and some of the best westerns that were made came out of that era. And I also like many of those 1970s family movies Baker's Hawkthat took place in the countryside and involved animals. In an age where so many movies are in your face and loudly obnoxious, the gentleness of these nature-filled movies comes across as very refreshing. With those preferences in mind, you might understand why I was attracted to Baker's Hawk. Not only was it a 1970s family movie that was a western of sorts, but it took place in the wilderness and involved animals. The events of the movie take place in the 1870s, in the American state of Utah. In a small town in the state lives the Baker family, made up of Dan Baker (Walker, Hysterical), his wife Jenny (Diane Baker, The Silence Of The Lambs), and their twelve year-old son Billy (Lee Montgomery, Ben). Because Dan refuses to get involved with the community vigilante group, the family struggles to be accepted by their fellow townspeople. One day, Billy comes across an injured red-tailed hawk that's about to be eaten by a wolf. Ignoring the advice of his father, Billy takes the hawk to McGraw (Ives, Hugo The Hippo), a hermit in the area who is treated with even more suspicion and distrust by the townspeople than the Bakers. With the help of McGraw, Billy nurses the hawk back to health, and the two soon train the hawk to become a great hunting bird, becoming good friends in the process. But when the hawk one day attacks a boy bullying Billy, the townspeople decide that the blame should be put on McGraw, and decide to enact some vigilante justice on him. Billy quickly realizes that it is up to him to save his friend from being lynched.

As you could probably see from that plot description, Baker's Hawk has a story much more mature than one usually gets in modern day family movies, one that thankfully doesn't inspire annoying things like pop culture references and wiseacre children. Also, its heart and soul is not to display flashy computer graphics or a steady stream of noise and action; its chief intents are simpler but more honorable. One of the biggest pieces of its core is the focus on the relationship between the characters of Billy Baker and McGraw. What we see of this relationship feels a lot warmer and realistic than what you usually get with child/adult relationships in family films. In the beginning, there is some mistrust between the two - Billy has heard nothing but creepy things about McGraw from his friends, and when he finally gets the courage to visit McGraw, McGraw immediately plays a prank on him since he feels Billy is just another bothersome child out to harass him. But quickly the two find that they have something in common - the welfare of the hawk - and put aside their mutual mistrust and work together. And as they work together, a bond starts to form between them. Despite Billy's young age, it's a mature relationship, one that has respect from both ends. These scenes of McGraw and Billy are some of the strongest in Baker's Hawk. One reason that they work so well is due to the performance of Burl Ives. There is absolutely no malice or anything negative coming from his character at any moment. Even when a vigilante in the middle of the movie shoots his cabin's window, he takes the gesture as a shrug and continues his business. And when he directly interacts with various people (not just Billy), his amiable spirit quickly breaks down any fences that might be up between himself and the other person.

That is not to say that child star Lee Montgomery, who plays Billy, doesn't contribute at his own end to the relationship his character has with Ives' character. He gives a respectable performance as well, making the audience believe that his character cares about McGraw. He also plays his character as a kid who is fairly smart, but at the same time is still growing up and needs some guidance now and then, which is much more palatable than the overly precocious kid characters in family movies today. His Billy character also has another relationship that's a big part of the movie's core, and that is with his father. The relationship between father and son is not perfect - they are seen disagreeing on more than one occasion, and Billy does defy his father several times. But Billy does love his father, who does care about him greatly. Billy also gets some good advice from his intelligent father, such as why it's important to have law and order, or why it's important to ultimately find your own way with a problem - though you can get some advice along the way. This may be why Billy's father doesn't get terribly upset on those occasions when Billy decides to disobey him. As you can see, the depiction of human relationships is unusually strong in this particular family movie, though its examination of relationships is not just confined to human-human relationships. Through the hawk and other animals that show up in the movie, Baker's Hawk teaches kids (and adults) some pretty valuable lessons on how people should deal with animals. One big lesson that comes up is that while it may be okay to shelter and help recover an injured or orphaned animal, these animals are still wild creatures, and it may be best to ultimately let them go back in the wild and have them fend for themselves.

While all this human (and animal) drama is going on, the backdrop to it all consists of some beautiful scenery shot in Utah, though director Lyman Dayton (who was the creative force behind Seven Alone, Rivals, and Against A Crooked Sky) is careful not to let this scenery overshadow the story. Anyway, from what I have discussed up to this point, it may sound to you that Baker's Hawk is inoffensive family entertainment for the young and old. But you may be surprised to learn that the movie has a dark edge to it, despite being awarded a "G" rating from the MPAA. Among other strong elements, the words "damn" and "hell" are uttered several times, there are a couple of fist fights, the town vigilantes capture and almost lynch some innocent squatters, and the vigilantes later shoot down and kill a couple of people whose guilt has not been totally proven. The movie's dark edge also extends to the ending. While the ending is not bleak or a real downer, some viewers (particularly very young children) may be unhappy that things are not wrapped up neatly and in a way to make the viewer feel totally good. Personally, I welcomed this not totally happy ending. To me, it felt more realistic. The movie seemed to be admitting that in real life, not everything goes the way it should. It's something that we have to accept. I think there are a lot of older viewers who will appreciate this ending as well. But I do think that if you have a young child, you should watch the movie with him or her to help them through this ending and the movie's darker elements. You could have a great discussion afterwards, and your child will have learned more than the positive lessons the movie has to offer. However, you may beforehand have the more challenging task of convincing your twenty-first century child to watch a movie that is not only made in an old-fashioned style, but is essentially a western.

(Posted July 9, 2019)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
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Check for availability on Amazon for source novel by Jack M. Bickham

See also: Against A Crooked Sky, Mustang Country, Trap On Cougar Mountain

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