Alone: Grizzly Mountain and other onscreen bears
Following the pattern of my Around the World in 80 Movies book, I prepared for a trip to Canada's bear country at Chilko Lake by watching relevant projects.
Alone: Grizzly Mountain, 2021 with ten contestants proving their survival skills at Chilko Lake, British Columbia. Dropped in different locales along Chilko Lake, contestants use the bleeped-out F-word a lot as they navigate erratic offerings from a wild and rugged location. “Do Not Attempt This Yourself” the show warns each episode during opening credits. Vetted participants demonstrate ingenuity by building shelters and boats, stringing together nets, and foraging berries, roots, and mushrooms. Hunting and fishing prove tougher, so starvation--rather than bears—develops as the greater impediment to winning. Even so, show publicists emphasize bears by using an image of a dramatically roaring beast, and grizzlies show up frequently enough to cause concern. One contestant records images of a duo just 30 feet away and admits, “I don’t like having bear encounters.” Another says, “There are a lot of grizzlies here; I’m going to have to live with them.” GoPro personal cameras showcase predators plus reveal private, emotional moments, condensed by an astute team of editors culling through hours of footage to create an absorbing 11-episode season. Editors also include shots of the region’s dramatic beauty, many captured by flexible equipment like drones requiring only a small crew. Meanwhile the region’s tourism authority hopes the program inspires travel to the area. Visitors like me feel no desire to challenge the wild; my idea of foraging involves walking to my neighbor’s house during growing season and asking if she wants to get rid of a zucchini (the answer always comes as an enthusiastic “Yes! But you have to take more than one!”). Instead of looking to discover any Rambo qualities that might lie deeply buried in me, I signed up for a glamping experience at Bear Camp before I knew anything about the Alone program. Bear Camp’s Brian McCutcheon told us about his place years ago when we traveled through the Galapagos. I knew his penchant for high-quality coffee and tasty wine and figured both would see me through a stay in the rugged lands of British Columbia, a place where I could revel in wildlife photo ops without breaking danger zone boundaries. Or missing a shower.
The Bears and I, 1974 with Patrick Wayne raising three cubs at Chilko Lake. Typical of Disney’s Buena Vista animal-based releases, the movie suffers from too much narration and a cartoonish musical score (except for the appropriate use of John Denver’s “Sweet Surrender” song). The movie also minimizes conflict complications in the name of family fare. For The Bears and I, this simplification includes First Nation issues when the U.S. government once again seeks to relocate residents from one region to another. Chief Dan George effectively handles his significant speaking role, backed by Nehemiah
extras (though set in the United States, the movie filmed entirely at Canada’s Chilko Lake). Simply paying attention to First Nation rights makes The Bears and I more woke for its time, though current standards rate it as a bleary-eyed “I’ll get out of bed sometime” approach to cultural sensitivity. The movie’s lasting strength comes from its combination of spectacular scenery and winsome bear cubs. Fostering three orphaned cubs lets Wayne’s naïve character show the quick, deep ties that can develop between people and animals. Fortunately, the story also emphasizes that while bonding initially saves the cubs, they ultimately belong in the wild and free. Unlike the “chomp romp” and “Bad Bear!” genre of jaws and claws movies, the Disney production shouts out “Good Bear!” or more importantly “Cute Bear!” The same holds for a much bigger hit from the same year, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Despite more solid production values and a bigger budget, the Disney entry fell far behind the bear-aware capabilities of a tiny project that ended up on the list of the year’s top-grossing movies and eventually inspired a television series that ran two years. Filming primarily in the dramatic Wasatch Mountains near Park City, Grizzly Adams movie producers saved costs by shooting without sound and hiring unknowns like a guy from a few biker pictures, Dan Haggerty. With a peaceful smile, flowing auburn hair, and a tidy beard resembling the sun’s rays, Haggerty exudes empathetic and nonthreatening warmth to all animals—two or four legged. Of course, in real life all the movie’s animals come from a film ranch, but they act wild and look adorable. Dubbing in sound effects, music, and occasional dialogue, Director Richard Friedenberg catches plenty of animal antics alone and with Adams, making it hard not to crack a smile even when most of us know how wildlife experts frown on such romanticized interactions. Among the cuties: skunks; beaver; otters; deer; and of course, a grizzly cub. Named Benjamin Franklin (no relation to Gentle Ben), the cub imprints on Adams and grows into a rambunctious, playful, happy grizzly with Lassie’s willingness to step in and help in dire moments. Good bear!
The Blanketing, 2013, with a First Nations community changed forever at Tŝilhqox Biny, the original name for Chilko Lake. Showing passion for his heritage, Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Trever Mack creates an authentic looking scenario of two white developers intruding on a group of peaceful locals. Mack pays attention to what his forbears wore and how they talked, using subtitles for several scenes. Traveling to isolated areas where the Tsilhqot’in (don’t pronounce that first t) once flourished, Mack found an ideal location in a meadow, surrounded by forest and featuring an impressive view of Chilko Lake and jutting mountains whose jagged peaks emphasize the harshness of nature. However man—not nature—proves the more formidable foe for locals when an innocuous looking blanket leads to dire consequences. Though it runs only eight minutes, Mack’s short film provides insight into challenging issues that continue in much of the region where the Canadian Supreme Court returned aboriginal title to tribal governments.
Grizzly Man, 2005 with Timothy Treadwell going into the wild of Alaska to live among bears. His failure to land a role in Cheers put Treadwell on another path that eventually led to big screen attention—but without any of fame’s happy rewards. Instead, Treadwell became known as much for his grisly death as his work with grizzly bears, luring acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog to assemble and narrate an insightful, award-winning documentary exploring attitudes about nature and civilization. With perceptive doggedness, Herzog tracked down and filmed many key players, including a coroner who provides scary, graphic descriptions of bear attack remnants. Herzog also found friends and former lovers who applauded Treadwell’s annual trips, where he camped among brown bears in Katmai National Park for 13 summers. Predating massive social media opportunities, Treadwell’s videos nonetheless resulted in impressive attention, eventually landing him on the David Letterman show where audience members laugh uproariously when the host wonders if people might someday “read an article about you being eaten by one of these bears.” The answer came in October 2003. Possibly because director Herzog faced travails in the Amazon while filming his epic Aquirre Wrath of God, he empathizes with Treadwell, while simultaneously criticizing the man’s naivete and hubris. Treadwell genuinely loved the bears he caught on camera, producing glorious images of them cavorting and going through their daily lives. Herzog presents many of those shots, including a curious cub nuzzling at Treadwell’s fingers. Such interactions cross natural boundaries, says Herzog, who describes Treadwell’s view of nature as “sentimentalized.” Treadwell expected balance and harmony, while Herzog sees chaos and hostility in a world where too many people like the idea of taking selfies with predators.
Night of the Grizzly, 1966 with Clint Walker fighting to keep his livestock and family safe from a territorial bear in Wyoming. Despite scary violence and looming threat provided by the title predator, Night of the Grizzly feels like a family film as stolid ex-sheriff “Big Jim” Cole brings his family to Wyoming for a new life as ranchers. With a strong background in episodic television, director Joseph Pevney follows the trends of his day using a benign, old-fashioned style that avoids any sense of subtlety. Blaring music keys a scene’s tone, while supporting players like Nancy Kulp (The Beverly Hillbillies) add broad comic touches. Close-ups of cute animals and a sweet looking little girl also target younger viewers in the day’s cloying manner. But adults nostalgic for a long-ago time easily appreciate seeing 60s western favorites like Jack Elam and Walker. Walker’s 6’6” stature made him look the part of a character called “Big Jim,” one whose Tarzan physique justifies a few shirtless, beefcake scenes. His eight-year run on television’s Cheyenne series gave Walker requisite ease for such Western actions as Grizzly’s multiple fistfights. Adding a big bear to the mix traces back to other stories like Nevada’s own Track of the Cat. Lacking that story’s more complicated group dynamics, Grizzly goes for a simple approach towards family life. Bearing a low (bear bones?) budget precluded travel to Wyoming, so producers filmed near Los Angeles at in the San Bernardino National Forest. Unable to afford a trained movie stunt bear, producers rely on a guy wearing a furry suit for close ups. Too fake to generate legitimate fear, the bear predates the gorier trends in the “chomp romp” genre of movies that claw their way into cinemas, especially in the decades since Jaws bit into box office records. Sharks, crocs, gators, lions, and tigers, and (oh my) bears chew up the screen on a regular basis. Movies dedicated to extreme predatory rogue bears include Grizzly (1976, the year following Jaws), Claws (1977), Grizzly Rage (2007), and Into the Grizzly Maze (2015). Many credit the less luridly titled Backcountry (2014) for a more realistic scenario of bear attacks. Wiser travelers than me might feel more comfortable watching these titles after finishing their bear camp experience.