by Sam Juliano
Today’s review of Stanley Kramer’s “Bless the Beasts and Children” is the first of a planned series that will examine films from the 1970’s that were either forgotten, undervalued or misunderstood at the time of their release.
Producer/director Stanley Kramer has been the recipient of both glowing praise and outright condemnation from the film community, yet there’s little denying that his fame rests mostly on the former of his two vocations. Kramer, who passed away at age 87 in 2001, produced a half-dozen Hollywood classics and semi-classics: Champion, Cyrano de Bergerac, High Noon, A Member of the Wedding and The Caine Mutiny. His direction, which in large measure has centered around the genre of socially-conscious cinema has yielded some well-respected even venerated films like The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremberg, On the Beach, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Ship of Fools. His most popular film of all of course is the comedy It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World,(1963) whose title was used for his published autobiography. The confusion or overlap of Kramer’s dual artistic roles drew wide criticism from the intelligentsia, including David Thomson who declared “Commercialism, of the most crass and confusing kind has devitalised all of his projects.” Pauline Kael, no less kind, claimed deception when she wrote: “Kramer’s reputation as a great director (was) based on a series of errors.” Of his late work as helmer, one film, reviled by many upon its release in 1972 stands today as both an moving treatment of its subject and an epitagh to the kind of films Kramer gravitated to through his career.
Kramer won a bidding war in 1970 for the film rights to Glendon Swarthout’s critically-praised novel Bless the Beasts and Children, which concerned the indiscriminate killing of bison, and a group of young male campers who plot their release. It was no surprise at the time that the filmmaker would make a strong pitch, as animal rights was a subject that both interested and moved him, but it was another project in a long line of controversial issues that ranged from the Scopes Trial, Nazi war tribunals, black and white bonding, and nuclear fallout. Swarthout’s novel was a validation of late 60’s liberal bleeding heart sensibilities, which accentuated a need for compassion and respect for life. The novel also celebrates the joy of living life as it was meant to be lived–free in body and spirit. These themes translated most effectively in the film version, which by and large was unemcumbered by any kind of a cinematic style. Kramer chose to follow the content of Swarthout’s novel closely, which in hindsight was the correct decision in view of the piece’s inherent emotional essence.
The central characters in Bless the Beasts and Children are six adolescent boys, whose preoccupied parents send them off to the Arizona Box Canyon Boys Camp for the summer. John Cotton leads this bunch of “misfits” who are all, to varying degrees, emotionally or psychologically disturbed. Cotton’s group, composed of rejects and outcasts from the other cabins, is known as the “Bedwetters” and the boys are constantly demeaned and ridiculed, which inevitably crushes what little self-esteem they posessed in the first place. Cotton through trial and tribulation, becomes the leader of this tight-knit group, and he sets out to mold his followers into a unit that commands respect rather than derision. Of course it’s a formidable task in view of the fragile psychological state of the small group which includes two warring dysfunctional brothers who are known as “Lally 1” and “Lally 2.” Lally 1 reacts to threats against his emotional security by throwing violent temper tantrums, often directed as his younger brother Lally 2, who in the face of these attacks plunges himself into a fantasy world that is filled with tiny creatures he calls Ooms, and seeks solace in the scorched foam rubber pillow he always carries. Lawrence Teft III is shown in the film as quiet and sullen, but when confronted with authority he is rebellious. Before he came to camp, one of Teft’s favorite adventures had been stealing cars, but because of his father’s “connections” he was never arrested for his offenses. Hoping that he will learn some self-discipline which will make him worthy of attending Exeter or Dartmouth, his parents enroll him in the camp. Cotton’s group also includes Sammy Shecker, and overweight, paranoid Jewish boy, whose father is a successful comedian, who trades upon the Jewish stereotype. Much to the annoyance of the other boys, Sammy mimics his father’s routines and compulsively bites his nails and is loud, nervous and obnoxious. The designation “Bedwetters” applies especially well to Gerald Goodenow, the sixth member of the group who often wets the bed at night–a behavior that gets him ejected from two cabins before Cotton takes him in tow. Bedwetting, however, seems to be the least of Gerald’s problems, as he suffers from a phobic reaction to school, which results in several unsuccessful sessions with a psychiatrist. Goodenow is also handicapped by a heavy-handed stepfather who is determined to make a man out of him by physical force if necessary.
Kramer and his screenwriter Mac Benoff wisely decide to compromise Swarthout’s time sequence by having the entire film set in the present with flashbacks into the past of all the boys to explicate their presence at the camp. Whereas Swarthout’s novel – thematically powerful though it is- is episodic and difficult for some six-graders to follow (I have taught the novel on eight occasions over the years) the Kramer film flows almost fautlessly to it’s tragic conclusion.
The plight of the American buffalo and any other endangered (or unendangered) species is at the center of the film’s focus. Almost predicably (but this is not a mystery now, is it?) the dysfunctional group, under Cotton’s guidance set out to free a large heard of the bison, after they witnes their perverted macho camp councelor “Wheaties” shooting the animals in a festive (and deeply disturbing) western lottery, which is given validation as a proper method to thin out the large numbers by eliminating the ‘weak’ or ‘sick’ buffalo. Of course, the buffalo are not the only targets of this destructive urge, as the Bedwetters–similarly–have been have also been “tamed,” “penned” and crushed in spirit. As a result of their parents’ neglect, they have been turned into psychological misfits. Ridiculed and rejected by the other boys in the camp, they are forced to cling even more strongly to their deviant behavior. The boys’ pilgrimage to free the buffalo is also a search for freedom. Cotton perceives that success will free the boys of psychological crutches and allow each to stand alone in defense of self. Cotton sacrifices his life not only for the buffalo but for the boys he has led to this one miraculous triumph. The implication at the end of the film is that the remaining boys are no longer “dings” and “weirdos”, as they have all gained a sense of pride in their abilities and have saved themselves, as well as the buffalo from extinction.
In order to gain the strongest emotional resonance from this material Kramer gets an invaluable boost from an unexpected source: Composers Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, who simultaneously capture the exhilaration and defiance at the film’s climax, ultilying a piercing coda that a few year’s later was chosen as the theme to the hit soap opera The Young and the Restless. DeVorzon and Botkin also employ the Carpenter’s Oscar-nominated theme song to poignant effect. Music is an important element in a film that wears it’s sensibilities up front, and Kramer made a very good choice with the two men.
In a film that could have easily been sanctimonious, Kramer presents the film’s allegory in alarmingly simplistic terms that emphasize that this is a film about youth, coming of age and the loss of innocence and the ultimate price one pays for transition. The earlier scenes at camp are sometimes funny, sometimes painful but almost always riveting. The cast is excellent with one glaring and rather damaging exception: Barry Robins as Cotton, who delivers perhaps the most over-the-top, stiff and amaterish performance a child actor has ever given in a film (or close to it). the fact that he has the lead role is even more lamentable. But Billy Mumy of Lost in Space and the Twilight Zone fame is convincing as the rebellious youth, and Ken Swofford is both menacing and transparent in one fell swoop as the immoral camp councelor who hides pornograhic magazines, liquor and even a revolver in his cabin trunk. Miles chapin is modestly chrismatic as the comedian’s beefy son and Daryl Glaser succeeds in nailing the flower-child sensibilities of this period. The film’s cinematographer, Michel Hugo, who worked mainly in television films Bless the Beasts and Children in a straight-forward manner (even the flashbacks are unremarkable) but he makes chilling use of real-life buffalo killings and incoroporates them into the narrative to convincing effect. The garish and saturated color scheme he uses for the kids’ clothes and outdoor adventures contrasts with the ominous night scenes that portend disaster.
The title of the film (and novel) exemplifies the dual yet unified nature of the theme. Both beasts and children need to be free to roam, to develop and to discover, but the freedom that is given to the buffalo at the film’s conclusion is worthless because their very natures have been altered by man. Outside the fence of the preserve, the tame buffalo will never find wild plains and grasslands on which to roam and their natural habitat, as well as their natural spirit has been destroyed. The children, however, have regained their spirit and independence and eventually they will triumph over the fear instilled in them by their parents and society. But it’s conspicuous that they will require the love and compassion of others.
Stanley Kramer was a risk-taker throughout his career, so it’s rather surprising he took few risks with this film, prefering fidelity to the source and full adherence to theme. But the source material was powerful and his contributors were on board. Despite it’s dismissal by hostile critics upon its release I dare say that Bless the Beasts and Children will be vindicated by future generations of movie lovers who will respond to it’s life-affirming themes of tolerance and compassion.