The Film: The Night of the Grizzly (1966)

The Principals: Clint Walker, Jack Elam, Martha Hyer, Keenan Wynn, Nancy Kulp

The Premise: Marshall “Big Jim” Cole (Walker) has turned in his star, and retired to the life of a rancher.  He’s inherited a big spread of land in Wyoming, and with one bull named Duncan and a perky and pretty family, he feels everything is going his way.   But Jim didn’t bargain on a greedy neighbor who covets the land for himself, or a murderous bear named Old Satan.    Once Old Satan gets Jim’s scent in his nose, the bear seems hellbent on destroying everything that’s near and dear to him.   It’s man versus nature,  man versus corrupt businessmen, and man versus his own violent past.   Who knew one grizzly could stir up so much trouble?

Is It Good: It was probably good in 1966, but it’s pretty limp now.  One of the reasons I watched it was because it came highly recommended by my mom.  In fact, we watched it together (Netflix Instant: Bringing Families Together) and once it was over, she said “Damn, that movie scared me as a kid. It’s so stupid now.”

However, it initially caught my eye because of this image, which is the DVD cover Netflix trotted out for it. Eerie, no?

Clicking on the creepy image,  I discovered it starred Clint Walker, who is so impressive in The Dirty Dozen.   I’ve always found it quite charming he shared a name with my other favorite man of the West.  Mr. Walker was born a Norman, but evidence still suggests you should name your son Clint if you want him to be over six feet tall, good looking, and a testosterone powerhouse.

Walker is the best part of the movie, though Jack Elam has a few scene-stealing moments with Big Jim’s adorable moppet, Gypsy.    There’s a lot of potential here (remake!), but it just never gets as dark, gruesome, and desperate as it could.   If you could cut out all the clunky town stuff (particularly the half-baked romance between one of the town roughs and Jim’s niece) and just have an extended sequence of a hungry, snowburned, and desperate Jim tracking this vicious bear, now that would have been a movie.

But it’s a product of the 1960s,  and it’s the last gasp of the squeaky clean Western, so you never get any real hunting or terror.   The spaghetti western was just around the corner.  If The Night of the Grizzly had just hung in pre-production a little longer, we probably wouldn’t have been subjected to so many scenes in the general store. They would have built on the blood and grime they had (there’s a few tense moments) and really showed nature red in tooth and claw. The filmmakers glibly killed off a lot of cute critters.  They clearly wanted to cross some lines, they just couldn’t.

It probably would have helped if they had a real bear, too. I think they might have recycled this suit for Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man.

Ah, the perils of high definition television….

Is It Worth A Look: If you have something better on your queue, no.  There are dozens and dozens of Westerns that are better than this one.   But there’s a certain charm to its soundstages, bear suits, and weak script.  If you’re an aspiring writer or filmmaker, it’s the kind of concept that can inspire you.  The core plot here is sound. It’s the stuff they cluttered it up with that’s the problem. (Another good lesson!)

I don’t even have the heart to recommend it as “so bad, it’s good” because it’s not even close to being a Troll 2. (If only the corrupt businessman had turned out to be wearing the bear suit and killing the livestock! Then I could have in very clear conscience.)  But there are definitely some unintentional laughs to be had at its retro production values.  I hate to recommend a film based on that — it’s like making fun of your grandparents — but at least you can appreciate our modern effects as you’re mocking the old ones.

Depending on your gender and persuasion, it may also be worth watching just because they found so many excuses to take Clint Walker’s shirt off.  Here’s just one of them:

I’ll bet you thought that sort of thing only came around in the 1980s or with Men’s Health tie-in cover stories.   Movies have always been about the skin. There’s just no getting around our love of beautiful and well-proportioned people.

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