To know me is to know that I have a minor obsession with the six movies that played in an incessant loop on HBO in the 80s. Savannah Smiles, Six Pack, Dot and the Kangaroo, Superfuzz, Beastmaster. But most of all, best of all, everything of all: Bless the Beasts and Children.
Bless the Beasts and Children is exactly what it sounds like, a group of emotionally troubled boys wet the bed, bust out of summer camp together, and free some bison. Like you do.
The movie was an adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s 1970 novel of the same name. A 1970 novel and a 1971 theatrical release—such an abbreviated turnaround time can only mean that someone at Columbia Pictures had been sitting in a folding chair wearing a beret, twirling his mustache, and chewing on a Jessica Rabbit-style cigarette holder, crying to the heavens, “WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE GET ME THE TEENAGER-MEETS-BUFFALO MOVIE FOR WHICH AMERICA HAS LONGED!”
Beasts came out 41 years ago this month. 41 years ago. There isn’t info available on its total box office gross. Bill Mumy (aka little Will Robinson from swinging 60s hit Lost in Space) is the only actor you’ve ever heard of who was in it.
Despite some staying power thanks to an Oscar-nominated song, Beasts only made it to VHS in 1995. Only recently have you been able to find a DVD print for purchase or online stream for download [mainly because of B-movie blogger yahoos like me]. The odds were against this movie being of any significance to me. Yet I, born, six years after its release, have seen Bless the Beasts and Children approximately 65 times. And it thoroughly creeps me out to this day.
The director, Stanley Kramer, said the movie was intended to be a comment on the American gun culture. But, I don’t know…can you explain it to me, Excessively Expository Seventies Movie Posters?
The movie is a bit Stand By Me: all misfit road trip, flashbacks to troubled home lives, and dead kids. But for some reason, this story of neglected, bullied, rich kids traumatizes me ten times more. Box Canyon Camp appears to be a place you’re sent if your folks have money but not the kind that can buy social graces. Camp tuition and fees do not cover counselor sensitivity training, locks, watches, or anything that would help tip ANY AUTHORITY FIGURE that six 14-year-old boys just left your care and are walking to a buffalo preserve. A buffalo preserve where your employee took them to show how rich folks are allowed to hunt in captivity.
Fact: en loco parentis is Latin for “We let your kids roam free with the buffalo and some firearms. NBD.” In Latin, placet? Non Big Deal.
Our heroic antihero heroes (Teft, Cotton, Shecker, Goodenow, and the brothers Lally) set out to free the bison once galvanized by their tip-top camp counselor Wheaties’s observation that they, The Misfit Bedwetters, are like the buffalo: big. Dumb. Taking up space. The Bedwetters take up arms, borrow an army helmet, and walk to the bison preserve to stop the hunters from making bison preserves.
Hilarity does not ensue and *SPOILER ALERT* the Head Bedwetter, John Cotton, dies a pretty spectacular death. And for decades I’ve been trying to shake it off. Add to that my inexplicable inability to see the guy who played Cotton as anyone but the love child of Hervé Villechaize and Wilmer Valderamma.
The movie is, obvs, about the death of innocence…or maybe about protecting innocence in the face of global ugliness. As you can guess, the film has “Vietnam War” stamped all over it. And that was a bit hefty for a Wee Molly. But Wee Molly liked dark, hefty things. And this movie, while mind-blowingly 70s-ish, was made by one of the greats. Stanley Kramer directed Inherit the Wind, The Defiant Ones, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He received the first NAACP Vanguard Award. He produced High Noon. He made a lot of movies that mattered.
I think Kramer’s involvement signals to us that this little movie is worth more than the awkward tighty-whitey paddling scene, the weird therapy freak-out, and the Carpenters love theme that [admit it] you had to sing in fifth grade choir.
It’s worth a second look because at its freaky 70s core, it has an all too timely theme: what becomes of the bullied? If we don’t bless them, who will?