Bless the Beasts & Children (1971)

April 8th 2017
Intro by John Harrison
Guest Speaker / Local Author

Welcome to the latest screening in Cinemaniacs’ current season of underrated films about troubled youth. Tonight, I am pleased and proud to introduce a film that I have been a champion of for nearly 40 years, and one which I imagine will always have its spot amongst my top ten all-time favourite films. Although it’s a film that currently is not overly well-known, and one which certainly divides a lot of the people who have seen it.

I first saw Stanley Kramer’s 1971 film BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN on late, late night television back in the late-seventies. It would have been during school holidays no doubt, when I was allowed to set up the camp bed in the lounge room so I could watch the all-night movie marathons to my heart’s content and just roll over and go to sleep when I got too tired. These were the lengths a film fan would go to in the pre-home video years, to make sure you caught that screening of some obscure B horror movie from the 1950s that may not get repeated again for years. And even of you managed to stay awake until the film came on, you then had to endure the likes of Izzy Dye cutting into the film half-way through, with some twenty minute advertorial, trying to sell you a new couch or polyester men’s suit, while we just sit there yelling at the TV to get on with it.

So BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN was one of those films I had never heard of which just showed up at some ungodly hour and instantly transfixed me, in much the same way as Colonel Wilde’s strange 1965 African survival film THE NAKED PREY did when I was allowed to sit up and watch it at a very young age. Looking back, I can see a number of clear reasons why BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN resonated so strongly with me. The basic premise of the film was instantly involving: at an Arizona summer boy’s camp, six of the so-called losers of the bunch, dubbed the Bedwetters, decide to prove their worth – to themselves as much as anybody else – by breaking out of camp one evening and embarking on a trek to set free a herd of buffalo who are scheduled to be culled and slaughtered by a group of hunters the following day. In their ensuing journey to the killing fields, the six boys – all from financially well-off but emotionally crippled homes – learn more about life and friendship than any parent or camp counsellor could ever hope to teach. They are also, of course, forced to deal with having to face some harsh realities and responsibility for their well-meaning but spur-of-the-moment and rather naïve actions.

Being around the same age as the six lead characters in the film I think played a huge part in the impact which it had on me, and though I was never treated in school the same way the poor Bedwetters were, I could certainly empathise with them and their problems and self-doubt. It was also around this time that I took my first family vacation to the US, where I visited and fell in love with the starkly beautiful, often otherworldly, Arizona landscape which features so prominently in the film. I was absorbing a lot of off-beat American culture and developing a fascination towards its mobile home landscapes and small town strangeness, something which I think also developed on that first American vacation, where I can recall us stopping in a very small Arizona town for lunch and seeing the local cop car driving around with a bumper sticker that read “Support Your Local Hooker”.

So all of this goes a long way in explaining why the film struck such a strong and lasting chord with me when I first saw it, but purely in filmic terms there was also a strange quality to it which made it more than just another coming-of-age story. It has a similar vibe of undefinable weirdness to that of William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES and its 1963 film adaptation. It’s an oddness which is conveyed not just thematically but by stark visual cues such as the stuffed heads of native American animals that are given out to the various cabins as some sick totem of achievement, and the inclusion of some genuine buffalo slaughter footage (which is fleeting, but it does appear at several points in the film. It’s not exploitative and it is very important to the core of the film and displaying the brutality behind the lead characters’ motivations). There’s also a rather strange and voyeuristic homoerotic undertone to it, with the young campers often depicted walking through the woods in groups dressed in nothing but their white y-fronts.

BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN is based on a 1970 novel written by Michigan-born Glendon Swarthout, an author who dabbled in a wide-range on genres and whose other filmic adaptations include 1960’s WHERE THE BOYS ARE, which was one of the first movies to document the romanticised adventures of college girls on spring break (a more modernised remake of the story was filmed in 1984), and the classic 1976 John Wayne western THE SHOOTIST, which was directed by Don Siegal.

BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN was easily Swarthout’s most successful novel, certainly in terms of sales, and it’s a book that has rarely – if ever – been out of print in the United States since it first appeared on the stands, and was regularly found on school reading lists (I first read the novel a year or so after seeing the movie, when it was assigned to us in class). The story was inspired by the adventures of Swarthout’s son when he was a high school student and Summer camp counsellor, and when the book was first published it generated something of a bidding war over film rights, which was eventually won by Stanley Kramer, who cut a deal with Columbia Pictures to produce and direct an adaptation of the novel.

Kramer by this point in his career was a veteran Hollywood heavyweight with such classics as THE DEFIANT ONES, ON THE BEACH, INHERIT THE WIND, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? under his belt. Kramer seems like something of a strange choice to bring BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN to the screen – it seemed like a story more suited to one of the up-and-coming young turks of early-70s American cinema – but he did have a reputation for delivering big ‘message’ films, and it was clear from his previous film, 1970’s R.P.M., a drama set amongst the backdrop of radical student activism, that he was interested in exploring themes that were particularly relevant and important to a younger audience.

Kramer would direct only three further films after BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, including the thriller THE DOMINO PRINCIPAL and his last film, the 1979 adaptation of the Broadway play THE RUNNER STUMBLES, in which my lovely wife Marneen had a role as a young nun who is rescued from a burning house by the film’s star, Dick Van Dyke.

Charged with adapting Swarthout’s novel for the screen was one Mac Benoff, whose resume consisted mostly of writing episodes of 50s TV shows like THE EDDIE FISHER SHOW and MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY. He also co-wrote the final Marx Brothers film, 1949’s LOVE HAPPY, which shows you just how far back his career stretched. In fact BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN would turn out to be final screenplay credit, and he died the year following its release.

Benoff’s screenplay stays very close to Swarthout’s novel, and is told in the same structure and style, with frequent flashback sequences that establish character and explain motivations and backgrounds. They do also help to break up the film nicely, add some touches of humour at the right moments, and creates a nice beat to it. Because the book was a rather slim work at under 200 pages, it could be adapted for the screen without having the usual problem of deciding what material needed to be dropped from the novel due to running time constraints. Benoff manages to tell the book’s story very effectively within the film’s 109 minutes. For the most part, it’s a fairly literal and faithful adaptation of the book, though there is one very big change made to the film’s climax, which I won’t spoil here but will be happy to discuss with anyone after the screening. One notable sequence from the book which doesn’t make the film is when the Bedwetters defy camp orders and steal some horses to ride into town to watch a western at the local drive-in, the 1966 Burt Lancaster/Lee Marvin classic THE PROFESSIONALS, a moment which serves as a dry-run for their main big adventure and goes a long way in explaining where they got the impetus and courage for their mission to save the buffalo.

The film does also extend the timeframe of the events a little. In Swarthout’s novel, the main story unfolds over a single night and morning, while the same events in the film take place over a couple of nights and days, which probably made sense from a filmmaking perspective, since it saves having a whole chunk of the film taking place in darkness. As it is, one of the film’s technical drawbacks is that several of the night scenes were obviously filmed day for night, where the photographer uses tinted lenses to make it appear dark, as the shadows caused by the blazing Arizona sun are clearly evident in some shots when it supposedly the dead of night. I usually just tell myself the moon must have been particularly full and bright that evening.

One of the strongest aspects of the film adaptation of BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN is in the amazing cast of young actors which Stanley Kramer chose to bring the six young central characters to life.

This is headed by Barry Robins as Cotton, the self-appointed leader of the group who dreams to follow in the footsteps of his military father and lives with his divorced mother, a forty-something social animal who is terrified of aging. In many ways, she resents her son because he represents a symbol of her advancing age. As Swarthout writes in his novel: ‘To remain a girl, she had to keep her son a boy.’

Robbins was born in Brooklyn and attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts, as well as studying under the famous acting teacher Stella Adler. His first real taste of success came in the 1963 Chicago production of THE KING AND I, where his performance as the Crown Prince so impressed composer Richard Rogers – of Rogers and Hammerstein fame – that he personally invited Robins to reprise the role at the play’s New York revival the following year. Apart from a very prolific career in theatre, Robins also appeared on episodic television shows like TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE GIRLK FROM UNCLE, RAT PATROL and COLUMBO, and was also one of the many young actors to audition for THE MONKEES in 1966. Robins also spent time as a cocktail lounge entertainer and wrote an unproduced screenplay in 1977 called OUR DAYS AT M.A.D., which looked back at his experiences at the High School of Performing Arts.

But it’s BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN that remains the actor’s tour de force. Robins was already 26 at the time he played the role of Cotton, a full ten years older than his character, yet he is never less than convincing in the role. Passionate, caring, tough with a fierce determination that crosses over into obsession. What a tragedy that he died of complication from HIV in 1986 at the young age of only 41, but what an amazing role he left behind here for people to remember him for.

Interestingly, Robins’ nephew claims that his uncle’s unproduced screenplay 1977 OUR DAYS AT M.A.D. was stolen from him writer Chris Gore, who turned into the hit movie FAME, but Robins was already getting sick at this point and was too weak to pursue any legal action.

The most recognisable and experienced of the young cast is without doubt Bill Mumy, at the time only 17 but already a veteran of American television, thanks mostly of course to his role as Will Robinson in Irwin Allen’s classic sci-fi space adventure series LOST IN SPACE, which ran between 1965 and 1968 and remained very popular in re-runs, so it was something of a surprise to see him go from this little squeaky clean kid to a gangly teen with long stringy red hair and spouting dialogue like “Shover it up your anal orifice”. Apart from LOST IN SPACE Mumy also appeared in some great episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, including the classic “IT’S A GOOD LIFE” episode about the child who terrorizes a small town with his psychic powers (Mumy also had a role in the Joe Dante directed remake of this story for the TWILIGHT ZONE movie in 1982, and the story was also paid homage to in a great Halloween episode of THE SIMPSONS).

Mumy at the time was also branching out into music and fronted his own country-blues band called Redwood. One of Redwood’s songs which Mumy had written, called “BEAUTIFUL DAY”, finds its way into BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN in a sequence when the six kids vocalize it as they are driving through the Arizona desert en route to their destination.

Miles Chapin, who was gracious enough to provide that terrific video interview for our screening which you got to see earlier, plays Schecker, the overweight comedian of the group who uses his humor not only as a protective shield for himself, but as a means to relieve tension whenever the Bedwetters are starting to doubt themselves, making his character a very central and important one to the film’s story. In the film, Schecker is the son of a famous Jewish Las Vegas comedian, which helps explain where all his bad jokes come from. After BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, Chapin slimmed right down and appeared in movies like HAIR, Tobe Hopper’s underrated haunted house horror THE FUNHOUSE, and the George Lucas Marvel Comics misfire HOWARD THE DUCK. He also did some work for director Milos Forman in the late-nineties, appearing in the biopics THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and MAN ON THE MOON.

Playing the Lally brothers are Bob Kramer and Marc Vahanian. Bob Kramer was no relation to director Stanley and had a brief acting career that mostly entailed appearances on TV shows like THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY and NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR. He also appeared as Johnny in the classic BRADY BUNCH episode “Where There’s Smoke”, where he plays one of the members of a high school rock band that influences squeaky clean Greg into smoking a cigarette. Marc Vahanian’s career was somewhat more extensive, and included a lot of TV work as well as appearances in the original AMITYVILLE HORROR and the violent revenge actioner EXTERMINATOR 2.

The last of the six young cast members is Darel Glaser as Goodenow, the frail blonde moppet who comes across as somewhat feminine and as fragile as a sparrow, and there’s a very touching flashback scene that shows Cotton being the only kid in camp to extend a helping hand to Goodenow and welcoming him into the Bedwetters’ cabin, where he will be safe. Glaser’s on-screen career was very limited after he made his debut in BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN. Apart from one-off appearances on MARCUS WELBY, MD and SHAZAM!, his only other film credits are bit-parts in the 1978 Steve McQueen flick AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE and a 1976 telemovie called THE CHEERLEADERS, which was directed by actor Richard Crenna.

Apart from the six young central performances, there are a number of supporting roles in BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN that are well-cast and important to the plot. There’s Jesse White as Shecker’s father, the loud and obnoxious polyester lounge comedian concerned more with how his son reflects on himself than how the poor kid actually feels, Ken Swofford as Wheaties, the Bedwetters’ camp cabin master who has given up in disgust on his charges and treats them just as cruelly as the other kids at the camp (he is also one of the eager buffalo hunters whom the Bedwetter’s despise so much), and Elaine Devry as Cotton’s mother, the single mom terrified of aging and losing her looks, who is so effective in her one scene.

But the standout amongst all of the adult actors is easily Bruce Glover, the father of Crispin who proves that oddness runs in the family. In BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN Glover has a small but very memorable role as one of two redneck hick hustlers who torment the Bedwetters when they pull into a greasy diner for burgers and shakes. While Wayne Sutherlin as the other redneck plays his role with more obvious and clear aggression, it’s Glover who comes across as the one to be most wary and careful of. There is a great tipsy playfulness about his character that is both humorous and unnerving, with the threat of violence bubbling just under the surface. A very creepy sequence, and Glover states that it was this role that landed him his best-known role, as one of the homosexual hitmen in the 007 film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, which came out later that same year. Glover had started his career in such varied films like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, DAYTON’S DEVILS and the biker film C.C. AND COMPANY. Post- BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, he appeared in WALKING TALL, CHINATOWN, HARD TIMES, GHOST WORLD and NIGHT OF HE SCARECROW (not to be confused with the excellent TV move DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW).

The soundtrack to BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, composed by Barry De Vorzen and Perry Botkin, Jnr, provides an integral part of the film’s emotional core, and is highlighted of course by the title theme tune, which was written by De Vorzen and Botkin, Jnr, and performed by the popular brother/sister pop duo The Carpenters. The piano-based ballad, which is heard throughout the film in both vocal and instrumental versions, proved to be a minor chart hit for The Carpenters, reaching Number 67 on the US Billboard charts, and was also nominated for an Academy Award in the ‘Best Song’ category in 1972, but lost out to Issac Hayes and his funky theme from SHAFT (if you are going to lose out to any film theme, I guess SHAFT is the one to lose to). It really is a lovely composition within its genre, and is given a heartfelt vocal by Karen Carpenter, which like a lot of The Carpenters’ music carries a bit of extra emotional weight due to the singer’s tragic early death at the age of only 32, the first high-profile death to be attributed to anorexia nervosa.

There is also “Cotton’s Dream”, a beautiful instrumental piece used at several crucial points throughout the film and, when listened to within the context of the movie, it is incredibly moving. When listened to purely as a piece of music, it is very dramatic and inspirational, so much so that when ABC’s WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS program played it over a montage of famous Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci performing her routines at the 1976 Summer Olympics, it proved so popular that it was re-titled “Nadia’s Theme” and issued as single that hit the American Top 10 that year. It’s also famous as the opening theme music to the long-running daytime soap THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. And in fact they also used the Carpenter’s theme song from BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN on a 1982 episode of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, in a scene where David Hasselhoff’s Dr. Snapper Foster’s character had to say goodbye to son, as he left to live with his step-dad.

But it’s music that was originally conceived and composed for this remarkable film, and that is how it deserves to be best known.

Barry DeVorzen was a very prolific soundtrack composer who worked as the music supervisor for Blaxploitation flicks like BLACK CAESAR, SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and he provided the music for a diverse list of movies that include ROLLING THUNDER, THE WARRIORS, MR. MOM, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and THE EXORCIST III.

De Vorzon also lends his vocal talent to the BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN soundtrack, singing “Down the Line”, a soft pop/rock track that is played as the Bedwetters experience the excitement of exploring a townscape free from adult supervision.

In 1972 a truncated 14-minute version of BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, renamed LOVE TO KILL, was part of a 1972 educational/guidance series titled SEARCHING FOR VALUES and produced by the Learning Corporation of America. 16mm prints of this series were sent around to American high schools to be screened in class, no doubt under the guise of them having some educational benefit. You can imagine it being screened as part of some social guidance class, or as a time-filler to try and keep students occupied when a teacher called in sick. With a title like LOVE TO KILL it’s hard to tell exactly what sort of lesson they were trying to teach with this truncated film. It pretty much just condensed the heart of the story and its main beats, without using any of the exposition or flashback sequences.

The original theatrical trailer put together for BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN was also quite interesting and rather different and daring. Rather than follow a traditional trailer format, it is structured instead as a mock live television debate about the issue of gun control, ownership and responsibility, with Bill Mumy credited as himself and facing off against a fellow named Floyd Crebbs, who supposedly represents the American Gun Cult Association, but is clearly meant to be symbolic of the National Rifle Association, or NRA. “We condemn the movie BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN because it is a vicious attack upon the hunters of America”, Crebbs argues, his confident demeanour slowly turning into a sweaty, nervous mess as the trailer progresses and he starts to crumble in the face of Mumy’s innocently childlike but brutully honest opinion of hunters who kill purely for sport. It’s certainly a strange and somewhat experimental trailer, as well as being a brave way to try and sell the movie to a wide audience, considering America’s huge number of gun advocates, who may have been off seeing the film by a trailer that pretty much tells them just how anti-gun the film’s themes and message is going to be.

It’s a pity that LOVE TO KILL and the trailer for BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN were not included on the official Sony DVD release of the film in 2012. They were, however, both included on the DVD-R release that was put out by public domain label Shocking Videos in the early-2000s, which I have fortunately hung onto.

Unfortunately, despite the popularity of the novel, the film version of BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN did not prove to be much of a box-office hit after having its world premiere at the 1971 Berlin Film Festival, where Russian critics viewed it as scathing indictment of the massacres at Kent State University and My Lai in Vietnam, though the film is more an overall criticism against America’s cult of gun worship, which as previously mentioned may have been one of the reasons why the film did not do so well upon its release. It was also a very hard film to define, with its mixture of pre-MEATBALLS-style summer camp comedy, LORD OF THE FLIES strangeness and social commentary.

The film did receive a VHS release in the 1980s, but ultimately it ended up as something of an obscurity, out of circulation even though the novel continued to be reprinted and read in schools. It finally did surface on that legitimate DVD release in 2012, but it’s safe to say that the majority of those people who love this film – as small a cult as that may be – first discovered it via late-night television screenings. Hopefully someday a special edition Blu-ray will surface. But the book and its themes still inspire some younger people, as seen by this beautiful piece of art by Alina Mezhule, a 25 year-old artist from the Ukraine, who really brings a unique interpretation of the story with her work.

So thank you all once again for coming along, thanks to Lee and Cinemaniacs for continuing to be brave with many of their screening selections, and I hope you all enjoy the movie.

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