The Bears and I (1974)

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What do you get when you get Vincent McEveety’s brother to direct a film, Joss Whedon’s grandfather to write a film, and John Wayne’s son to star in a film? You get The Bears and I. Directed by Bernard McEveety, written by John Whedon, and starring Patrick Wayne, The Bears and I is one of those Disney films of the 1970s that isn’t a household name. Should it be though? Read on to find out!

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

I watched this film on Disney+ and before the film begins, we’re greeted with a statement that the film has been edited for content.

I’m guessing this is due to racism, animal abuse, or both.

As the opening credits roll, the song, Sweet Surrender, by John Denver is heard as we see our main character walk through the wilderness. This is Robert “Bob” Leslie, a Vietnam War veteran, played by Patrick Wayne. As he narrates his story, we learn that he is exploring the North American wilderness to find Chief Peter A-Tas-Ka-Nay. The Chief’s son was Bob’s friend during the war and was sadly killed. Bob now wants to return his friend’s belongings to the Chief. When he does meet the Chief, played by Chief Dan George, the Chief isn’t particularly happy to see him as he and his tribe are wary of the white man. Nevertheless, Bob hands his friend’s belongings over to the Chief and tries his best to be friendly.

Bob then decides to spend some time in this wilderness. He rents a cabin from one of the tribesmen there who runs a general store, Oliver Red Fern, played by Michael Ansara. Bob is enamored with the beauty of the nature he sees there. In particular, he comes across three bear cubs whose mother was shot by one of the more hot-tempered tribesmen, Sam Eagle Speaker, played by Valentin de Vargas.

They’re probably just little black rain clouds in search of a honey tree.

Bob decides to take care of the cubs until they get old enough to fend for themselves. He give them food, shelter, and affection, although this doesn’t please Chief A-Tas-Ka-Nay. The Chief believes that the bears should be left alone and not become dependent on Bob. Bob tries to explain that he’s only caring for them until they grow up and then he’ll let them go free in the woods.

To complicate matters further, Bob receives a visit from members of the US Parks Department. Commissioner Gaines, played by Andrew Duggan, and John McCarten, played by Robert Pine, have been tasked to make this area a national park. This means that Chief A-Tas-Ka-Nay and his people will have to be relocated to another reserve as only rangers can live on a national park. As you can imagine, the Chief and his tribe aren’t happy with this and the Commissioner and John hope Bob can help persuade the Chief. Bob says he’ll talk with the Chief, but doesn’t promise anything more than that.

“We’re glad you don’t work in our negotiations department!”

Winter passes and then Spring arrives, but the Chief and his tribesmen have not budged from their decision nor their location. John is forced to order his hired construction workers to begin work demolishing the buildings belonging to the Chief and his tribe, including Oliver Red Fern’s general store. The tribesmen retaliate by sabotaging the machinery of the construction workers and even threatening their lives.

The construction workers demand rangers to be called in to protect them and their work while Bob tries his best to get John to relent and let the tribesmen stay, but to no avail. Sam Eagle Speaker projects his anger towards Bob as well as his bears and decides to set fire to Bob’s cabin and the forest and even shoots one of the bears. The Chief and his tribesmen work together with the construction workers to put out the fire while Bob tends to the bear that was shot.

“This spot where my bear fell will always be a hallowed place in the jungle, for there lies one of nature’s noblest creatures.”
“Why, you big fraud! You, you four-flusher! I’m fed up!”

Bob then seeks the Chief for help in saving the bear, but the Chief refuses saying that if a bear dies, it is the will of the Great Spirit. He eventually gives in after Bob mentions that Sam Eagle Speaker shot the bear as well as how his friend spoke so highly of his father’s wisdom which he’s not seeing. The Chief prepares a concoction which is fed to the bear and the bear fortunately survives.

Afterwards, the Commissioner arrives with a final warning for the Chief and his tribesmen, but they take no heed. The Chief decides to go with some fellow tribesmen to a sacred place to die while on a hunger strike. Bob tries to convince him otherwise, but to no avail. Fortunately things end on a positive note when John gets the idea to make the Chief and all his tribesmen “Deputy Rangers” allowing them to reside at the national park.

Somehow I don’t think this will work in the US government today.

Everyone is happy about this result, including Bob. He eventually lets the bears go free in the woods. One tries to return to him, but Bob has to show some “tough love” and reject him so that he can live freely in the woods. Bob decides then to become a ranger in the Parks Department with the hopes of being assigned right at the area where he is now.

And that was The Bears and I! And no, it shouldn’t be a household name.

I feel this film is really two movies in one: one dealing with the Chief and his tribesmen and the other dealing with Bob and his bears. I think that’s the major problem with the film; it’s unfocused. Had the film only dealt with the Chief and his tribesmen or only dealt with Bob and his bears, it would have flowed more smoothly. Yes, parallels can be seen between the tribesmen and the bears, but I still would have preferred one plot rather than both.

The best performances are by the supporting cast, in particular, Michael Ansara and Chief Dan George. Patrick Wayne emotes well with his eyes and narrates well, but his dialogue delivery just falls flat for most of the film. In the end, the film is disappointing, well maybe that’s too harsh a word, but I do feel it needed at least one more rewrite.

So, my final score for this film is 18/35 = 51.43% (F) !

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