I've always had a liking for big, soft-spoken man-mountain Clint Walker - in part, because he reminds me quite a bit of my own father, another gentle giant. Walker's voice might be deeper, and his chest even broader, but both men are old-school guys that embody a certain kind of quiet dignity and honorable conduct that is appealing and, sadly, increasingly rare these days.
Known especially for his truly impressive physique (six-foot six and boasting a 48-inch chest) and calm, measured basso profondo voice, Walker rose to fame as the star of the early adult ("non-kiddie") western, Cheyenne, in the late 50s / early 60s, and parlayed that success into a modest big-screen career, mostly in westerns and family films. Night of the Grizzly straddles these two genres and isn't Walker's best, yet is a pleasant enough way to while away a few hours.
Walker plays Jim Cole, an ex-lawman who inherits some land and a run-down old ranch in California from a deceased relative and brings his wife, Angela (Martha Hyer), two kids, teenage niece and former deputy Sam Potts (Don Haggerty) with him to start a new, more peaceful life. But things aren't going to be easy for the Cole family. Not only does the ranch need a lot of work, but cagey local powerbroker Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn) has been after that particular parcel of land for a good long time and still has plans to get it, one way or another. As if that wasn't enough, Jim has to contend with Old Satan - a massive killer grizzly bear that stalks the area every summer, and has set his sights on the Cole's herd.
Night of the Grizzly is pretty episodic, wavering in tone between genial Disney-style family romp and brutal grizzly attack-filled thriller. Despite this unevenness of tone, there's still plenty to enjoy here, including Walker's dependable, charismatic presence, a rather sweet depiction of a stable marriage, enlivened by good chemistry between Walker and wholesome, pretty Martha Hyer, and some good, roughhouse action sequences.
The main asset of the film, however, is its impressive roster of supporting players, including Wynn, in oily schemer mode; Regis Toomey, as a fair-minded town banker; old pro Jack Elam, who shares a number of cute scenes with adorable little Victoria Page Meyerink as youngest daughter Gypsy Cole; scowling Leo Gordon as a bear hunter who is called in by the townsfolk to take down Old Satan; TV's Tarzan, Ron Ely, (as one of Curry's sons who happens to be almost big enough to go toe-to-toe in a fistfight with Clint); Grandma Walton herself, Ellen Corby, as a local rancher always looking to sell her stock at premium profit; and Nancy Culp as a gregarious shopkeeper, enjoying a sabbatical from playing Miss Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies.
All these familiar faces add a lot of fun to the movie, which remains diverting despite some deficiencies, one of which is the dichotomy between the vicious nature of Old Satan's attacks and the shots of the more cuddly-looking real life bear who plays him (this is a problem that dogs another killer bear film, William Girdler's 1976 exploitation "classic," Grizzly.) The film was shot in Techniscope, a good deal of it on location in California's Big Bear Valley and the San Bernadino National Forest, and features some nice scenery, but can't quite escape a slight whiff of "TV-ishness." Part of this is due to the very small screen-friendly cast, and part to the able but workmanlike direction of Joseph Pevney (who mostly worked in television, and helmed over a dozen original recipe Star Trek episodes, many of them among the highlights of that series, including "The City on the Edge of Forever," "The Immunity Syndrome," "Amok Time," "The Devil in the Dark," and "The Trouble with Tribbles.")
The following year, Clint Walker went to England to film a small part in his most famous film, The Dirty Dozen, rubbing elbows with Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown. Despite his popularity as a TV lead, and being featured in some successful films like Fort Dobbs, Yellowstone Kelly, Send Me No Flowers and None But the Brave, his feature film career had petered out by the end of the decade, yet another limited but definite talent that Hollywood couldn't quite figure how to use to his full potential.
Luckily, Walker remained active on television throughout the 70s, featuring in a number of memorable made-for-TV films, such as Hardcase, Scream of the Wolf and Killdozer. He's still alive and kicking at age 86, and Olive Films' handsome Blu-Ray edition of Night of the Grizzly features a lengthy interview with him that's well worth checking out.
So here's to my Dad - also thankfully alive and kicking, and much younger than Mr. Walker - as Father's Day approaches. This is just the kind of movie we'd have a hoot sitting down to watch together...and maybe you would, too.
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