My Side of the Mountain (1969)
Director: James B. Clark
Writer: Ted Sherdeman, Jane Klove, and Joanna Crawford; My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Cinematographer: Denys N. Coop
Producer: Robert B. Radnitz
by Jon Cvack
This is the type of kids movie I would’ve grown up seeing if I was alive about fifteen years earlier, leaving you wondering if Christopher McCandless (of Into the Wild fame) might have seen this movie, as it was released just a year before he was born and has an eerily similar plot, minus the tragic ending, though it’s creepy how close the two endings are. Basically, a twelve year old boy Sam Gribley (Teddy Eccles) runs away and off into the wilderness in order to try and learn how to grow algae and survive off the land. This is the kinds of kids film that they don’t make today, in which the child is very much treated like an adult, with exceptional intelligence and judge of character. Nowadays you could see a gratuitous fight between the son and parents, likely due to some juvenile problem the kid caused or brought up, leaving him to run away into the woods. Instead, it’s as though you could easily insert a young adult into the position. He’s fed up with society, he read some Thoreau, grew inspired, and decided to run off into the woods. With so little information provided I just assumed he told his parents where he was going, only to later discover they thought he ran away or was kidnapped. This isn’t a spoiler so much as a tip. The story will play better knowing this fact.
Sam heads out into the woods with his pet Raccoon, who I didn’t know could be domesticated or trained, leaving me anxious over how many times he was bitten or scratched, as when I was in high school, one got trapped in one of our basement window wells, and when I tapped on the glass it went absolutely berserk, scaring me as though I was in a scary movie when a seemingly dead monster rises up after being touched to confirm it's dead. So Sam has this awesome raccoon pet, who follows him around at times, and other times is off fishing or doing its own thing. They end up at this idyllic pond, just what you’d picture from Walden, then finding a fallen tree whose bole is hollowed out and becomes his cabin. It’s at this point that I think anybody would have wished to see this movie when they were kids, knowing that just as Stand By Me inspired me to go explore train tracks or It inspired me to explore our sewers this would have made me want to go off and start my own campsite.
Stealing the Falcon is a point of contention, with my friend saying the action was cruel, as Sam kidnaps the baby while the mom is screaming. The best I could defend it was, just as I discussed about Urban Cowboy and Can’t Buy Me Love, this plot device was a victim of the times. Currently I’m watching The Greatest Show on Earth, as the elephants are herded into tight train cars, shipping off to the next circus where humans will hang all over them. It’s not so much that this would never be shown today so much as how the animals are treated and displayed with such ill-regard that could never be shown; not in an age where we’re now discussing the ethics of zoos, Seaworld is under constant fire, and chimpanzees have been granted human rights. Animals were seen as inferior, and so being set in 1969 and with the book having been written in 1959, given how much respect is shown toward the animal, both by Sam and the filmmakers, this kidnapping of an animal seems more shocking now, simply because animal rights awareness has had such a positive impact. Keep in mind that this isn’t about kidnapping and killing an Falcon, but rather to train and care for the Falcon, using it for both companionship and to hunt. That’s what makes the Falcon’s death such a great scene, as the hunter allows Sam to understand that his use for the bird was not all that different from a gun, and that ultimately by enslaving it, treated however well, the bird in some ways died because of him.
I particularly love that Sam’s algae experience never really works out. For all he tried to make provisional food, always failing, even with pancakes, he learned so much else. It’s shortly after the Falcon dies and when he knew his algae experiment was a failure, that his tree fort gets buried in snow. As the fire was still burning, oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Again it was an exceptionally dark scene for a child’s film, as Sam attempts to garner every last bit of energy he’s got, able only to scrape the snow out from the entrance with a few attempts before returning to his bed, that - although knowing the trope - I still grew nervous he would die. Of course he’s rescued by the one friend he made, proving another moral lesson in the responsibility of friendship, as if you think about, had he not befriend Brando (Theodore Bikel), he could very have likely died. Worse is when he finally gets out and Brando shows him the newspaper clippings of his parents searching for him, eventually giving up, thinking he was gone.
I appreciate this honesty, maturity, and darkness that seems so rare now. I think of shows and movies like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, It, Stand by Me, Hocus Pocus, The Goonies, and then I watch Stranger Things, Super 8, or It and I always feel like it’s not showing that darker side of childhood. It’s as though they’re all playing it safe as possible, not wanting to offend any parents or children by coloring up the characters, showing their more mature motivations, ways of speaking, or failures. My Side of the Mountain is the type of film I’d be happy to show my son or daughter whenever I have one. And while I’m sure they’d be bored by the old-fashioned looked, I think they’d enjoy and find inspiration in the character. Even I thought about running off into the woods, having had the same feeling after Walden, trying to survive away from the world and on my own. It’s not a film of great acting or technical prowess. It’s a moral tale, and it works pretty well,
BELOW: Slim pickings on the YouTube front so here's an abridged cartoon version
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