More of a family/adventure film really, this picture nevertheless taps into the mountain man sub-genre of Western, and a sprinkling of gunplay and bad guys give it a hint of oater here and there.
An intro text tells us that “This is the true story of Galen Clark”, which means we can bet our bottom dollar that it isn’t. We open in an unspecific region (‘The Far West’) in 1861 and then get the story, told in a sub-Disney and rather saccharine way, of the conservationist and writer Clark and his work to preserve and safeguard the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees.
Sunn Classic Pictures (which apparently added an extra n to sun in order to avoid confusion with a pornographic film company) was based in Salt Lake City, UT and specialized in family entertainment in the 1970s. It liked the theme of mountain men and trappers because it had been responsible for The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and When the North Wind Blows in 1974, and The Adventures of Frontier Fremont in 1975, all featuring Dan Haggerty. Denver Pyle had a lead part in Grizzly Adams as Mad Jack, and the film was later spun off into a TV series, also with Haggerty and Pyle. Later Sunn would do the likes of In Search of Noah’s Ark and In Search of Historic Jesus.
Denver Pyle got the part of Clark. We Western fans know Denver well. He’d been in the acting racket since the late 1940s and was a particular fixture in Westerns, doing altogether not far short of 400 of them, big screen and small, from Where the North Begins in 1947 to Maverick in 1994. It might be a time for a Pylathon on this blog. In Guardian of the Wilderness/Mountain Man he plays an impossibly benign Galen Clark with a sugar-coated idyllic family and a collection of ridiculously tame wild animal friends, and this probably appealed to moms in Salt Lake City in the 70s who found all of it wholesome and heart-warming, but – my guess – not to their children too much, at least not if they had an IQ greater than their hat size.
There is other casting good news, though, for John Dehner plays naturalist John Muir. His part is a little more than a cameo but not by much. Still, he’s good (he always was) when he is on screen.
The rest of the cast list is not exactly populated by glitterati but I suppose they did their best.
The bad guys are the loggers, greedy corporate types out only for profit.
The real Clark and Muir were interesting people. Galen Clark was born in 1814 in Canada and moved to Missouri in 1836. He married and had five children but after his wife died he moved to California to make his fortune in 1854. At the age of 42 he was diagnosed with consumption (TB), given six months to live and advised to go to the mountains to breathe clean, dry air. “I went to the mountains to take my chances of dying or growing better, which I thought were about even,” he said.
As his lungs healed, he explored the area of Wawona, California and loved the giant sequoias he found there. He sought to protect the trees, enlisting the help of friends and petitioning Congress. The Yosemite Grant, the first of its kind, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The legislation was to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for “public use, resort, and recreation … to be left inalienable for all time.” Galen became the first “guardian of the grant”. He died four days before his 96th birthday in 1914.
His friend John Prior was born in 1838 in Scotland and came to the US with his family when he was eleven and lived on a Wisconsin farm. Though he never graduated, he studied chemistry, geology and botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He walked and studied all over parts Canada, the US and Cuba and wrote about a thousand-mile walk he made from Kentucky to Florida. He built a small cabin on Yosemite Creek. He too loved the sequoias and worked to have them protected. He also died in 1914.
The film has some fine Utah and California locations, shot in nice color by Henning Schellerup, though the overall impression it leaves us with is of a National Geographic travelogue.
The music, by Bob Summers, adds to this, being alternately lush, even semi-religious when the glories of nature are being dwelt on, and ‘comic’ when supposedly amusing escapades occur. I didn’t like it.
The whole thing is certainly inoffensive and innocuous but it is also anodyne and sentimental. There’s no sense of the hardships of remote cabin life or the harshness of the environment. Still, you might like it, if that’s your thing.
It ain’t mine.