A precursor to the oppressively wholesome dramatic series of the same name, the telefilm Little House on the Prairie is a solid piece of work considering that principal creative force Michael Landon generated 98 minutes of slick entertainment without employing any real dramatic conflict. Famous for his role as Little Joe Cartwright on the megahit Western series Bonanza (1959-1973), Landon served as coproducer, director, and star for this adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book. The book, second in a long series extrapolated from the author’s childhood adventures, offers a warm autobiographical sketch of the Ingalls family’s relocation from Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie circa the 1860s. As dramatized by Landon, from a script by Blanche Hanalis, Little House on the Prairie is a heartening study in goodness, perseverance, and tolerance.
Dauntless patriarch Charles Ingalls (Landon) leads his family on a dangerous trek through rough rapids, unforgiving plains, and winter storms until they arrive in open land they believe is available for settlers. Befriending a grizzled but kindly settler named Isaiah Edwards (Victor French), Charles and his wife, Caroline (Karen Grassle), build a small house in which they nurture their children, despite the ever-present threat of hostile Indians and natural disasters. Putting a heavy focus on religious faith, the film depicts the Ingalls clan surmounting the Indian problem quite easily—since it turns out the local natives are friendly people interested only in cultural exchange and the trading of goods—and surviving the potential catastrophe of a brush fire thanks to divine intervention, in the form of a sudden rainstorm. Through it all, Charles teaches lessons while sounding a lot more like a ’70s family therapist than an Old West pioneer. Charles and his relatives talk about their feelings a lot, particularly in scenes between Charles and his daughter Laura (Melissa Gilbert), whose character provides the film’s narration. (This device continued during the series, in which the Laura character inherits the nickname “Half-Pint.”)
Landon’s performance in this movie is charismatic to a fault, since many scenes feel as if they were designed solely to showcase the saintly qualities of the protagonist, and even the moments when Charles displays weakness embellish the hero-worship approach. That said, humanistic values are commendable in any context, and it’s hard to fault the film’s message about the importance of familial loyalty, hard work, and humility. Plus, there’s a lot of narrative business about the ubiquity of dirt on the prairie, and there’s even a running gag about spitting, so the film isn’t totally antiseptic—though it’s close. As to whether the world actually needed 204 episodes and three reunion movies continuing the Ingalls odyssey, well, that’s a discussion for another day.
Little House on the Prairie: FUNKY