Adapted from a 1970 novel by Glendon Swarthout, Bless the Beasts & Children is a weird meditation on adolescent angst, the ostracism of oddballs, and the ugliness of killing animals for pleasure. Despite all of these conflicting elements, Bless the Beasts and Children is highly watchable, though perhaps not for any of the reasons producer-director Stanley Kramer intended. The histrionic performances by the child actors comprising the film’s main cast give the picture a so-bad-it’s-good kitsch factor, the overwrought nature of the plot offers the lurid appeal of sensationalism, and the unearned intensity of Kramer’s storytelling commands attention in a traffic-accident sort of way. Bless the Beasts & Children isn’t a disaster, but it’s an oddly beguiling mess.
The picture begins at a summer camp in Arizona, where counselors train boys in the ways of the Western frontier. The Bedwetters, occupants of the camp’s lowest-ranked cabin, are traumatized because of a recent field trip to a buffalo ranch. During the field trip, the boys witnessed the shooting-gallery slaughter of excess livestock. Led by high-strung John Cotton (Barry Robins), the Bedwetters flee camp one night, intent on freeing the next group of buffalo marked for death. As the movie follows the kids’ odyssey across the Southwest, Kramer cuts to flashbacks of key episodes from each child’s past, and it all leads up to a ridiculous climax filled with Kramer’s usual sledgehammer moralizing.
The concept of unruly kids sharing an adventure is appealing, so scenes of the Bedwetters traveling through the desert on stolen horses, or zipping down the open road in a stolen car, are lively. Unfortunately, the characterizations are way too arch (for instance, the effeminate Bedwetter complements his uniform with bleach-blonde hair, a headband, and a shag vest) and the villains are preposterously two-dimensional (every adult is a mouth-breathing ogre). On the bright side, the cinematography by Michael Hugo is bright and muscular, while the music is, to say the least, assertive.
Composers Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. smother the movie with maudlin strings, and one of their principal motifs was later repurposed for Olympics broadcasts as the famous “Nadia’s Theme,” and then again repurposed as the title music for the long-running soap The Young and the Restless. (Years later, the music became the sample underlying Mary J. Blige’s signature song, “No More Drama”). The musical bludgeoning continues in the movie’s main-title song, performed by the Carpenters. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)
Bless the Beasts & Children: FUNKY