Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Baker’s Hawk (1976)

          A family-friendly Western that delivers exactly what it promises, and not an iota more, Baker’s Hawk is cut from the same cloth as the 1977-1983 TV series Little House on the Prairie—it’s a wholesome homily, with all the negatives and positives that description implies. Based on a novel by Jack M. Bickham, the picture follows a teenaged farmboy named Billy (Lee H. Montgomery) as he learns about friendship, intolerance, mortality, and vigilantism. Schematic in the extreme, the narrative runs along two tracks. In the overarching storyline, Billy watches his small community succumb to mob rule as citizens form a “vigilance committee” and try to force principled individuals including Billy’s father, Dan (Clint Walter), to take up arms against unwanted outsiders. In the main subplot, Billy finds a weak young hawk left in the nest by its mother, and then nurses the hawk to full strength with the help of a kindly hermit, Mr. McGraw (Burl Ives). Inevitably, these story elements intersect because Billy’s sensitivity to outsiders makes him a target for bullies, which parallels the way his father’s resistance to vigilantism alienates him from small-minded neighbors. Baker’s Hawk is so full of Meaningful Life Lessons that flashing numbers should appear onscreen each time a new teachable moment occurs.
          Yet Baker’s Hawk isn’t quite as dry and trite as the preceding synopsis might suggest. The focus on animals means that every so often, the movie is elevated by something real—a shot of a hawk soaring through the sky, a vignette of a deer fawn frolicking in the woods. Additionally, the cast is sufficiently colorful to make all but the most sentimental scenes palatable. Montgomery, who played a number of kid roles in movies and TV shows throughout the ’70s, favors wide-eyed wonder over misty-eyed mawkishness, so he mostly steers clear of typical kid-actor excess. Walker, the towering he-man best known for the 1955-1963 Western series Cheyenne, renders a characterization best described as John Wayne Lite, and his dramatic limitations work well for the role of a simple man facing complex problems. Ives does what he can with the picture’s most clichéd character, his honeyed voice and seeming comfort with animals lending a smidgen of gravitas. The filmmakers would have been prudent to give leading lady Diane Baker, who plays Billy’s mother, a bit more screen time, just as they would have been prudent to give Partridge Family kid Danny Bonaduce, who plays a bully, a bit less. At least the hawk, who undoubtedly gives the film’s best performance, never disappoints.

Baker’s Hawk: FUNKY

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