Thanks to its mixture of gorgeous images of the American West and heartwarming themes, watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams is a bit like living inside a John Denver song for 93 minutes, which is to say that the movie conveys a deeply attractive vision of frontier life without the burden of realism. Like the transcendent mountains in Denver’s songs, the wilderness of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams is a place where Indians and wild animals are simply friends whom the protagonist has not yet met, where every day is a new opportunity for wholesome adventures in picturesque valleys, and where any sort of hardship can be resolved in the space of a montage set to gentle music. This sort of wish-fulfillment storytelling may be silly, but The Life of Times of Grizzly Adams meshed with the back-to-nature idealism of the early ’70s. Produced for a reported $140,ooo, the independent feature grossed a remarkable $65 million and spawned a TV series with the same star, Dan Haggerty, which ran for two seasons.
Based upon the adventures of real-life figure James Adams, who lived in the California wilderness during the 19th century and demonstrated a remarkable facility for taming animals, including grizzly bears, the movie was produced by Sunn Classic Pictures, a company primarily known for its “pseudoscience” documentaries about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and the like. True to form, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams shamelessly blends fact and fiction. In this telling, Adams (Haggerty) flees civilization when he’s accused of a crime he did not commit, which never happened to the real Adams. The movie then presents episodes depicting Adams’ assimilation into the mountain-man lifestyle. He rescues a bear cub and names the cub Benjamin Franklin. He rescues a wounded Crow warrior, Nakoma (Don Shanks), who teaches Adams survival techniques. Adams endures a raft ride down whitewater rapids, escapes close encounters with black bears and mountain lions, and so on. At various intervals, the story stops dead for cutesy vignettes depicting animal behavior, such as the amusing sequence of a raccoon trying to navigate a branch hanging over a river. The whole piece is presented with wall-to-wall narration delivered in folksy style by Bill Woodson, who also provides the speaking voice that emanates from Haggerty’s mouth during the film’s few dialogue scenes.
In terms of credibility and weight, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams is quite shoddy, basically the low-budget equivalent of a Disney nature film. Nonetheless, the Utah locations are spectacularly beautiful, and Haggerty cuts a believable figure with his massive frame, flowing blond hair, and bushy beard. The filmmakers also cleverly frame the piece with scenes about Adams’ feelings toward the daughter he left behind when he ventured into the mountains, giving The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams the illusion of being a properly structured narrative.
The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams: FUNKY