When The Bears And I was released on July 31, 1974, the movie’s biggest marquee name was not star Patrick Wayne, the son of the legendary John Wayne. It arguably wasn’t even Walt Disney, whose name had been attached to so many nature movies by then that audiences barely noticed them. It was John Denver, the country boy singer-songwriter who contributed the theme song, “Sweet Surrender”. The day The Bears And I hit theatres, Denver had the number one song in the country. “Annie’s Song” was Denver’s second number one hit and he was at or certainly near the height of his popularity. Of course, hit records don’t necessarily sell movie tickets. Usually it’s the other way around. Still, Denver’s involvement certainly helped raise the profile of a movie that would have otherwise looked like every other Disney nature movie of the past twenty-plus years.
The funny thing is The Bears And I isn’t just like every other Disney nature movie. Sure, there’s plenty of footage of cute woodland creatures frolicking in the forest. But that story is just part of a larger narrative involving (sigh, brace yourselves) Native Americans fighting to keep their land. I’ll give Disney credit for this much: they certainly made an effort to tell stories about Indigenous peoples and they were doing it at a time when almost nobody else was. They weren’t great at it and these movies inevitably end up saying more about the white folks telling the stories than the Natives they’re ostensibly about. But hey, “A” for effort, right?
Based on a book by Robert Franklin Leslie, the screenplay was written by TV veteran John Whedon. If that name sounds familiar, you may be familiar with his grandsons, Joss, Jed and Zack. The elder Whedon had written the four-episode series Kilroy for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color back in 1965. The Bears And I was one of only two feature films John Whedon wrote. We’ll be getting to the second one very soon.
Like most Disney nature movies, extensive voiceover narration is used to explain what the hell’s going on during the many dialogue-free sequences. For that, producer Winston Hibler brought in Jack Speirs. We’ve seen his name before on movies like Charlie The Lonesome Cougar and King Of The Grizzlies. This will be Speirs’ last appearance in this column. He next brought his animal expertise to short films, directing movies like A Tale Of Two Critters and The Footloose Fox released theatrically alongside animated features.
This will also be the last time we see director Bernard McEveety’s name in this column. The eldest McEveety brother had the shortest Disney career, directing just three movies released between 1972 and 1974. He’d make one more Disney project, the TV-movie Donovan’s Kid in 1979. But he continued to be a wildly prolific TV director up until his retirement. His last credit was an episode of Simon & Simon in 1988. Bernard McEveety died of natural causes February 2, 2004, at the age of 79.
Patrick Wayne naturally started making movies with his dad, although his first credited role was in the 1955 West Point drama The Long Gray Line. John Wayne wasn’t in that one but it was directed by his old friend, John Ford. In 1959, Patrick Wayne made an early bid for stardom, taking the lead role in The Young Land, produced by Ford’s son, also named Patrick. It didn’t make much impact and Wayne went back to honing his craft in supporting roles, mostly with his father and/or John Ford.
When he signed on to The Bears And I, Patrick Wayne had just begun taking lead roles again. In 1973, he starred in the Filipino sci-fi movie Beyond Atlantis. When it flopped, producer John Ashley blamed it on the PG rating, something Wayne had insisted on before taking the part. Moving over to Disney was a much more natural fit for the family-oriented actor.
Wayne stars as Bob Leslie, a recently discharged serviceman making a pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest. He’d planned on making this trip with his brother in arms, a Native American named Larch who’d grown up in the area. After Larch was killed in action, Bob took it upon himself to make the trek solo and deliver Larch’s personal effects to his father, Chief Peter A-Tas-Ka-Nay (Chief Dan George, last seen in the underwhelming Smith!).
While the word “Vietnam” is never once uttered in the movie itself, it’s understood that Bob is a Vietnam veteran. Unless I miss my guess, this is the first Disney movie to even obliquely refer to the Vietnam War, which makes it something of a landmark. Even after Walt’s death, Disney movies would bend over backwards to avoid referring to anything remotely unpleasant in the real world. So it’s a bit of an eye-opener when Bob bluntly states that Larch was killed by a mortar shell.
Chief Peter accepts his son’s bundle of personal items but nobody in the small settlement welcomes Bob with open arms. The closest thing to a friend is Oliver Red Fern (Michael Ansara, who was not Native but was frequently cast as one. You may recognize him as the Klingon Kang on Star Trek or the voice of Mr. Freeze on Batman: The Animated Series). Oliver runs the general store and agrees to rent Bob a very dilapidated cabin upriver when Bob announces his intention to stick around awhile.
Bob immediately gets on the bad side of Sam Eagle Speaker (Valentin de Vargas, a Latino actor best known for Touch Of Evil), the settlement’s token drunk. Sam harbors a deep mistrust of white people in general and Bob in particular. But since none of the locals seem all that fond of Sam either, Bob doesn’t pay him much mind.
Things go well for Bob at first. He fixes up the cabin as best he can and Chief Peter softens a bit, stopping by the cabin to give Bob some of Larch’s old tools and fishing gear. But the peace is shattered when Sam leads a hunting expedition that shoots and kills a mama bear. Bob finds her three orphaned cubs hiding up a tree. After luring them down with food, he decides to adopt them, as people invariably do in movies like this. He names the cubs Patch, Scratch and Rusty.
Bob doesn’t plan on keeping the bears indefinitely or domesticating them. He just can’t bring himself to leave them unprotected and alone. But he soon learns that’s exactly what he should have done when he brings the cubs along on a supply run. The Chief is furious that Bob has tied the bears up like dogs. He explains that theirs is a Bear Tribe and even though Bob’s intentions are good, what he’s doing is deeply offensive. Unless he frees the bears immediately, nothing but evil will befall the Taklute people.
Bob doesn’t take the warning super-seriously. Once he gets back to the cabin, his solution is to simply not bring the bears back to the general store. I kind of feel most people wouldn’t need to be told that but I guess you can’t blame a guy for wanting to show off his bear cubs.
But Bob’s reputation takes another hit when he gets a visit from a couple representatives from the National Park Service. Commissioner Gaines (Andrew Duggan) and his right hand man, John McCarten (Robert Pine, last seen in One Little Indian), have been trying to meet with the Taklute but the Natives make themselves scarce whenever they hear their seaplane approaching. Turns out the land has been earmarked for a new National Park and the Taklute need to relocate (although Gaines and McCarten assure Bob that the new land is even better than where they are now, which makes you wonder why they don’t just open a national park there instead). Bob promises to try and arrange a meeting but cautions that he doesn’t exactly have a lot of influence with the Elders.
Meanwhile, Bob’s still having a good time teaching the cubs everything he knows about being a bear. In fact, his experience has been so transformative that he’s decided to enroll in correspondence courses to study forestry. But when he goes to the general store to send away for his books, he’s surprised to receive an even frostier reception than usual. Oliver begrudgingly explains that Sam and the Chief saw him talking to the government men and everyone believes they’re all in cahoots since white folks stick to their own kind.
Bob is shocked and appalled by the accusation. He just can’t figure out what’s wrong with “you people”. (Note: making a drinking game out of the number of times the phrase “you people” is tossed around in this movie is not only dangerous, it also doesn’t make the expression any less cringy.) After all, the government is making a very generous offer! They didn’t have to do anything. They could have just come in, torn everything down and been done with it.
Shunned by “you people”, Bob returns to the cabin and gets ready for winter. Remembering that bears need to hibernate (perhaps he saw it in a True-Life Adventure), Bob opens up the root cellar to the three cubs. A few weeks later, Oliver pays a call to deliver Bob’s correspondence school materials. Some of the Taklute have had a change of heart, figuring most white people wouldn’t spend a harsh winter in a crappy cabin if they could help it. But when he finds out Bob still hasn’t set the bears free, Oliver warns him that he’ll lose all that good will if they’re still around in the spring.
When the warmer weather arrives, Bob finally decides to let the bears be bears and fend for themselves. Well, sort of. Recognizing an easy mark when they see one, the bears keep coming back and Bob keeps feeding them. Oliver and Chief Peter drop by with a letter just in time to see one of these visits. Bob tries the old “Hey, it’s not my fault if the bears just happen to come here on their own” excuse but the Chief’s not having it. The curse isn’t lifted and the letter seems to prove it. The Park Service is pulling the trigger on their plan, which means the Taklute have less than a month to pack up and go.
McCarten arrives with his crew and sets to work tearing everything down. But the Natives aren’t giving up their land without a fight. They sabotage the crew and their equipment at every possible opportunity. While McCarten phones his boss for reinforcements, Bob tries to play peacemaker between the two sides. Naturally, it’s Sam Eagle Speaker riling everybody up. Sam’s been looking for an excuse to fight Bob since day one and now they finally have it out.
Sam gets the worst of it but he’s not about to leave well enough alone. He follows Bob back to the cabin and lies in wait with his rifle. He shoots Patch, Bob’s favorite bear cub, and sets the cabin on fire. The blaze soon roars out of control, setting a forest fire visible from the settlement. Both the Taklute and the construction crews set aside their differences and band together to fight the fire. But Bob’s primary concern is Patch and he convinces Oliver to help bring the wounded bear to Chief Peter.
At first, the Chief refuses to help. But when Bob claims that Larch would have wanted Patch to live, the Chief relents under the condition that Bob finally agrees to release the bears once and for all. The Chief’s medicine does the trick and Patch begins to show signs of life. With Patch on the mend, the fire under control and Sam Eagle Speaker permanently banished from the tribe (and the movie…we won’t see him again), everything seems to be all right.
Of course, it isn’t. The commissioner arrives to try to reason with “you people” again but it seems there can be no compromise. No one is allowed to live on national park land except for forest rangers and their families. Bob suggests just making the Taklute rangers but the process isn’t that simple. So the Chief and the other three elders retreat to a sacred spot on the mountain where they plan to fast, meditate and eventually die.
Bob risks pissing the Chief off one last time by barging into their sacred space and violating their sacred rituals. This doesn’t go over well and the Chief essentially orders Bob to get lost and mind his own business. Having lost everything in the fire, Bob is resigned to packing it in but not before fulfilling his promise to free the bears. He takes Patch to search for Scratch and Rusty, who fled the area during the forest fire. Miraculously, he finds them and is finally able to let the bears live their own lives.
After Bob makes his goodbyes, Oliver paddles up the river with the Chief. McCarten actually looked into Bob’s suggestion and found he was able to make the Taklute deputy rangers. And so, the curse is lifted and everything turns out OK. The Taklute are allowed to stay and work on the national park can continue.
Now, based on my description of The Bears And I, you might be thinking the movie should more accurately be titled The Indians And I (or, even less charitably, You People And I). That’s because if you watch The Bears And I on Disney+, which is by far the easiest way to see it currently, the first thing you’ll see is a disclaimer. Not the usual one apologizing for racially insensitive material that has aged poorly. This one warns that the film has been edited for content. And that is not a phrase anyone wants to see at the beginning of a movie.
The Disney+ version carries a listed run time of 83 minutes. Way back in 1999, Anchor Bay Entertainment released The Bears And I on DVD. That version runs 90 minutes. I was curious about those missing seven minutes. So I enlisted my good friend, longtime writing partner and former Digital Bits colleague Todd Doogan to track down the uncensored version of The Bears And I. And we found what happened to all your missing bear footage.
Early on, there are a few quick trims surrounding an elk-bear fight. But later, there are several significant sequences that have been cut entirely. First up, about half an hour into the picture, there’s a cute bit where the bear cubs capsize Bob’s canoe. We don’t get to see what happens after they make it back to shore and encounter a wolverine. The wolverine attacks Patch, then goes after Bob after he comes to the rescue. Bob beats the wolverine off with a stick.
Next, when Bob first brings the bears to the settlement, their arrival draws the attention of Sam Eagle Speaker’s dogs. The scene is still in the Disney+ version but it’s edited to remove shots of the dogs actually attacking the bears and Bob throwing rocks at the dogs to scare them away. Without any of that context, Bob’s snarky comments to the locals just come across as petulant.
When winter arrives, Bob lets us know the bears are now double the size and “double the trouble”. We don’t get to see an example of this when Patch sends a wood cart careening down the mountain with Scratch precariously perched on top of it. As in Charlie The Lonesome Cougar, Disney had no compunction about sending wild animals on dangerous trips down mountains at breakneck speed.
Finally, once the bears emerge from hibernation, Bob heads out in the woods wondering if they’re now big enough to fend off predators. He finds out when they track down a cougar enjoying a carrion feast off a dead elk. The bears send the cougar packing and tuck into the elk themselves.
What’s interesting about all this isn’t that The Bears And I once included some nature footage depicting the less cute-and-cuddly side of nature. This column has included plenty of movies with intense animal action, from the aforementioned Charlie The Lonesome Cougar to Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North to True-Life Adventures like White Wilderness. But Disney has kept most of those titles off its streaming service. So you have to wonder why they would bother going to the effort of editing The Bears And I to include a more family-friendly version on Disney+. The edits themselves are not badly done. If you didn’t know they were there, you probably wouldn’t even notice most of them. But we’re not talking about an A-list title here. If The Bears And I wasn’t on Disney+ at all, how many people would have noticed or been disappointed? Probably fewer than the number of people who actually remember this movie and are disappointed to lose the footage that makes it about bears in the first place.
Even with about 11% fewer bears, The Bears And I remains an odd movie. I really admire the attempt to do something contemporary and meaningful, two things that were not exactly in the Walt Disney wheelhouse in 1974. But Patrick Wayne is not the guy to carry a movie like this. His dad wasn’t necessarily a great actor either but he was an icon. John Wayne could command the screen. Patrick Wayne could not. He seems like a nice enough guy and he’s got movie-star looks but he doesn’t have the charisma to back them up. Later on, he became a frequent celebrity panelist on game shows and even hosted Tic Tac Dough for a stint in 1990. Frankly, that seems more his speed.
There is a good movie to be made here. A Vietnam veteran returns home with a desire to embrace nature and honor his fallen Native American comrade sounds like a compelling story. But Whedon’s script makes it really hard to sympathize with Bob. It would help if we knew more about Bob’s life before the movie begins. I don’t know how much he learned from Larch but I’m guessing the answer is nothing. Bob seems to know even less about Native Americans than he does about bears. Nevertheless, he inserts himself directly into both communities with the supreme confidence of a genuine idiot.
The Bears And I wasn’t a huge hit at the box office. John Denver’s song “Sweet Surrender”, on the other hand, didn’t do too badly. It got as high as No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit number one on the Adult Contemporary chart. Surprisingly, this would be Denver’s only real Disney credit although he enjoyed a long association with Jim Henson’s Muppets in their pre-Disney days and appeared in the 1986 TV-movie The Leftovers on The Disney Sunday Movie.
But another bear movie came out in 1974 and it became one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams was an independent movie released through Sunn Classic Pictures. This was the kind of movie Disney used to make in its sleep. Now a fly-by-night company best known for releasing cheap-o documentaries about UFOs and the paranormal was beating them at their own game. That had to sting a little bit, especially for True-Life Adventure veterans like Winston Hibler. The success of Grizzly Adams proved there was still an audience for family-oriented nature movies. Disney had simply forgotten how to reach them.
VERDICT: A nice try but it’s a Disney Minus.