Thursday 14 November 2013

Crying skunk… A Cry in the Wilderness (1974)

This one goes back to seventies Saturday evenings when there wasn’t much to watch between Sports Report on Radio 2 and Match of the Day on BBC1… not that we were easily pleased, just more willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

I have fond young-teen memories of being fascinated by A Cry in the Wilderness, its unusual premise, variety of jeopardies and the prettiness of Joanna Pettet.

Decades down the line – I don’t think I’ve seen this since it was broadcast – it doesn’t fare quite so well: a medium budget made for TV movie with some odd casting and unfathomable characters, very much like something The Simpsons would spoof - in fact, how much is Homer really based on George?

George Kennedy, the model for Homer Simpson?

Based on Gilbert Wright’s novel, Madman’s Chain, the story had already been made into an half hour adventure and was here expanded/padded out to feature length.

Sam Hadley (George Kennedy) had returned to the backwoods of his childhood bringing his city wife Delda (Joanna Pettet) and their young son Gus (Lee H. Montgomery). Things seem to be going well in this simpler way of life but they seem a bit short on the basics… motor vehicles, gasoline, phones and so on as well as, crucially, normal and friendly neighbours!

Sam and Gus merrily pull up trees as they busy themselves making the farm ready for cultivation. Sam and Delda go over their decision to make a break for the country life and this sophisticated city girl seems happy enough to have left friends and fashion behind.

All seems well until Sam is bitten by a skunk and becomes convinced that the critter is the same rabid animal they saw a few days earlier. Aware of the mental as well as physical symptoms rabies can bring Sam chains himself to a post in their barn: he is convinced he will turn into a raging, delusional psychopath in much the same way as his uncle had after a similar incident (yeah, I know…).

Sam persuades a shocked Delda to set off to get help… in a car without that much petrol and with no map (no maps!? Are they mad?!) just vague directions… meanwhile Gus is to look after his dad but to ignore everything he says or does apart from the initial instruction part…

As rabid-Dad and confused son bond, Delda finds driving difficult, almost going off the road, unsure of her directions and with evidentially poor clutch control. She encounters a variety of wild and frankly dysfunctional locals who either ignore her, mislead or otherwise try to exploit her… you can see why Sam was so keen to get back to living with simple, honest country folk…

Meanwhile, Sam becomes obsessed with their creek… he knows that irrational fear of water is one of the first signs of rabid madness and yet he can’t help noticing that the water level has gone down when it should have gone up following recent rain… He’s convinced that there’s a blockage upstream and that a flood will come once the rain comes again.

But Gus has been too obedient and taken his father’s word; he won’t listen and set him free…

Meanwhile on Delda’s travels we learn of the storms and localised flooding elsewhere: seems the threat is real alright. Yet she has more than enough problems of her own… the car runs out of gas and she has to trade her wedding ring for a clapped out old truck from a local misanthrope. A few miles down the road, his barmy sons arrive to re-possess the vehicle… Delda runs them off the road and runs… Southern in-hospitality.

But there’s more to come as the husband of a couple who had initially refused to help (Roy Poole), catches up with her with only one thing on his mind… as he comes on strong, Delda clambers out of the car into the rain telling him she’s had enough and he can do what he wants. Something snaps and the would-be rapist suddenly turns into a Good Samaritan, risking life and car in driving her through dangerous roads/rivers, past dangerously-dangling electric cables to the nearest town…

But, what of Sam and Gus: will father be able to persuade son that there is actually a genuine reason to fear the water or will they both be swept away in the now inevitable deluge?

 When the levee breaks

Spoilers… It’s the next morning and the eerie calm after the storm of the night before. Delda flies overhead in a rescue helicopter, trying to locate the remains of her house (no maps!). It seems hopeless as the ‘copter reaches its range but suddenly she sees Gus and seconds later, Sam emerges looking surprisingly un-rabid… Family saved, love confirmed and renewed determination to live the country life in spite of the wildlife, extreme weather and even extremer neighbours…

Joanna Pettet
Dusty verdict: A Cry in the Wilderness is still an entertaining adventure even allowing for holes in the plot and a narrative patently desperate to generate jeopardy and story-stretch. Joanna Pettet does well and is as good-looking as I always thought. She is not well cast though and makes an unlikely partner for big George Kennedy – he’s a little too old (49), solid and rugged, whilst she’s a little too young (32), slim and pretty. Kennedy is good though, he always was a good man for a crisis and gives his all to make this believable… it’s just not quite enough.

But see it for yourself, the DVD is available for small change here.

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