There are many Western films about heroic settlers withstanding the brutal nature of the frontier, and even more films about brave lawmen facing down a variety of nefarious outlaws, yet with Paramount Pictures’ The Night of the Grizzly we not only get a movie about a retired lawman facing off against a nefarious bounty hunter but a treacherous grizzly bear on a murderous rampage as well, could this film be as exciting as it sounds?
The plot of this particular Western deals with Big Jim Cole (Clint Walker), a former sheriff inheriting a ranch near the town of Hope, Wyoming, along with his wife Angela (Martha Hyer), their son Charlie (Kevin Brodie), a cute-as-a-button toddler named Gypsy (Victoria Paige Meyerink), his niece Meg (Candy Moore) and Jim’s former Deputy, Sam (Don Haggerty), who vies for the title of “town character” over local layabout and town drunk Hank (Jack Elam). Things get off to a rocky start when Jim learns that there is a $675 mortgage on the property, which pretty much wipes out the Cole family life savings, but just when that is settled, local rancher Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn) announces his desire for the property, hoping to reclaim what he lost in a poker game to Jim’s late uncle. This is so that he can leave it for his two sons Tad (Ron Ely) and Cal (Sammy Jackson) but Big Jim isn’t interested in selling his ranch to anybody and thus we get the key dramatic element to this movie, with Jed trying to get Jim to default on his mortgage so that he can get his hands on that land, and you thought this movie was about a bear?
It’s shortly after settling in at the ranch that Jim learns of a threat that could be even more dangerous than a greedy Keenan Wynn, the town’s banker (Regis Toomey) stops by the ranch to warn him of a giant grizzly bear called Satan, who is notorious for invading ranches and killing livestock just for the fun of it “If that beast ain’t Lucifer in person he’s sure his first cousin. He’s got the heart of a cougar and he can out-think any man.” And before you can say “Jellystone Park” Satan makes an appearance and Jim’s breeding ox is killed, leaving our poor hero with a bunch of newly purchased cows but no living stud. Much of this film is about the drama surrounding Cole’s ability to stay solvent, with machinations of the villainous Jed ever in the wings, but with a movie called The Night of the Grizzly a viewer may have expected more of a “Man against Nature” rather than “Man Against Bank Loan” and though we do get to see Clint Walker tracking the Grizzly through the forest there’s not a lot of man on bear action in this film, this is not to say we don’t get a different kind of “bare” when it comes, Clint Walker as it should be noted that a good way to grade a Clint Walker film is to gauge how long it takes for him to remove his shirt to show off his impressive pecs.
• Big Jim Cole tells his wife “We’re going to raise us some fine cattle, and maybe ten or twelve more kids” which looks to me like the “little woman” has the bigger job on this ranch.
• Keenan Wynn’s villainous Ted Curry is a page right out of his turn in Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor.
• When warned about the killer Grizzly, Big Jim responds that “A Winchester .44-40 ought to take care of him” but that is far too light of a gun to be reliable against an animal the size of a Grizzly. I guess Big Jim is more used to hunting two-legged killers rather than the four-legged varieties.
• Ron Ely is mostly known for playing Tarzan on television, so this is an interesting role for him as he rarely played the heavy and he did quite well in this outing.
• Director Joseph Pevney later helmed another project with a furry menace, that one being “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original Star Trek.
This movie is definitely middle of the road when it comes to Westerns, certainly not bad just not all that engaging, and even the later introduction of Cass Dowdy (Leo Gordon), a disgraced bounty hunter from Jim’s past, wasn’t enough to raise the stakes above mild interest. And what exactly is Dowdy’s deal, well he wants revenge for being locked up by Jim for killing an innocent man, and he becomes the third act’s antagonist as he and Jim battle it out over who can kill the bear and get the reward money, needless to say, this all plays out pretty much as expected. The only real moments in this film that raised the entertainment value above subpar is those dealing with interactions between six-year-old Victoria Paige Meyerink and Jack Elam as those two made a surprisingly great comedy duo and they steal every scene they are in. Overall, The Night of the Grizzly is a title that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, it’s more about family drama than killer Grizzlies, and while the cast is filled with notable character actors the plot is rather tired and frivolous, making the end result less than gripping.
Note: If you want to watch a fun movie about a rampaging killer bear check out William Girdler’s Grizzly, which was one of the best Jaws rip-offs of the day.
The Night of the Grizzly (1966)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
Director Joseph Pevney was mostly known for this television work, which he was quite good at, and that The Night of the Grizzly was his filmic swan song is no surprise as it felt more like a made-for-television Disney movie rather than a theatrically released Western adventure.