Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Boys Look Tall, Men Stunted

Cleveland Press November 29, 1971

There have been several nature documentaries lately that I have sat through with more patience than they deserved. They generally chronicled the great lengths to which some hunter-photographer went to bring back the head of a rare mountain sheep.

Sometimes the killing was commented upon with the pious sentiment that the animal would not have lived more than another year or two anyway. How the animal felt about this was not noted.

This is by way of introduction to a movie called "Bless the Beasts and Children" which is not a documentary and which shows some concern for the hunted rather than the hunter.

The movie is about a group of boys who set out to free a herd of buffalo on the eve of a shoot-out in which riflemen are allowed to shoot down the penned-up animals.

The picture is produced and directed by Stanley Kramer who likes to deal with social themes in a commercial manner and who is therefore frequently put down for his efforts. If his movies were less commercial they might be more popular with his critics.

"Bless the Beasts and Children" is far from being a perfect movie. It is flawed, contrived and heavy with symbolism. But its heart is in the right place. It says something, not only about killing dumb animals but about our sense of values.

The movie is about six boys, members of well-to-do families, who share the same cabin in a western summer camp -- the kind that advertises: "Send us the boy. We send you a cowboy."

The boys are misfits. Among them are a bed-wetter, a budding delinquent who steals cars for kicks, a pair of sibling rivals (the young one carries a security pillow and the older one bangs his head against the wall in frustration). Another boy is an over-protected fat comic who is the son of a fat comic. Another lives with his divorced mother who doesn't want him.

Having witnessed the buffalo being shot down by riflemen who pay a fee to enter the pens with their weapons they decide to set the remaining animals free.

The boys sneak out of camp that night and start their cross-country trek by horse, foot and stolen auto.

It's a strange odyssey, made stranger by the boys themselves. As each boy comes into the foreground for a moment of his own, the movie does a flashback to reveal the boy's background, to explain why he is the way he is.

It's all fairly heavy-handed and over-simplified, a world peopled by some pretty idiotic adults -- not that the world is lacking in them, but the movie is awfully unbalanced. Everyone, youths and adults alike, slip into caricatures too easily.

Why the boys should move with such burning concern is not satisfactorily explained. Oh, a number of times the movie hits hard at the fact that both the boys and the buffalo are "dings" -- the unwanted, useless, unneeded of the world.

In the picture's favor is an avoidance of either cloying sentimentality or cute-kid humor. Some of the humor is fairly raucous.

Despite the artificiality of the characters and the obscure motivation, we are fairly caught up in their concern and how they are appalled by the crazy lack of values.

So caught up are we that the final ironies work to a horrifying degree -- the unwillingness of the animals to be set free and the willingness of thwarted riflemen to turn their weapons on humans when deprived of their animal targets.