I still recall the first Earth Day of 1970. I was practice teaching at Springdale High School in NW Arkansas. After the lst period intercom announcements honored the special day, I felt compelled to comment on Eric Sevareid’s CBS editorial the evening before, in which he compared the earth to Apollo 13. We had just gotten the crippled Apollo 13 home safely, but like that ship, the earth was also sailing through space, running short of drinkable water and breathable air. For the rest of the day, my supervising teacher began each class with, “Mr. Offutt, (your) commentary on Earth Day, please.”
1. Centennial (1979) with Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Richard Crenna, Clift DeYoung, Lynn Redgrave, Brian Keith, Andy Griffith, Robert Vaughn, Dennis Weaver, and many others. This may be the only miniseries or film to ever do justice to a James A. Michener novel. It consists of twelve episodes containing a total of twenty-one hours. If you were to watch one a month you would be certain to see at least one show each month that was worth seeing for an entire year.
Mr. Michener himself introduces this epic production and explains his reason for writing the novel: “…to ask us, you and me, if we are aware of what is happening right now to this land we love, this earth we depend upon for life.” He admits, “It is a big story about the people who helped make this country what it is and the land that makes the people what they are. And it is a story about time – not just as a record but also a reminder: A reminder that during the few years allotted to each of us, we are the guardians of the earth; we are at once the custodians of our heritage and the caretakers of our future.”
Robert Conrad appears in the first two episodes and dominates the rest of the series in the pivotal role of Pasquinel, a fur trader from Quebec. Richard Chamberlain (a.k.a. “Mr. Miniseries”) plays Alexander McKeag, the Scot who teamed with Pasquinel and later operated a trading post. Michael Ansara is Lame Beaver, the Arapaho who brought horses to his people. Barbara Carrera plays Clay Basket, who marries Pasquinel and later marries McKeag. Gregory Harrison is Levi Zendt, the Mennonite who moved west and founded the town that Michener called Centennial, CO. Chad Everett appears as Maxwell Mercy, the army captain sent to make peace with the Indians. Timothy Dalton plays Oliver Secombe, who founds a ranch for British investors. Dennis Weaver is R. J. Poteet, the trail boss who delivers the cattle to Secombe. William Atherton plays the adult Jim Lloyd, who arrived with the cattle drive at the age of 15 and eventually became the owner of the Venneford Ranch. Alex Karras is Hans Brumbaugh, the Russian who used irrigation to farm potatoes and sugar beets. Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton, and young Doug McKeon play the Wendells, actors who commit a murder. Brian Keith is Sheriff Axel Dumire, who is determined to prove the Wendells guilty. And many more.
David Janssen narrates this monumental story, and we don’t learn why until the last episode. He plays Paul Garrett, an environmentalist who is the current owner of the Venneford Ranch and a descendent of Pasquinel. Colorado recently created the office of Commissioner of Resources and Priorities. The man who was likely to be elected to that office was Morgan Wendell (Robert Vaughn) who was just as unscrupulous as his father and grandparents. Knowing that Wendell will side with development over preservation, Paul Garrett decides to run against him. His grandmother, Charlotte Lloyd (Lynn Redgrave), had told him he would one day fight this “war.” It would be a “war” to save the land – the caretakers vs. the takers.
2. In the Blood (1989) with Tyssen Butler, Robin Hurt, and R. L. Wilson: You know you are in for a real treat the moment the music begins in this little-known gem. Music from this film on a CD would be greatly appreciated. This is a different type of conservation film in that it emphasizes the importance of regulated hunting in the preservation of the world’s wildlife. Whether you agree with that premise or not, this one is worth a watch.
George Butler put together an African hunting safari consisting of relatives or admirers of Theodore Roosevelt. For the adventure, they even re-fitted TR’s “Big Stick,” reputedly the world’s most valuable rifle. Mr. Butler’s young son Tyssen narrates and explains, “We are on a safari in search of the past in search of the future.”
With the loss of habitat and decline of wildlife populations, he acknowledges the dilemma: “Should we hunt or is it one of the things we have lost in the 20th century?” Witnessing hyenas devouring a zebra, Tyssen “learned no animal in Africa dies of old age.” Robin Hurt, the primary hunter-guide, led one the safari’s two groups in quest of an aged water buffalo. He explained, “If you shoot the old bulls, you don’t affect the population at all. …The object of the hunter is to end the hunt with one shot – a moment of sadness and respect for a lost life.” Robin quoted a Spanish hunter: “One kills in order to have hunted; one does not hunt in order to have killed.
The second hunting party included Larry Wilson, an authority on guns – if you want to know about the authenticity of a particular gun, you ask him. This group chooses to go after a specific crocodile that has been feeding on a local village’s cattle, their livelihood. Tyssen calls their stakeout “the fast-food joint” because the croc enjoys 200 lbs. of free meat while the group waits 19 days behind a camouflaged barrier watching their bait. Do Greg and Larry bag their prey or do they get “skunked by the croc”?
As long as licensed, responsible hunting continues, areas like the Moyowasi Game Reserve will always be there. We learn how hunting is important in the remaining wilderness areas of Africa. It is the income from hunters that keeps these areas viable. The game fees in the form of licenses create huge returns for the governments: Hunting safaris produce one half the income for Tanzania. Some of this money finances the game departments that keep poaching under some kind of control. Robin Hurt fears that elephants will become extinct within a generation: “Every time someone purchases ivory, they are writing an elephant’s death warrant.”
(Today we certainly have reason for concern. The Safari Club International offers an award for killing the “Africa Big Five” which includes elephants (!), lions (!), and rhinos (!). It offers 29 different awards; and to get them all, a member must kill 322 animals. And, according to the Humane Society of the U.S., they use very questionable methods in doing so. On July 1, 2015, an American dentist Walter Palmer, a recreational big game hunter, killed the 13-year-old Cecil the Lion. Cecil was a major attraction in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. He had a GPS tracking collar and was being studied by scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University.)
As President Roosevelt took his son Kermit on a safari in 1909, George Butler took Tyssen in 1989; and this marvelous film is the result. After all the others leave, Tyssen stays on with the master, Robin Hurt, to hunt his own big game – an elderly buffalo. We even get to see Tyssen receive a “blooding” after his tearful triumph.
Fittingly, it is Theodore Roosevelt who is given the last words: “I hope that from now on, hunters will stand foremost in working for the preservation of the wildlife – for the good of their children and their children’s children.”
3. Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home (1986) with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Michelle Nichols, Brock Peters, and Catherine Hicks. This is not only the best of the six Star Trek movies, it is certainly among the best of all the “save the whales” films or documentaries ever made.
Today, whale hunting is still practiced by some countries, and mysterious whale strandings are also becoming commonplace. Environmentalists are tried to persuade the Bush-Cheney administration to limit the navy’s sonar tests to areas that are not detrimental to whales. Since no one in the administration seemed to care, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations took the matter to the courts. Earthjustice has a current lawsuit to stop the Navy’s five-year sonar plan that was approved in 2013. In 1986, the year this movie was filmed, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling. However, Japan immediately began its “scientific whaling program,” which probably only disguises commercial hunting. Norway resumed hunting minke whales in 1993, and now they are endangered. Iceland resumed hunting minke and endangered fin whales. It has been nearly 30 years since this Star Trek episode hit the big screen, and some countries seem to have learned nothing.
In the fourth big screen installment of the classic TV series, a probe from a distant galaxy approaches earth and begins to vaporize the oceans and thereby destroy the atmosphere. Mr. Spock concludes that the probe is signaling to the humpback whale, which by that time had been hunted to extinction on earth and could therefore not answer the probe.
Admiral Kirk concurs, so the crew slingshots around the sun to travel back in time to San Francisco of 1986 to find some humpback whales to take back to the 23rd century so they could respond to the alien visitor. Simple, huh? Fortunately, because of the destruction of the Enterprise, they are flying a Klingon vessel that has a cloaking device, so the ship can be invisible on 20th century earth.
An added attraction is Catherine Hicks, who may be recognized today as the mother of the somewhat dysfunctional family on the WB’s Seventh Heaven. Ms. Hicks plays a marine biologist who happens to have two whales named George and Gracie (from radio and television’s Burns and Allen), and those whales are about to be returned to the sea to take their chances against whale hunters.
Just about every scene in this movie is a sheer pleasure. So sit back and watch as the Star Trek crew save our planet from our own stupidity. We need them now!
4. On the Beach (1959) with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. What a cast! Producer-director Stanley Kramer was disappointed this movie was not a box-office hit. He thought its failure may have been because it was over-hyped in the ads: “If you never see another motion picture in your life, you must see On the Beach.” That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Mr. Kramer had very realistically filmed Nevil Shute’s novel about how a nuclear war had ended human life on earth. That is downright depressing, and everyone knew what this movie was about. Also, being thoughtful, interesting, and relevant doesn’t attract large audiences anyway.
What movie-goers did not realize was how entertaining the film actually was, even with its inevitable depressing conclusion. Ernest Gold’s gorgeous music score is liberally saturated with Australia’s “Waltzing Matilda.” We even get to hear the song itself in its entirety while Peck kisses Gardner and the camera is swinging 360 degrees around them – beautiful and unforgettable. Anyone who loves great photography and appreciates performances from some of the best in the business could not help but love this movie, regardless of its topic.
The setting is Australia 1964, only five years from when the film was made. World War III is already over and the radiation is drifting across the globe as fast as the winds will carry it. U.S. naval commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Peck) brings his submarine to the only civilized place where he knows human life still survives. Everyone in Australia knows it is only a matter of time before the winds bring the radiation to them.
[Following this 1959 movie came the building of the Berlin Wall (1961) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). After being scared out of our wits that the Cold War could ultimately turn hot, several nations of the world agreed to the Partial Test-Ban Treaty (1963).]
The chemistry between Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner is reason enough to see this film. She plays Moira, the woman asked to be the commander’s date at a party. They hit it off pretty well, but she soon realizes that he is getting her mixed up with his wife. He even speaks of his wife and two sons as though they were still alive in Connecticut.
Fred Astaire adds extra interest. Mr. Astaire appears in his first dramatic role. He neither sings nor dances, and he is just fine as the scientist who accompanies the submarine mission to see if the Arctic air has begun to clear and cool.
Anthony Perkins plays an Aussie lieutenant who is also assigned to the Arctic mission. He has a wife and baby and fears the radiation may arrive before he gets back home.
There are many unforgettable scenes: The views through the periscope of the streets of San Francisco – there is no destruction, but there are no people; The search in San Diego for whoever keeps sending radio signals that make no sense; The devastating auto race in which few of the drivers care whether they live or die; The long lines of people waiting for their ration of sleeping pills so they can end their lives without enduring the agony of radiation disease; Ava Gardner watching Peck’s submarine head home because his crewmen want to die beside the bodies of their relatives; The progressively dwindling crowds in front of the church until there is no one there – all that remains is the banner that hangs in front in front of the church: “There’s still time, brother.”
by David Offutt, April 2006 (updated March 2015)