Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Wild Country
In their 2021 book The Boys: A Memoir Of Hollywood And Family, brothers Ron and Clint Howard dedicate the better part of an entire chapter to the summer they spent in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, filming The Wild Country. It was a formative experience for them both and their memories of the summer of ’69 are warm and fond. It’s a good book. You should check it out. But I think it’s fair to say that the Howard Brothers have spent more time thinking about The Wild Country over the past 50 years than most of us. It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it's pretty good. But it’s definitely one of the deeper cuts in this column.
The Wild Country had actually been in development at the studio for quite a while. Disney bought the rights to Ralph Moody’s book Little Britches, the first in a popular series of autobiographical stories, back in the late 1950s. Now this is pure conjecture on my part, so don’t sic Leonard Maltin on me if I’m wrong. But at that time, The Wild Country almost certainly would have been being developed as a vehicle for Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. The personalities of and dynamic between brothers Virgil and Andy Tanner is exactly like roles played by Kirk and Corcoran in Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and many others. But Kirk started to be on the outs with the studio around the time he and Corcoran made Bon Voyage! in 1961. Between that and the disappointing reception to the Old Yeller sequel, Savage Sam, it’s little wonder that The Wild Country ended up on the shelf.
Producer Ron Miller dusted off Moody’s book and brought on board a whole bunch of TV people. Screenwriters Calvin Clements Jr. and Paul Savage had both worked on the TV western Gunsmoke, as had director Robert Totten. Of course, Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons, so odds are everybody involved with The Wild Country worked on Gunsmoke sooner or later in some capacity.
Clements later wrote a few Wonderful World Of Disney episodes, including Justin Morgan Had A Horse and The Flight Of The Grey Wolf. He was later a writer and producer on such series as Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Matt Houston and Walker, Texas Ranger. Savage also continued to work in television on shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard and Murder, She Wrote. He returned to the studio years later writing an installment of the late 80s revival of Davy Crockett for The Magical World Of Disney.
As for Robert Totten, he had directed dozens of TV episodes but few feature films. He’d made an independent war movie in 1963 called The Quick And The Dead that starred Victor French and Star Trek fixture Majel Barrett. His next movie was Death Of A Gunfighter starring Richard Widmark. Widmark hated Totten and had him fired, bringing in Don Siegel to finish the picture. Siegel refused to put his name on it, since Totten only had about a week left to shoot when he was let go. But Totten didn’t want his name on it, either, so Death Of A Gunfighter became the first movie directed by the pseudonymous Allen Smithee.
In The Boys, Ron Howard describes Totten as a Peckinpah-like figure who aspired to make tough, independent movies but never quite got the breaks he needed. For Disney, he’d already made a couple of TV two-parters like Ride A Northbound Horse and he’d do a couple more after The Wild Country, including The Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. He was also a bit of a mentor to young Ronny, who even then wanted to be a director. Totten was encouraging and took the time to explain his methodology to Howard, who was 15 at the time. Howard says Totten was the first director who didn’t treat him like a kid. That’s a lot better legacy than simply being remembered as the original Allen Smithee.
The artist formerly known as Ronny Howard was squarely in the awkward teen years of child stardom in the summer of ’69. In 1967, Howard made his Disney debut in A Boy Called Nuthin’, a two-parter for Wonderful World Of Color. The Andy Griffith Show went off the air in 1968. Since then, he’d popped up in a few guest spots on shows like (surprise, surprise) Gunsmoke and his little brother Clint’s show, Gentle Ben. But The Wild Country was his highest profile project since the Opie days.
Clint Howard first made his way to Disney via animation. He’d been the voice of Roo in the Winnie The Pooh shorts and the young elephant in The Jungle Book. This wasn’t the first time Clint and Ron had worked together but I believe it is the first and possibly only time they played brothers on-screen. Their dad, Rance Howard, also appears in The Wild Country as a cowhand on the bad guy’s ranch.
The boys’ on-screen father was played by Steve Forrest, the thick-haired, mustachioed single father from Rascal. When I wrote that column, I was under the impression that Forrest only made one Disney feature, which just goes to show how far under the radar this film has flown. I’d clocked the title on Forrest’s filmography but had assumed The Wild Country was a TV production. Anyway, I like Forrest, so I’m glad to see him back. I’m pretty sure this really will be Forrest’s only other appearance in this column but I’ve been wrong before.
The Wild Country was Vera Miles’ fourth Disney movie, following A Tiger Walks, Those Calloways and Follow Me, Boys! She’d already appeared as Clint’s mom in Gentle Giant, the 1967 movie that begat Gentle Ben. Miles’ concerned mom roles for Disney were all fairly similar and pretty thankless. Nevertheless, she must have enjoyed working for the studio. We’ll be seeing her a couple more times.
We’ve seen rugged tales of the frontier in this column before and you can rest assured we’ll be seeing them again. In its broad strokes, The Wild Country isn’t too dissimilar from earlier Disney westerns. The Tanner family arrives in Wyoming full of hope for the future, having left Pittsburgh for reasons that are never made entirely clear but are apparently irreversible. Jim Tanner (Forrest) has purchased a farm at a rock-bottom price from his fast-talking cousin Phil (Dub Taylor, last seen here in The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin). The Tanners don’t know a whole lot about farming but they’re determined to make it work.
They’re in for a rude awakening when they arrive at the property to discover that their fixer-upper farm needs a lot more fixer-uppering than Cousin Phil let on. Their second surprise is finding a trapper named Thompson (Jack Elam, making his first Disney western feature after the crime comedy Never A Dull Moment, although he’d appeared on a few episodes of Zorro) and his pet wolf sleeping in their house. Thompson roams the country with his Indian buddy, Two Dog (Frank DeKova, last seen impersonating a Native American in Those Calloways), and they’ll prove helpful in the months ahead.
Thompson warns Jim to head back to Pittsburgh now and save his family the trouble of trying to work this land. The Tanners aren’t the first people to work this farm. The problem is that all the water comes from the land above owned by a real piece of work named Ab Cross (Morgan Woodward, not seen around these parts since making his film debut in The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho, The Wagons!). Even though Jim’s deed plainly states that he’s entitled to all the water above a certain mark on Ab’s dam, he routinely shuts off the supply come summer.
After Ab’s cattle trespasses on to the Tanner farm and destroys Kate’s garden, Jim and Virgil decide to pay a neighborly call on Ab and work things out in a civilized manner. When Jim threatens to get the law involved, Ab and his gang of roughnecks laugh in his face. Seems there ain’t no law in Jackson’s Hole, a fact that local shopkeeper Jensen (Karl Swenson) later backs up. Since the nearest marshal is in Cheyenne, Jim writes him a letter and bides his time.
This was not the outcome Ab was hoping for. When he and the boys run into the Tanners at the general store, Ab tries to get Jim to settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Jim doesn’t want to get sucked into a fight in front of his wife and kids but Ab leaves him no choice. It’s a brutal fight, especially by Disney standards, and even though both men are left reeling, Ab gets the worst of it. Humiliated in front of his men, Ab shuts off the water supply completely.
Jim decides to ride to Cheyenne himself but before he can go, Virgil sneaks up to Ab’s property and tries to unblock the dam. Jim rides after him, preferring to let the law run its slow, natural course. But when Ab finds the Tanners trespassing on his dam, he comes out firing, shooting Jim in the leg.
Temporarily beaten, the Tanners return home so Jim can recover. But it isn’t long before a tornado tears through, devastating the farm and wiping out what little progress the Tanners have made. This is one calamity too many for Kate, who finally decides enough is enough. The family is going back to Pennsylvania. Jim lets her have her say, then quietly but firmly takes her aside to let her know they’re not going anywhere. I’m sure this is meant to come across as a positive message about the resilience of family but given everything that’s happened, it comes across as borderline abusive.
While Jim is reminding Kate who wears the pants, the Marshal finally shows up (and he’s played by Larry D. Mann, probably best known as the voice of Yukon Cornelius in the Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer!). They head on up to Ab’s place, who petulantly agrees to get the water flowing again. That should be the end of it but because Ab Cross is such an unrepentant asshole, you know the Tanners aren’t out of the woods yet, right?
That night, the Tanners are celebrating their victory when Andy goes outside to find their barn in flames. While they scramble to put out the fire, Ab skulks out from the shadows and shoots Jim again! In the back! Kate wallops him with a two by four and does her best to fend him off. But just as Ab is about to finish Jim off, Virgil emerges from the house with a rifle and kills Ab. The next day, Ab’s men come to collect the body and, with much apologetic hand-wringing, admit their boss went a smidge too far. They vow to pitch in and get the Tanners back on their feet.
Considering that The Wild Country evokes memories of several earlier Disney westerns, none of which were all that great to begin with, it’s a little surprising that this movie works as well as it does. Clint Howard’s character, Andy, is very much cut from the Kevin Corcoran cloth. He spends most of the movie attempting to trap various animals, including a skunk, a porcupine and a hawk, to keep as pets, all of which he names Ralph. But Clint’s not as uncontrollably manic as Kevin was and his antics don’t overshadow the rest of the movie. He’s also effective in dramatic scenes, like when he breaks down over the prospect of his mom heading back to Pittsburgh.
The movie’s biggest problem, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, is that it feels more like an extended episode of a TV show than a movie. Maybe it’s the lingering influence of all the Gunsmoke alumni. Part of that is the very episodic story. There’s another subplot about Virgil accidentally shooting at a wild horse that turns out to be pregnant. He misses her but she injures herself in a fall. Thompson and Two Dog are summoned to help deliver the filly (which is actually shown on camera), who Andy of course names Ralph. The whole sequence feels like a Very Special Episode of The Wild Country.
The movie might feel more cinematic if Disney treated it with more respect. The Wild Country is not currently available on Disney+ and the only way you can see it at all is in an old-school TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Frank Phillips seems to do a lovely job capturing the Wyoming landscape. It’d be nice if we could actually see his work the way he intended it to be shown.
Robert Totten may never have become the next Sam Peckinpah but he knows his way around a camera and stacks his cast with great character actors from the golden age of westerns. Dub Taylor is a lot of fun in his small role and it’s always a treat to see Jack Elam. Morgan Woodward is eminently hissable as the bad guy. Whenever one of these old pros is on the screen, which is most of the time, the movie always has something fun to offer.
The weakest link in the cast is probably Ronny Howard. At this point in his career, he had a tendency to go big at the slightest provocation. Totten reels him in when it counts, like in the tense climax, but there are still plenty of moments where you wish he’d dial it back a notch or three. Kurt Russell was a little too old to play Virgil in 1970 but if the movie had been made a few years earlier, he’d have been better suited to the role.
Interestingly enough, Howard admits in The Boys that he was hoping the movie would be a flop before it premiered. He was actively trying to distance himself from his goody-two-shoes Opie Taylor image and he knew that The Wild Country would only cement it. As it happens, Howard got his wish. The Wild Country received some decent reviews but barely made a dent at the box office.
The same year he filmed The Wild Country, Ron Howard also performed a voice on the record The Story And Song From The Haunted Mansion, released to coincide with the opening of the Disneyland attraction. Later in 1970, he appeared in the boy and his dog drama Smoke, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney. And for a while, that seemed to mark the end of his association with the studio. A few years later, George Lucas cast him in American Graffiti and from there, he went on to Happy Days. Howard would eventually return to Disney as a director and his return launched a whole new era for the studio. But it’s a little surprising we won’t be seeing Ron Howard the actor in this column again. Clint, on the other hand, will be back.
VERDICT: Disney Plus