I was about the same age as Sam, the main character in ‘My Side of the Mountain’, when I first saw this film. I was so in awe of the kid going off on his own to live in the mountains to do science experiments. Sam’s adventure reignited my enthusiasm for camping and started my long time love with science. I also briefly entertained the idea of capturing and training a falcon. The movie is so imprinted in my head that when I rewatched it recently I remembered every scene. Even 44 years since it was made, this love letter to a boy’s adventure and love of nature holds up and I would gladly show it to any 13 year old today.
My Side of the Mountain was released in 1969 and is based on a 1959 young adult novel by author Jean Craighead George. The story is about Sam, played by Ted Eccles, who seems more mature than his 13 years. He lives in the city of Toronto Ontario. One day he learns his father has to cancel a planned summer trip to the mountains due to his work. Instead of crying about it, Sam travels by bus, on his own, to a mountain area in Quebec. Sam admires Henry David Thoreau and like Thoreau believes that to know nature one must live in nature. Traveling with Sam is his pet racoon Gus.
Sam finds a good area to do his algae experiments and then finds an old hollowed out tree trunk. He sets up home inside the tree and starts his experiments which he records in a daily diary.
Another major plot point is when Sam captures a Peregrine Falcon chick and trains it to hunt. He names the falcon Frightful. Of course today this would be frowned upon since you wouldn’t want to steal a chick from it’s mother and Peregrine Falcons were endangered back in the 1960’s.
The great Theodore Bikel plays a folk singing drifter named Bando, who meets Sam in the woods and it isn’t as creepy as it would be today. Sam also befriends Miss Turner, played by Tudi Wiggins, the librarian in a nearby town. There is also a scene where Sam travels into town, wearing his deer skin shirt, and carrying Gus and they get made fun by some local boys.
Eventually, on Christmas Day, after almost getting buried alive during a snow storm, Sam is convinced by Bando and Miss Turner to return home. Sam comes to the decision on his own by declaring he had done all the experiments he could do but he also was tired of being alone.
Of course the movie oversimplifies survival living, Sam just happens to find an oak tree stump where he can add water to tan his deer skin? But Sam’s adventure is the dream of just about every 13 year old boy. They want to go out on their own and live in the woods, catch their own food, and do science experiments or train a falcon. The real work to do all that isn’t dealt with in the film which is why it isn’t a documentry.
I did notice one groaner in the dialog. This passage is said near the end of the film when winter has arrived:
Sam: The deer have pressed in all around me. They’re hungry. They come into the hemlock grove to hide and sleep for the day. They manage the snow so well on their slender hooves. If I was to know that a million years from today, my children’s children were to live as I am living in these mountains, I would marry me a wife with slender feet and begin immediately to breed a race with hooves. So that the mountain children of the future might run through the snows and meadows and mountains and marshes as easily as the deer. I must be pretty lonely to be having such daydreams. I guess I am.
What kind of 13 year old talks like that??? But the rest of the script was fine in general.
This film reignited my enthusiasm for camping. I was a Boy Scout at the time so this was right in my wheelhouse. Unlike Sam, I had some actual training like how to start a fire with flint and steel for example. The film also stoked my passion for nature and science. I remember getting my first chemistry set around this time and I would do all kinds of experiments and wished I had a better microscope like the one in school with the electric light source. I loved getting all kinds of children’s science kits like a homemade short wave radio.
Although I didn’t read Thoreau until high school, I’ve always admired people who can live simply especially artists and writers. My personal philosophy today is close to what Thoreau talked about in his book Walden. I think nature is very important and self-sufficiency is a goal we all should attain.
In a way, “My Side of the Mountain” was my Walden and Sam was my Thoreau.