If you've seen "The Savage Is Loose", you're among the few who can make such a boast. In 1974, at the height of his career, George C. Scott decided to bring this unusual tale to the big screen. He also wanted to prove that an independent film could be successful without being distributed by a major studio. Scott, ever-temperamental, was critical of how studios used Draconian methods to control and often compromise films in the name of making them more commercial. "The Savage Is Loose" was an off-beat tale set in the late 19th century that centers on a husband and wife, John and Maida (Scott and real-life wife Van Devere) who, along with their very young son, David (Lee Montgomery), find themselves shipwrecked on a desert island. The first challenge is to adapt to the conditions and learn to survive but the more crucial challenge comes years later when the son (John David Carlson) comes of age and has a sexual awakening. With his mother the only woman he has ever known, tensions rise as he competes with his own father for her attention. This is hardly the kind of scenario that would have motivated Disney to bid on distribution rights. However, its bold premise was the reason that Scott independently financed and distributed the film himself, thus ensuring that he had total artistic control.
"The Savage Is Loose" is a generally off-beat and engrossing film despite the premise of impending incest that haunts the three main characters. The movie is done on a modest budget and boasts only one impressive set piece: the wreck of the ship that has left the family stranded on this remote island. As the months and years pass, father and son return to the wreck to explore for any lost items that might be of practical value. John makes a pivotal decision relating to how to raise David, informing Maida that they must accept the fact that rescue seems highly unlikely and that in order to ensure that David survives when they are dead, he must be schooled in the art of hunting and self-reliance. For years, John tutors David to act as a "savage" and to not take pity on the animal life found on the island, as he must regard it as his only source of food and nutrition. The strategy works and we next see David as a teenager, already proving his expertise in tracking and killing dangerous wildlife. It's clear, however, that with the passing of the years, there is an unspoken tension within the family. David becomes sullen and rarely communicates with his mother and father. The cause is apparent: with his hormones raging, he has set his sites on his own mother, who he wants to take as his lover. Devoid of having been schooled in the niceties and customs of civilized society, David cannot understand why he can't take engage in this relationship. He only knows that his father is determined to keep him from fulfilling this goal. Consequently, the movie turns into a thriller in the latter section, with father and son forced to engage in a potentially deadly duel of wits and strength, as Maida observes in horror what can only be a tragic conclusion, no matter who prevails.
Scott came up with a distribution plan for the movie that was unique. Under this scenario, Scott would literally sell theaters prints of the movie and split the costs of advertising with them. The plan set off quite a bit of buzz in the industry with studio chiefs predictably calling it unworkable. They were proven right. Without the backing of a major studio with big advertising budgets, Scott was forced to peddle the film piecemeal to theaters, one at a time. Not helping matters was the off-putting subject matter. Although a fair number of theaters did end up showing the movie, it was quickly apparently that the buzz about the film didn't translate into public interest. The scathing reviews helped provide the coup de grace. ((The New York Times gave it an outright pan (click here to read)). The theaters played to mostly empty houses and quickly pulled the film from distribution, thus ending Scott's bold experiment. Scott blamed the fact that the film received an "R" rating for its weak performance but that was an absurd excuse. By 1974, an "R" rating was certainly not a factor that alienated audiences. The pity of it all is that there is much to admire in "The Savage is Loose".
Scott demonstrates admirable talent both in front of and behind the camera. His direction is understated, as is his performance, at least until the final reel when he must do battle with his own beloved son. Van Devere is also excellent, as is Montgomery in the early scenes in which David is an innocent little boy. Things go a bit awry when John David Carson takes over the role. His performance is effective but his look is all wrong. He sports a modern hair style and his language and mannerisms reflect the culture of the year in which the movie was made: 1974. Still, "The Savage is Loose" should not be dismissed because of a perceived "Yuck Factor" due to the impending threat of a mother taken unwilling as her son's lover. There are no villains here and Scott presents the dilemma as tastefully as possible. The very premise is enough to provide ample suspense for the average viewer. Scott makes the most of the picturesque Mexican coastal locations where the movie was shot.
"The Savage is Loose" is not available at this time on home video in America or the UK except for a bootleg version available through Amazon that could easily be misconstrued as an official release. (There had been an official Betamax and VHS release back in the Stone Age of home video). The quality of the transfer is adequate but only makes one desire to see a first-rate studio release. One suspects that convoluted rights problems might be preventing this but someone out there owns the distribution to this film. One hopes that a "real" Blu-ray/DVD release will one day become a reality.