Air Date: Nov. 12, 1974 (ABC)
Production Companies: Kind Strangers Company, Cinemation Industries
Running Time: 73 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Clyde Ware
Directed by: Burt Kennedy
Cast: Stacy Keach, Samantha Eggar, John Savage, Robby Benson
Rating: 6 vintage televisions (out of 10)
All the Kind Strangers (1974) starts incredibly strong and, sustained by a terrific performance from Stacy Keach, feels at times more like a theatrical film than it does a television movie. However, by the time John Savage is taking a contemplative stroll in the woods with a painful song by Robby Benson playing in the background, it’s lost all the good will it’s built.
Keach plays Jimmy Wheeler, a photojournalist travelling through Tennessee on his way from New York City to Los Angeles. When he sees a young boy on the road carrying a heavy grocery bag, he becomes one of the titular “kind strangers” and offers him a ride. The boy, Gilbert (Tim Parkison), leads him deep into the woods to an isolated house.
Here, Jimmy finds four other children and their oldest brother, Peter (Savage.) Previously told that their mother is dead, Jimmy is surprised to find a woman they call, “Ma,” in the kitchen. This is Carol Ann (Samantha Eggar) who, although young, does seem motherly… until she writes the word “help” in the flour she’s using to make biscuits.
There’s no mystery here. We know their birth parents are dead and the children are trying to survive on their own by finding other “kind strangers” and forcing them to play house. Those who don’t pass their vote after a trial period disappear and their cars are driven into the deepest part of the creek where there’s now an underwater used car lot.
This scenario offers all the ingredients of a seedy Deliverance-like situation, but breaks the 1970s bleak ending mold by going no further with the idea. In fact, a resolution is reached not through violence, but by talking and hugging it out. Granted, it’s a different approach, but it’s also anticlimactic and disappointing.
I don’t know what it says about me that I got a little thrill when John (Benson) reaches behind the couch and pulls up the youngest child, Baby (John Connell), by his tousled blonde hair. I thought, “Oooh, this is going to get crazy.” Then, when it ends without bloodshed, Jimmy and Peter walking down the road toward the police, I felt cheated.
That’s my experience, though, and it is what it is. Others might consider the happy ending a sort of twist to the genre and appreciate it. I still recommend watching it, mostly because of Keach, whose character does not react or behave as we’d expect. He seems natural and real. When you think about it, that’s another way All the Kind Strangers, goes against its genre.
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