The desert landscape of the American southwest has a beauty that is unique to it. This extraordinary geography serves as the backdrop of The Legend of Cougar Canyon A.K.A. The Secret of Navajo Cave, a 1974 film, which I believe, should qualify as a kiddie matinee classic. It certainly has all the qualities of an entertaining family film: dramatic animal sequences; breathtaking scenery; and a good versus evil plot. The semi-documentary reminded me of watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins in my youth, but with a Native American twist. Rex Allen, the famous cowboy singer and actor, serves as the movie’s narrator, and once the beginning credits have rolled, he immediately discusses the Navajo’s respect for the eagle, which represents good in their culture. Suddenly, the scene shifts to a hungry mountain lion in search of its next meal, which ends up being an eagle. Thus, for the remainder of the film, the cougar becomes the antagonist in this desert delight. The cat’s adventures with a raccoon, badger, rattlesnake, wild boar and black bear clearly demonstrate that the predator does not always get its prey, and that the life of the canyon hunter can be have its peaks and valleys.
In between the shots of animal life in the canyon, Allen provides snapshots of the Navajo culture, including their past and present. The film nicely bridges to the main character, Steve Benally, Jr., a Navajo boy who is catching a ride into Chinle, Ariz., to visit his friend, Walter (played by Holger Kasper) who is the son of a local trading post proprietor. Guide Johnny Guerro provides the transportation to the town, and the two boys hook up to further their friendship. Narrator Allen provides the details of their conversation.
Walter ends up riding a horse to Steve’s hoogan, and the duo eat a dinner of beans and Navajo fry bread before hitting the sack in their sleeping bags near Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, both well known area landmarks. Around the crackling campfire, Steve tells his friend of the horrors that occurred in the area, including the death of 100 plus Navajos by Spanish explorers. Unfazed, Walter hits the hay. His buddy, however, has a nightmare of a cougar eating one of his goats, and he wakes up screaming. Nevertheless, the duo have sweet dreams to wake up to as they shepherd the Benally clan’s sheep and goats to the nearest watering hole. Storyteller Rex Allen also offers insight to the viewer on the importance of these animals to the Navajo people.
As the boys help move the flock to the water, the cougar is not far behind, and the cat watches their every move. Steve decides to show Walter a raccoon known for providing an entertaining bath in another watering hole some feet away. With the sheep and goats unsupervised, the cougar makes his move. Some wild mustangs, also drinking at the hole with the Benally flock, make plenty of noise with the cougar in hot pursuit of some prey, and the duo come a running, chasing the mountain lion off and saving the day. They gather the flock and return back to Steve’s home.
Upon their return, Steve notices one of the young goats is missing, and he, as the head of the household, must find the wayward animal. Walter and he head for the watering hole, but the young kid has moved on. Meanwhile, the cougar too smells its next dinner, and the hunt is on. The lost goat climbs up the canyon to escape the predator, but ends up in an area off limits to the Navajo. Nevertheless, the boys find the animal, and just in the nick of time. Will Steve save the goat in an area where he should not be to begin with? Not to worry, as the goat is within sight of the duo, but the cat corners Walter and the escaped beast, and it turns ugly. The cougar pounces on Walter, but Steve arrives with seconds to spare to shoo off the ferocious feline from his buddy. He then grabs the goat and good once again prevails over evil. The boys head back to the hoogan with the goat firmly in Steve’s hands.
Rex Allen does an admirable job as the movie’s narrator, offering interesting tidbits on animal life in the canyon and spinning some good ole’ southwest and Navajo folktales into the mix for a winning combination. Finally, William Loose’s soundtrack provides all the right notes during the dramatic and comedic scenes to enhance the 91-minute cinema gem.
Steven Benally, Jr......Steve
Johnny Guerro...........Navajo Guide
Released in 1974
Directed by James T. Flocker
Narrated by Rex Allen