1883Sam Elliott

Sam Elliott’s First Major Role Was the Furthest from His Cowboy Characters

"What if nature were to start fighting back?"


With his low, rustic voice, those eyes, often piercing from a side glance, silver-haired, and that mustache, that iconic mustache, we know him: Hollywood’s cowboy, Sam Elliott. For decades, he has been our onscreen man of the open plains, a man in a time when actors who primarily play cowboys feel like a thing of the past, gone with John Wayne. Elliott’s career found a home in the wild, wild west. His on-set wardrobes likely consist of brimmed hats, boots, and period-piece attire. His sets are often saloons, Old West towns, and open fields. But he’s not just a cowboy resigned to the past — he’s a cowboy for all ages, whether that’s in a bowling alley talking to The Dude, keeping nightlife from getting out of hand as a bouncer, or keeping narcotics at bay in the NYPD. The rugged persona that accompanies his distinctive physical traits is just as much a part of the Sam Elliott package. But in the ’70s eco-horror movie FrogsSam Elliott played a whole different kind of character.

In ‘Frogs,’ We See a Totally Different Sam Elliott

His first credited film role was “Card Player #2” on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film would set a precedent for his acting life, but was also significant in another way: his future wife, Katherine Ross, starred in the movie as Etta Place, though the two would not marry until 1984. But even though Butch set the tone for his career, his first significant movie role was far from the wild, wild west.

Given his career that created his on-screen life as one on the open range, it might be surprising that his first leading role was as an environmentalist photojournalist in the 1972 camp eco-horror film, FrogsFrogs, taking obvious inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, poses a question: what if nature were to start fighting back? Frogs is sincere in its aim and campy with its execution–double entredes: production of the film and the nature of how people are done in by nature is camp horror at its best, with victims being moss-ed to death, turtle-d to death, and frog-ed to death.

What Is ‘Frogs’ About?

In the opening scenes, we see Elliott’s Pickett Smith canoeing through swamps, photographing all the pollution that humanity has brought upon this ecosystem. While he paddles and stops to take pictures, we see all the wildlife that is homed by the swamps. In his canoe, he’s one with nature, for nature, softly paddling, being sure to not make any waves. But nature collides with human apathy in the form of a speed boat manned by Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke) and Karen Crockett (Joan Van Ark) nearly striking Smith while he’s in his canoe. This near disaster lands Pickett in the crosshairs of nature enacting its revenge, particularly on the wealthy yet environmentally unconscious Crockett family.

The patriarch of the Crockett clan is the iron-fisted, my-way-or-the-highway Jason Crockett (Ray Milland). Jason’s family has been summoned to the swamp-surrounded island for their annual Fourth of July celebration which overlaps with his birthday. It’s the kind of thing the family wouldn’t do if it wasn’t for the wealthy patriarch insisting on his way and his offspring, pleasing him all the way to a mention in his will, oblige. But this year’s celebrations will be memorable. Nature isn’t shy about making itself known. The summer brings with it nonstop, eerie croaking from the frogs. Spoiled and entitled, the family speaks of the croaking as if it were a missile launching range.

Jason, treading heavily on the delicate ecosystem he’s encompassed by, turns to poisons as a means to kill the living things around him. However, nature is proving to be resilient, and the frogs’ noises continue to irritate the family, the worst thing to have ever happened to them. Throughout the movie, it frequently cuts to clips of frogs. Frogs watching; frogs plotting; frogs gathering; frogs swarming. Jason laments, “With all our technology and all my money, we still can’t get rid of these frogs.” After Pickett briefly brakes away from the family, he walks through the forest, seeing animals that have perished from Jason’s use of poisons as a means of noise control, all casualties of a brewing war between nature and humanity. Pickett comes across the body of Jason’s M.I.A maintenance person, because of course Jason, who is a wheelchair user, only gives orders, never actually doing the deed, lying face-down in the swamp. Nature is fighting back. The two men, though respect each other, have different philosophies– “I still believe man is master of the world.” Jason says. Pickett counters him: “Does that mean he can’t live in harmony with the rest of it?”

‘Frogs’ Gets Creative With Its Kills

Frogs, in its 90-minute runtime, introduces viewers to deaths that make any other horror film look uncreative. The heedless family is picked off one by one. This movie isn’t exactly Hereditary. Each death is comical in its own way, full of “Why would you do that”’ and “Are you serious”. People trip, because of course they do. Someone is eaten by alligators; if there’s a swamp it might as well be used to its full extent. Another, accidentally shooting himself in the leg, succumbs to his fate not by his injury, but by being covered in moss by vengeful spiders–yes, really. Although Frogs

’s title would suggest that the executions are executed by the amphibians, instead, the Crocketts and crew meet their ends due to a variety of animals, nature working together to eliminate a shared threat: people. In one scene, lizards, geckos, and frogs display knowledge of basic chemistry by asphyxiating someone in a greenhouse by knocking over jars of various chemicals. Naturally, he was unable to open the unlocked, unblocked door, meeting his end; the cold-blooded creatures prevail once more.

In spite of all the death unfolding around him, Jason is determined to celebrate his birthday, damnit–” Just because of one death [his grandson, nonethelss], an accident, that’s no reason for everybody to panic.” It’s at this moment Pickett, no longer able to overlook the patriarch’s stubbornness insists that everyone must leave the island. Until that point, Jason respected Pickett, sensing in him a quiet confidence and self-assurance. But Pickett decides not to go down with this ship and takes the rest of the surviving Crocketts with him away from the island.

Frogs saves its most appropriate killing for last. Jason, alone on his island, an island unto himself, is unable to ignore the relentless ribbits as the frogs press against the window. Eventually, they manage to break through. Jason falls to the floor, swarmed by frogs. Not the master of all he thought he was, Jason loses his war with nature; He croaked.

Though hard to take seriously, Frogs was still a clever film in some aspects. The family being named Crockett is no coincidence. Davy Crockett, U.S. folk hero, and frontiersman, is referred to as “King of the Wild Frontier.” Jason, who views humanity as lord of nature, is overthrown by it. The wild no longer tolerates humans’ lordship and revolts.

‘Frogs’ Is a Different Type of Role, But the Same Sam Elliott

Seeing Elliott now, as we have been so used to seeing him for years, it’s easy to forget that at one point he wasn’t donning his silver mustache. At one point, he was a clean-shaven, shaggy-haired twenty-something. You’d be forgiven for not recognizing Elliott in Frogs, without his usual trappings, he’s nearly unrecognizable. We think of Elliott as the cowboy, but his role in Frogs enlightens viewers to something else about Elliott: he was a heartthrob. He wears the hell out of his denim shirt and jeans outfit, perfectly pulling off a staple of the decade’s fashion. His brown hair was complimented by its ‘70s style. Often, we see him as the wise elder, dispensing advice and giving his famous all-knowing, playful side glance to the youngsters he encounters.

Sam Elliott brings his idiosyncratic characteristics to Frogs. For those who’ve seen him on screen, it’s hard to overlook that Sam Elliott has a look– as if he’s privy to something you have yet to figure out, and he’s waiting, enjoying you trying to figure out what it is. His classic smirk also makes appearances in Frogs. The “look” and the “smirk” accompany each other, mustache aside, this is his signature look, and it has endured for decades, not losing any luster with the passage of time.

Sam Elliott Nails His Performance as Pickett Smith

The Role of Pickett Smith easily could have been laughable. Too earnest of an actor could have overdone it, adding to the film’s campy qualities. Sam Elliott handles a role that for many other men would have been a stain on their careers, but Elliott plays Pickett with quiet confidence and an appropriate amount of concern for the chaos unfolding around him. Even though Elliott was in his late twenties when he filmed Frogs, he brings a quality to Pinkett that assures those around him of wisdom beyond his years. In Frogs, he’s a twenty-something with a century’s worth of knowledge and self-assurance.

Characterwise, Pickett Smith is a very different man from the men he usually plays; but despite vocational and stylistic differences, Elliott is able to make Pickett into someone incredibly similar to the men we’re used to seeing him bring to life. He may not be in a saloon, on horseback, or donning a cowboy hat, but Pickett still has that ruff and tumble spirit that we see in a Sam Elliott character. This time he’s just trying to survive vengeful swamp critters instead of outlaws.

Sam Elliott has an ageless quality to him. Sure, his hair has grayed and there are lines on his face, as age does to people, but seeing him in Frogs shows viewers that he’s very much the same man then as he is now. He’s always been that confidant guy, facing whatever obstacle he encounters with courage and a smirk.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
error: Content is protected !!