Schlock Corridor: The Natural Wonder Of THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT
My name is Ivan Marx. The film you are about to see is authentic. It records the last ten years which has changed my life. I stumbled on something that I could not believe at first, but soon realized it had significance on me and everyone around me, which could not be ignored or underestimated. The Eskimos call the subject of my story "Bushman"; the Colville Indians of upstate Washington call him "Sasquatch"; the Hoopas of northern California call him "Oma". But right now, let's just call him "Bigfoot".
Every December, I attend an annual event with a couple hundred fellow film fans to have my mind warped by 24 hours of nonstop movies. This event takes place in an old cinema in Auckland, New Zealand; it’s programmed by my friend, colleague and countryman, ABCs of Death producer Ant Timpson; and it’s a highlight of every year. But it’s no star-studded premiere parade like Butt-Numb-A-Thon. The 24 Hour Movie Marathon celebrates the history of incredibly strange film, diving to the bottom of the barrel and coming back up with armfuls of 35mm prints. The Marathon is where I first saw Erik Stern out-act Hollywood in The Love Butcher and Ann-Margret sex up a senator in Kitten With A Whip; and where I began a long-standing love affair with the films of Andy Milligan. It’s where I saw Miami Connection and The Visitor before they were cool.
It’s also where I first saw one of my all-time favourite movies, sandwiched between El Topo and Videodrome at hour 21 of 24: the dull, plodding and unforgettable pseudo-documentary The Legend of Bigfoot.
The Legend of Bigfoot tells the alleged true story of cryptozoologist Ivan Marx and his quest to find the ultimate proof of Bigfoot’s existence. Marx, whose name couldn’t sound more Russian if it wore an ushanka, is a true American. He’s a bushwhackin’ wild game tracker and former Disney animal trainer who loves the outdoors almost as much as he does his wife Peggy. Who better than an expert in large mountain-dwelling mammals, who “knows tracks like the FBI knows fingerprints,” to search for Bigfoot?
What precious little Bigfoot footage there is in The Legend of Bigfoot is underwhelming. The Sasquatch screen time amounts to five minutes at the most. They’re classic crypto clips, developed in Marx’s home lab, depicting an out-of-focus humanoid silhouette shambling through the undergrowth. Many have suggested the creature is actually Peggy Marx in a Bigfoot costume; David Coleman, author of The Bigfoot Filmography, points out the similarity between the creature’s uneven gait and Ivan’s own John Wayne limp. But both Ivan and Peggy always maintained that their films are the real deal.
Director Harry Winer (who later built a successful career in television) was a filmmaker for hire, tasked with building a feature documentary narrative around Marx's scrappy Bigfootage. As a result, the movie mostly consists of stock footage of American Northwest flora and fauna, along with home movie clips and some scenes staged for the camera. Marx narrates all of this material - moose sparring, bears fishing, ducks migrating - in an earnest, folksy manner, each animal encounter providing vital clues to Bigfoot’s lifestyle. This is source of The Legend of Bigfoot’s charm. Without much footage of its title character, Winer had to make something from almost nothing. The result is a weird, wonderful nature documentary where every element in the natural world is linked directly to Bigfoot.
An unintended consequence is that the film is more about the wonder of nature than about Bigfoot himself. Sure, the stock footage illustrates Marx’s search, and he supplies a potted history of Bigfoot culture, but the emotional takeaway comes from his infectious respect for the glory of “God’s Earth”. Every appearance by a stray raccoon or beaver is a source of unfettered joy.
While most of its documentary footage is unremarkable from a cinematic point of view, The Legend of Bigfoot contains several sequences that are truly unique. In one, Marx goes on a sort of Eskimo vision quest, depicted through psychedelic hand-painted auroras in red and white. The sequence goes on for minutes. Marx’s subsequent claim that his “head was reeling” fits perfectly with the surreal imagery and bizarre logic used to connect the experience to Bigfoot.
Later, while camped in indistinct tundra, Marx uses a Native American chant to summon the creature. Sure enough, the “shining eyes of Bigfoot” (i.e. a pair of lamps) appear on the horizon. The footage loops and repeats, zooming ever closer as if blowing it up will provide some greater insight. It almost becomes genuinely terrifying, but Marx interrupts in typical fashion, explaining how the eyes suddenly disappeared, "behind a rainbow”.
Legend’s best sequence - one that has brought me to tears multiple times - centres on a humble pair of squirrels playing in a field. Tragedy befalls one of the pair as a truck strikes it dead, leaving the remaining squirrel to sniff plaintively at the body. A hawk begins to circle above them; it’s nearly game over. But wait! Through the magic of editing, the dead squirrel is now merely "wounded", raising our hopes and fears simultaneously. It’s a race against time for the wounded squirrel to reach its burrow before the hawk catches it. This scene plays out in silence, and it’s clearly edited together from disparate sources, but damn it, it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. Marx pipes up to explain how the squirrel’s survival instinct made him think about Bigfoot’s, but I couldn’t give a shit. There’s more pathos and drama between those two squirrels than in the entire rest of the film. It traverses the entire emotional spectrum in a matter of minutes.
The saddest squirrel
I’ve watched The Legend of Bigfoot probably a dozen times, each with my eyes wide, taking in the natural marvels Marx shows us. Harry Winer may have directed The Legend of Bigfoot, but it’s Ivan Marx’s film through and through. Marx’s personality is a unstoppable force. His frustration at both Bigfoot’s elusiveness and the scorn of scientists manifests in delightful old-timey outbursts like “what a bunch of hogwash!” and “I’d been like a spooked tenderfoot!”. So heartfelt is his sonorous voiceover, it’s hard not to get swept along, regardless of how little actually happens in the film.
Marx says “Bigfoot” more than once a minute: the word makes up 1.5% of the film’s running time and of all words spoken in the film. Every time, it’s spoken with the utmost reverence. If ever there was a man who projected belief in Bigfoot, it was Ivan Marx. Supercuts are reductive, but this compilation provides a fairly accurate précis of the film:
Ivan Marx was a Bigfoot obsessive and notorious hoaxer who not even Winer managed to get a firm read on, as he told me when I was writing a one-act play based on the film. Marx was despised even amongst cryptozoologists, especially by mountaineer and fellow Bigfoot researcher Peter Byrne. Whether he was a genuine Bigfoot believer or a committed charlatan is unclear, but that does nothing to make his evangelism any less powerful.
Indeed, a strange conflict at the heart of The Legend of Bigfoot is the uneasy hostility between Marx and his unseen antagonists, the scientists and experts seeking to disprove his theories.
I saw it, photographed it, but scientists challenged my film. It had stood up under every conceivable test! Some revealed rugged terrain as the cause of the skinned heels - polio as the cause of the limp. But my documented evidence wasn't good enough for the "experts". Experts who still asked "how could such a creature survive? Where does it live? Show us its remains! What does it eat?" Experts who challenged my word but claimed credit for my film and profited by it on lecture circuits! Well, I didn't care for these people, but I was haunted by their questions.
There’s a tragic inconsistency to how Marx demonises the scientists who mock him, yet desperately seeks their approval. At first, Marx claims to have laughed at stories of Bigfoot himself before making his discoveries - hey, here’s how he learned the truth! But Marx always believed. It’s just an attempt to ground the film and give viewers an easy in. The experts never get such treatment, however, as Marx becomes grumpier and grumpier as the film wears on. Marx’s frustration towards scientific method is the dark underbelly to his uncomplicated love of nature. In some ways, this is a film about science versus belief, coming down squarely on the side of belief.
A central “discovery” that makes The Legend of Bigfoot unique amongst its peers is that the creature is ultimately found to be friendly. We assume that because Bigfoot is big, he’s dangerous, but Marx’s King of the Animals is a benevolent one, living in peace amongst the other animals. I like that. It fits.
You can’t help but extrapolate narrative from the glimpses we get into Marx’s life. Ivan and Peggy were a team, whether raising and training animals, shooting film, or - as critics claim - perpetrating Bigfoot hoaxes. Peggy is presented by Ivan as being “the only woman who’d put up with the animals [he] used to bring home,” and it’s appealing (to me, anyway) to read Peggy as a long-suffering spouse, humouring Ivan’s obsession as he slowly loses touch with reality. Their relationship must have been fascinating, and I wish we got to see more of it.
Ivan Marx: tracker, trainer, entertainer
Oh, I still have plenty of questions. And I'll continue my search for the answers now. But I assure you, I will no longer get so caught up in the problems of my research, or I'll lose touch with the wonders it reveals.
Up until his death in 1999, Ivan Marx stayed active in the cryptozoological community, despite pervasive criticism. He followed up Legend with two more documentaries: In the Shadow of Bigfoot and Bigfoot: Alive And Well in ’82. Footprint moulds made by Marx can be found at Austin’s Museum of the Weird. Peggy Marx kept insisting her husband’s footage was authentic, and co-founded the Great American Bigfoot Research Organisation with colleague Tom Biscardi. Ivan’s work is even continued by his grandsons Lee and Jim Hickman.
It’s easy to dismiss The Legend of Bigfoot as a boring mishmash of stock footage cobbled together around an amateur man-in-suit hoax. Ant described it as "the hard yards" of that year's Movie Marathon, and ninety percent of that audience probably watched it through their eyelids. But those who stayed awake got a real treat, the hoax melting away into innocent, childlike awe. It may fail at its intended purpose, but Legend succeeds in creating an idiosyncratic and charming portrait of an inscrutable man, his beloved countryside, and his dream of proving the unprovable. More than anything, it’s about the legend itself.
Keep the legend alive. Watch The Legend of Bigfoot today.