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Monday, August 01, 2011

Monday Matinee: Ernest Goes To Camp

Leadership is a quality that some people seem to possess naturally.  In a lot of cases, if you were to stand in a room with a group of strangers, chances are you could separate leaders from followers, right?

Ah, but sometimes, it's not quite so cut and dry.

Sometimes a person can look at someone and think that there is no chance in hell of them ever showing any sort of leadership.  Whether it be physical appearance, background, or even how they handle emotions, some people are automatically dismissed as being capable of leading a puppy to a fire hydrant, let alone an entire group of people.

Sometimes though, it just takes one slim chance for a person to really prove himself or herself as a capable leader.  Sometimes, they have to be in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes, it takes a crisis for people to shed their inhibitions and take charge in order to make a difference.

There's one person I can think of who stepped up in all of the above situations.

Certainly, Ernest P. Worrell (played by the late Jim Varney) was never you say...sharpest tool in the shed.  He was klutzy, simple-minded, personification of a Southern redneck if ever there was one.  Yet, in a lot of cases, a lot of brilliance was inside young Ernest's heart.  It just took certain moments for it all to come out.

Take Ernest's very first movie, Ernest Goes To Camp.  The movie, which was released in theatres on May 22, 1987, takes place at Kamp Kikakee, a summer campground which has ties to a native tribe that lived in the area long ago.  There, Ernest works as the camp's maintenance man.  Although he does his best (and by best, I mean that his intentions were good, though his work was often shoddy), maintenance isn't what Ernest wanted to do.  Deep down inside, he wanted to become a camp counselor in hopes of being a leader and a friend to a group of young campers.

Unfortunately, he is forced to take on mundane and often disgusting tasks.

So, yeah...needless to say that Ernest's dream of becoming a camp counselor wasn't exactly in the cards.

Although, that didn't stop Ernest from giving one hundred and ten per cent into the job he had.  He became really close with the granddaughter of Chief St. Cloud (the tribal chief who owned the land that Kamp Kikakee was built on), who was a nurse at the camp.  Through his friendship with her (and despite his dislike for shots), he learns the Kikakee sign language so that he can be able to communicate with her grandfather.

One day, the head counselor at Kamp Kikakee received word that six boys from a detention centre were going to be placed at the camp for the summer as part of a rehabilitation program for juvenile delinquents.  Due to the boys previous criminal records and misdemeanours, no counselor at Kamp Kikakee wanted to have anything to do with them, except the ruthless Counsellor Stennis.  The decision was made for Ernest to drive the camp bus to the detention centre to pick up the six boys.

Unbeknownst to Ernest, this would be the first step in his ability to prove himself as a leader.  It was just that nobody knew it.  Even Ernest himself didn't realize it.

At any rate, we meet the six boys at the detention center.  Bobby Wayne, Crutchfield, Vargas, Danny, Chip, and Moose.  Each one of them were responsible for different crimes, and five out of six of them had very little respect for authority.  Only the youngest one, Moose, even so much as attempted to show some respect towards Ernest.  This proved true when the gang played a game with Ernest where they covered his eyes while he drove the bus and almost plowed into a dump truck from Krader Industries.  Luckily, Ernest and the boys made it to the camp in one piece, though Ernest's credibility was tainted momentarily for allowing himself to be distracted.

At the same time all this was going on, Krader Industries was hatching an evil plot of their own.  Since Krader Industries was a mining company, all they were interested in was extracting rich deposits of a valuable metal to sell for a huge profit.  They went to great lengths to get what they wanted, even employing a rough and burly foreman (played by the late Lyle Alzado) to forcibly evict families out of their homes so they could knock them down to get the metal.

Problem was that the biggest area that had the most to extract was located directly underneath Kamp Kikakee, and Chief St. Cloud had made it clear that he was NOT selling his land, no matter how much the company paid him.

Back at the camp, the delinquent boys were not received well by the other campers.  In particular, two campers named Pennington and Brooks were especially hard on the group, antagonizing and berating them at every opportunity.  The boys also tangled with the staff.  They even went so far as to shove a lifeguarding tower that Counsellor Stennis was seated on into the water, causing Stennis to suffer as broken leg (though to the boys credit, they only reacted after Stennis threw Moose into the deep end of the water despite his cries that he could not swim.

However, Ernest happened to be around at the time of this, and Ernest managed to pull Moose to safety, securing the first bond of trust between Ernest and the delinquents.  Eventually, after Ernest was assigned to be the boys counsellor after Stennis' fall, the other boys reluctantly agreed to give Ernest a real shot.

Although, poor Ernest's attempts at being a good counsellor to the boys didn't exactly start off so...swimmingly.

Things did gradually improve though, and it was Ernest's enthusiasm for the outdoors that seemed to be infectious to the boys as well.  When the camp hosted a model building contest, Ernest helped the boys build a full Indian teepee.  Afterwards, Ernest and the boys gathered around a campfire, along with Chief and Nurse St. Cloud.  It was here that Nurse St. Cloud told them the legend of the blade, the stone, and the arrow, where loosely translated meant that if a warrior was pure of heart and strength, none of the weapons could harm him.

Though I won't spoil the ending entirely for you, this legend plays a very key role in the ending.

After the campfire session, the delinquents are heartbroken to see that the teepee that they built had been doused in flammable liquid and set ablaze.  When all signs pointed to Pennington and Brooks, the delinquents retaliated in such violence that it almost cost Ernest his counselling job.  Fortunately, he was given one last chance to get the boys straightened up, and after a pep talk, the gang was more than willing to rebuild what the other campers took away from them.

Unfortunately, shortly after this, Krader Industries tries once more to get the chief to sign over his land, but he's just as stubborn.  Cruelly, Krader decides to use Ernest's ability to communicate with the chief through the Kikakee sign language.  He tells Ernest that the paper the chief is signing was a petition to conserve the land, when in reality, it was to seize control of it.  The chief, going by what Ernest was signing him, signed the paper, bringing an end to Kamp Kikakee.

Or, so they thought.

While Nurse St. Cloud insisted that they could fight Krader in the court system, Ernest knew that the proceedings could take a long time, and by the time they got through, the camp would already be in shambles.  Ernest and the gang made the decision to confront the foreman of Krader, where he promptly received a huge beating for his trouble.  The group of boys were extremely disappointed that Ernest couldn't fight back against the foreman.  Even Moose, who was Ernest's biggest supporter, sadly admitted that there were some fights that you just couldn't win.

Afterwards, Nurse St. Cloud tended to Ernest's injuries, and Ernest was beating himself up for allowing Krader to get as far as they had.  More importantly, he felt as if he failed his campers for not being able to do more.  Despite Nurse St. Cloud's efforts to cheer him up by commending him on his bravery, Ernest wanted to be alone.  It's here that the most touching moment of the film occurs.

What they wanted was a hero, all I needed was a friend.  That gets to me every time.

That's all Ernest really wanted to be...he wanted to be a friend to those who really needed one.  Ernest took a chance on six boys that were essentially by themselves.  Everyone around them had given up on them.  Their parents.  Their peers.  Even other campers and counsellors had turned their backs on the group of misfits.

Not Ernest.  Ernest would have given up his life for theirs in a heartbeat.  He saved Moose from drowning, he taught the boys the meaning of teamwork, and he helped the group of boys form a real brotherhood amongst themselves.  He helped show them that when times got tough, they could count on each other to get through.  More importantly, he used the power of leadership to make it happen.

Imagine.  Ernest P. Worrell.  A leader. 

So, when Nurse St. Cloud heard the boys (save for Moose) badmouthing Ernest, and calling him dumb, she completely lost it, and told the boys a few home truths, saying how they were dumb for not knowing who their real friends were, and how Ernest had sacrificed so much for them so that they could have an inkling of what a life without crime and fear could be like.  She pretty much called them selfish little twits, which looking back on the movie was a label that befit almost all of them.

The boys realize that they were a little too hard on Ernest, and together, they set out to find Ernest so they could apologize to him for the way they treated him.  Ernest graciously accepts the apology, and the group of misfits no longer really see themselves as such.

There was still the matter of trying to force Krader off of Kikakee grounds.  Nurse St. Cloud was insistent on trying to use the legal channels to fight the battle, but Ernest was quite clear that 'they ain't gonna get this camp'.  Ernest, Moose, Bobby, Crutchfield, Vargas, Chip and Danny immediately used their skills learned by building the teepee project to build a giant catapult that was capable of launching lantern bombs, fire, and other...nasty surprises.

And, would you believe that Ernest's gang weren't the only ones involved in the fight?  You also had the goofy chefs at Kamp Kikakee taking part with their food catapult (and where their signature dish of Eggs Erronious proved to be the substance that finally knocked a peg or two off of the burly foreman at Krader).  You even had a couple of surprise comrades that decided to stick around camp to help the team out.  You'll probably figure out who I mean if you read this blog entry closely.

Not bad for someone who even doubted his own leadership abilities.

Admit it...upon first glance at Ernest fixing the Kikakee sign (on an upside down ladder), you really didn't expect Ernest to be much of a leader.

But, give him the right time with the right people, and you'd be surprised to see what he could do.  He not only managed to kickstart the battle of Kikakee vs. Krader, but he took six boys who really had no shot at making it in life, and transformed them into confident young men who had a brand new outlook.  They never did a proper sequel to Ernest Goes To Camp (unless you count the adventures where he saved Christmas, went to jail, and was scared stupid), but I'd like to think that those boys grew up to be fine, respected pillars of the communities where they would end up, and that every summer, they all got together at Kamp Kikakee to remember the one person who never turned their back on them when everyone else did.

Ernest P. Worrell.  Camp counsellor.  Hero.  Friend. 


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