by Phil Hall
BOOTLEG FILES 206: “The Patterson-Gimlin Film” (1967 footage that purportedly shows a Sasquatch in the wild).
LAST SEEN: The film is widely available across the Internet.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It’s been widely incorporated into films relating to the legend of Bigfoot.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: One of the most controversial films ever shot, it has been widely bootlegged for four decades.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: As long as people believe in Bigfoot, this film will turn up in unauthorized dupes.
Forty years ago, a pair of would-be filmmakers ventured into the California woods in search of a legendary ape-like creature that supposedly dwelled in the West Coast forests. They returned with less than a minute of footage that continues to generate debate, acrimony, eye-rolling and breathless faith regarding the existence of the Sasquatch, commonly known by the slang nickname Bigfoot.
If you’ve ever seen a documentary relating to Bigfoot, you will recognize the footage: a somewhat blurry 16mm color silent film with a large furry humanoid walking off into the woods. At one point the creature turns and looks at the camera, its arms swinging quite wide while floppy breasts appear to hang from its chest.
What many people may not realize is the film actually has a name – “The Patterson-Gimlin Film,” named for the duo who went camera-hunting for the Sasquatch. Outside of Abraham Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy assassination, “The Patterson-Gimlin” is the most studied snippet of amateur footage ever shot. It is also among the most heavily bootlegged films in history.
The footage in question came about on October 20, 1967. Roger Patterson, the author of a barely-acknowledged book on the legend of the Sasquatch, and Robert Gimlin, an outdoorsman who claimed to be skeptical of the subject, were in Six Rivers National Forest in northern California to shoot a documentary about the Sasquatch. Neither man had any experience in filmmaking prior to this trip. To make matters worse, Patterson was working with an arrest warrant pending against him – he rented his 16mm camera in March but failed to return it under the terms of his contract with the camera shop.
According to their story, Patterson and Gimlin were on horseback around 1:30pm when they came to a clearing in the forest. Their horses began to act nervously, and the men spotted the Sasquatch some 120 feet away from them. Patterson either fell or was thrown from his horse, but managed to get his camera and begin filming. Indeed, the first part of the footage is shaky and blurry, with Patterson trying to focus on the creature. By this point, the creature was already walking away from them back into the woods.
Patterson followed the Sasquatch as far as he could. Gimlin had a rifle ready, but did not shoot. Both men later claimed they agreed at the start of the trip to only fire at a Sasquatch if they were in danger. In retrospect, it was a bad idea – had Gimlin fatally shot the creature, it would’ve offered conclusive (if cruel) evidence that there was a Sasquatch.
Patterson and Gimlin immediately arranged to have the film developed. They also began alerting the media of their discovering. When the footage was developed, Patterson began a media blitz that showed off the footage to anyone who would see it. Gimlin initially did not seek the spotlight, leaving Patterson to talk up the film.
Patterson died in January 1972, and Gimlin is still living (he occasionally makes public appearances to discuss the film). Neither man ever wavered in describing what they saw. Their footage remains the cornerstone of the cultural fascination and controversy involving Bigfoot.
Indeed, there would be no Bigfoot in popular culture without “The Patterson-Gimlin Film.” The basic concept of the creature (as depicted in films, TV shows and advertising) is based solely on whatever was walking away from Patterson’s camera. Other would-be glory seekers attempted to do the same, and for years a steady skein of dubious Bigfoot film and video sightings kept popping up. None of this subsequent footage was ever taken seriously.
Yet “The Patterson-Gimlin Film” continues to be embraced by cryptozoology buffs that insist the Sasquatch is real. Many people of varying degrees of expertise have studied the film with gem-cutter intensity, claiming it would be scientifically impossible that this film is a fraud.
Having watched this film repeatedly in researching this article, and reading up on its history, I have to come to the sad conclusion that “The Patterson-Gimlin Film” is one of the most ridiculous hoaxes ever pulled on the general public. There are three key factors that make it difficult to accept “The Patterson-Gimlin Film” as anything but a joke.
First, it is impossible to conceive that two men with zero experience in either filmmaking or zoology could stumble upon a hitherto-unseen creature without even trying. The first article published on the duo’s discovery played up Gimlin being one-quarter Apache, most likely to correspond with the alleged American Indian folklore involving Sasquatches. But the accidental discovery of Bigfoot just seems too coincidental to be taken seriously – and not only was the discovery almost immediate into their forest trek, but it also happened to occur in a well-lit and open space in the middle of the thick forest.
Second, the Sasquatch’s behavior seems very peculiar. Assuming that Bigfoot is a primate (no one thinks of it as human), it reacts to the commotion allegedly caused by Patterson, Gimlin and their skittish horses with uncommon detachment and nonchalance. Any animal would normally react to a perceived danger by running away with all due speed. This creature, however, strolls away as if it was taking a leisurely walk in the park. Assuming this may have been the creature’s first encounter with humans and horses, its behavior is decidedly peculiar.
Third, take a good look at the footage – really, who’s fooling who? The creature in the film is clearly a man in some kind of a lousy gorilla costume. It walks like a human, complete with its arm swing, while its face (as seen on frame enlargements of the film) is obviously an inanimate simian mask. The distance from Patterson to the Sasquatch helps obscure its actual appearance, while the film’s unknown running speed has always been a source of confusion (it is not clear if Patterson was shooting at 24 fps or another speed that would exaggerate the screen movement).
Over the years, a rumor circulated that the creature was the work of Hollwyood make-up artist John Chambers, who won the Oscar for 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” (Chambers categorically denied knowing Patterson and Gimlin). More likely, the culprit in the hoax was a man named Bob Heironimus, who has claimed he was paid $1,000 by Patterson to play the Bigfoot. A tall and powerfully built man who lived near Patterson and Gimlin, Heironimus could more than fit the bill for playing a giant creature. This also may explain Patterson and Gimlin’s bizarre pre-agreement not to fatally shoot a Sasquatch if they were to find one. Gimlin, being an outdoorsman, was not shy about killing animals with his rifle.
As for the film itself, cryptozoology buffs have spent decades bootlegging the film and its frame blow-ups as part of their personal advocacy of the Bigfoot legend. Although the film’s copyright belongs to Patterson’s widow, the film and its frame blow-ups have been widely duped. The popularity of Internet video has only made the bootlegging worse: an easy search of YouTube, Google Video and the other Net video sites will turn up dozens of unauthorized presentations of the film. According to Wikipedia, the bootlegged versions are all that remains of the footage – the original 16mm print from 1967 is believed to be lost.
“The Patterson-Gimlin Film” never settled the argument over the existence of Bigfoot, but maybe that was never its intention. For better or worse, it earned a place in film history by putting Bigfoot squarely and securely into American pop culture.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don't get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that's just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff...on video, that is.
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