On the eve of the release of The Revenant, inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass’s fight for life, the film rights to the character of Grizzly Adams are up for bid and, across the country, hipsters dubbed “lumbersexuals” are sprouting facial hair and sporting flannel and buckskin.
Why the sudden appeal of the mountain man? Maybe because neither Grizzly Adams nor Hugh Glass ever said, “It takes a village.”
As Charlton Heston’s character says in 1980’s The Mountain Men, “I can still walk for a year in any direction with just my rifle and a handful of salt and never have to say ‘sir’ to nobody. I reckon that’s free.”
Charlton’s son, Fraser, who wrote that film, understands the appeal of the self-confident, independent man: “It’s an archetypical Western; prototypical, really. It’s an early version of America’s drive West, before the country was settled, before there were gunslingers and ranchers and farmers and towns with sidewalks.”
The men who cut the paths that became wagon routes for the pioneers have long fascinated filmgoers and filmmakers.
Here are 10 mountain man movies worth seeking out.
#1 The 1971 Western Man in the Wilderness (Warner Archive), the first cinematic telling of the ordeal of Hugh Glass, stars Richard Harris as part of a grand trapper expedition. Horribly mauled by a grizzly, sure to die, the expedition’s captain (John Huston) leaves two men behind to bury him, but fearing that Indians are coming, they abandon him. Yet he survives, driven by memories of his family, to try and catch up.
#2 Jeremiah Johnson (Warner Archive) features Robert Redford as a Mexican-American War veteran determined to make a life in the Rocky Mountains. Sydney Pollack’s direction and John Milius and Edward Anhalt’s script for the 1972 film create a man who, while speaking rarely, is accessible, romantic and terrifying in his wrath, although the film tactfully skirts why he was known as “Liver-Eating Johnson.”
#3 Clint Walker, on hiatus from Cheyenne, gave the screen’s most clean-shaven mountain man in 1959’s Yellowstone Kelly (Warner Archive). Supported by fellow Warner Bros. TV stars Edd Byrnes and John Russell’s characters, Kelly must protect the Sioux, and his own trap-lines, from dangerously ambitious soldiers. He must also safeguard a beautiful Arapaho captive desired by both the Sioux chief and his ambitious nephew.
#4 The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, a tiny-budget, sound-dubbed-in 1974 film, was such a success that it begat a slew of wilderness family films as well as a TV series for its star, Dan Haggerty. Falsely accused of murder, Adams disappears into the mountains, lives off the land and raises a grizzly. Sometimes dismissed as Jeremiah Johnson Lite, the film has great beauty and charm. Haggerty remembers fondly, “A lot of people don’t know that the California State Flag is a representation of his bear. We did kind of a softened version [of his life]; couldn’t do it hard and heavy in those days, the way James Capen Adams [lived], but that’s how it was.”
#5 The most filmed mountain man portrayal is of Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper of Rat River,” filmed four times in nine years! (The 1978 comedy went unfinished.) In 1931, Inuits complained that Johnson was meddling with their traps. Mountie confrontations with Johnson led to them leveling his cabin with dynamite. When the smoke cleared, Johnson ran out, guns blazing, and the legendary Yukon manhunt began. The engrossing 1981 actioner Death Hunt (Shout! Factory), starring Charles Bronson as Johnson and Lee Marvin as the Mountie determined to catch him, is by far the best. A new version has been announced for 2017.
#6 Charlton Heston and Brian Keith star in the salty and savage 1980 film The Mountain Men (Amazon Video), an adventure story with plenty of humor and heart. Screenwriter Fraser Heston recalls, “Our story takes place in the 1830s, at the end of the fur trade era. The heyday was passed, so there’s a feeling already of nostalgia for something that is lost.” Victoria Racimo plays the Indian woman Heston’s trapper character does not want, but grows to love. Stephen Macht is Heavy Eagle, who will not give her up. Among the high points is the trappers’ rendezvous sequence, an event Fraser describes as, “part trade-show and part rave, in buckskins.”
#7 In “Wild Bill” Wellman’s 1951 flick Across the Wide Missouri (Warner Archive), Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable) bargains for a Blackfoot bride (María Elena Marqués) for trade reasons, assembles a battalion of fellow-trappers, and leads them into rich beaver grounds. Mitchell finds himself loving his wife and her people, and he becomes drawn into a power struggle between her grandfather Bear Ghost (Jack Holt) and Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban).
#8 Anthony Mann’s 1955 Western The Last Frontier (Sony Pictures) is a fascinating story of three cultures clashing: military, Lakota and mountain man. When Red Cloud forces three trappers out, they scout for the nearby fort. As arrogant Col. Marston (Robert Preston) drives the two sides inevitably to war, Victor Mature is the savage innocent of the trappers, who naively makes a play for Anne Bancroft’s character, not caring that she’s the colonel’s wife.
#9 In 1969’s My Side of the Mountain, Ted Eccles plays a 12-year-old boy obsessed with Henry David Thoreau and science, who runs away to live in the mountains of Canada and tries to create a new food source—from algae! He also catches and trains a Peregrine falcon, skins deer to make his clothes and befriends an itinerant folksinger played by Theodore Bikel.
#10 I’m jumping the gun including The Revenant in the top 10 list. As we go to press, I have seen only the trailer, but what a trailer and what a story. Between the celebrated novel by professional diplomat Michael Punke, the direction by last year’s Oscar winner (for Birdman) Alejandro González Iñárritu, photography by double-Oscar winner (for 2014’s Birdman and 2013’s Gravity) Emmanuel Lubezki and performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, it should be on the top of your must-see list. Due out as a limited release this Christmas and then nationwide on January 8, The Revenant stars DiCaprio as real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass, who gets mauled by a bear and left to die by his hunting companions. He sets out on a 200-mile trek to avenge this betrayal.
Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com