Man In The Wilderness (1971)
So here I see Leonardo DiCaprio looking like a mountain man getting attacked by a bear in the trailer for his latest film The Revenant. Sure calls to mind a Richard Harris film I saw as a kid growing up and acquired on DVD a few years back, Man In The Wilderness. It turns out they both trace their roots to the same story. That of Hugh Glass.
It’s when I can point that out to friends and family that I prove my worth as a self proclaimed film historian. This film is probably my earliest memory of Richard Harris. An actor I would come to enjoy both on screen and off in the years ahead. After all, my Mother took me to see him fight the Orca on the big screen and that can leave a lasting impression on a little tyke.
This version of the story from director Richard C. Sarafian wastes little time setting up our protagonists with Harris as a member of an 1820 hunting and trapping expedition led by a very Captain Ahab looking John Huston. Harris is viciously mauled and dragged towards his certain death by a Grizzly just moments into the film. The bear is shot down by other members of the expedition but Harris is at death’s door leaving Huston little choice but to leave two men behind to await Harris’ last breath and bury him. The group of trappers that Huston leads are worried about bands of Indians that are their natural enemy.
Through Harris’ glassy eyes in a point of view shot he/we see Huston utter the words “kill him.” This in reference to the question, “What if he isn’t dead by morning?” It’s this memory burned into his mind that will fuel Harris’ subsequent desire for revenge.
The majority of the film becomes a struggle of survival for Harris. He is left near death on a river bank. The two who were to kill him suddenly flee when Indians are close by. To flesh out his character, the plot device of the flashback is put to good use here. While lying in his makeshift grave Harris sees his life play out before him.
“I never agreed with God’s will.”
A great line from Harris during a flashback that spells out his refusal to lay down and die. As a man well versed in the woods, his survival shouldn’t come as a surprise. With the impending winter approaching and Huston’s men not making the river before the freeze, Harris will have time to catch the one who ordered his death.
Huston who knows and respects Harris can feel his presence tracking him and knows death is approaching.
I wouldn’t call this a great film but it is a good one. Harris was in his prime years as a leading man before drink and self destructiveness led to his decline in being a bankable star attraction. He’s well cast here in a role that is as much a silent film performance as it is a “talkie” at times. According to the Harris biographer Michael Feeney Callan, this film served as a comeback of sorts for Harris personally after the drudging he experienced at the hands of critics for his directorial debut, Bloomfield.
Through the use of the flashbacks you’ll see why the best Harris scene in the film comes when he watches an Indian woman giving birth from his vantage point hiding in the forest out of fear from the woman’s Indian brave. It’s a turning point in his character and the subsequent outcome of the film.
There is an authenticity to the film in it’s depiction of the Indians and the use of the hunting expeditions images being painted on the canvas is a nice touch. The film was actually filmed in Spain where many of the Spaghetti westerns were photographed.
It’s interesting to see Huston as an Ahab like character. For starters it’s almost as if John has been given the chance to play the role after directing Gregory Peck as the famed character in Moby Dick back in 1956. It’s comparable as well due to the fact that he is playing a former sea captain who has his men hauling a miniature looking Noah’s Ark across the landscape making their way to the Missouri river before the winter closes in on them. Huston had already worked with Harris back in 1966 when he directed Harris as Cain in The Bible.
With the new version of the film raising interest in the story line, this becomes a noteworthy effort from the past and another of Richard Harris’ tortured character roles that actually came on the heels of his brutalized explorer in another early tale of the frontier, A Man Called Horse.