Friday, May 28, 2021

Four decades before The Revenant

Some time back, TCM ran a movie that was new to me, Man in the Wilderness. It's going to be on again this evening at 6:00 PM, so I made a point of watching it to do a review on before tonight's showing.

It's 1820 in the Pacific northwest, not that this region of the world was thought of that way back then. An expedition led by Captain Henry (John Huston) has been collecting pelts, but with winter coming, they have to get to the Missouri River to get downstream and back east before the snow comes. For no good reason other than Henry's vanity, they're portaging his boat back to the Missouri rather than making canoes or something useful.

Guide and scout Zachary Bass (Richard Harris) and one of the younger members of the expedition are out hunting to get more food for the crew. Bass is a good shot and the younger guy not so much, so after the younger guy misses, Bass goes after the second deer. Unfortunately for him, also in the area is a bear, which comes out and mauls him.

The mauling goes on for some time, and since it leaves Bass unconscious and with some fairly serious wounds, everybody else around him expects him to die. It's not just Henry and his men; the local Indians, led by a chief played by Henry Wilcoxon, also figure poor Zachary is going to die, so they just leave him there, while Henry and his men eventually keep trying to get to the Missouri.

But based on the amount of time I've spent saying they expect Zachary to die, and the amount of time the movie itself spends on it, you just know that Zachary is in fact not going to die, at least not as a result of the bear attack. At some point he regains enough consciousness to realize that he has to do something serious to survive.

Not only does this mean getting food and tending to his wounds; it also means avoiding the Indians who might well want to attack him (and attack Henry's men in the climax). Zachary, who has any number of flashbacks both to his childhood having to deal with Henry, as well as to the son he left behind back east when his wife died, wants to gain revenge on Henry. Henry and the other men, meanwhile, have this fear in the back of their heads that Zachary did not die and that he's coming for them.

This is based on a true story, the same one that was the basis for The Revenant (which I also haven't seen). It's certainly an interesting story, although I had some decided problems with the telling of it here. A lot of that comes down to John Huston. His character is such a jerk, and even though the credits say the movie was directed by Richard Sarafian, it felt like it had the fingerprints of Huston's direction all over it.

Large portions of the movie are slow and especially the flashbacks come across as a bit self-indulgent, as though the director is trying to add some sort of touch to make the material seem more highbrow than just a simple survival movie. The Robert Ryan movie Inferno did this much better.

Still, somebody who wants another take on the material behind The Revenant will find something of interest in Man in the Wilderness.

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