Western Wednesdays: ‘Man in the Wilderness’

Forget 1980s action films, forget 300.  Westerns are the genre that set the highest and hardest expectations for manhood. I hesitate to say they’re unrealistic ones, though, since these are all things people actually did to survive.

Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I’m going to amend my “Dream Man” to be a Clint Eastwood kind of guy who can also survive the uncharted forests of the West with just a piece of twine. And one leg. A Zachary Bass, Man in the Wilderness kind of guy.

Man in the Wilderness takes place in 1820, and no further West than some dim point past Missouri and the Mississippi.   It’s not a period you see visited very often in the genre, and I suspect it’s because just contemplating it — vague regions still known only as “Spain”,  “Oregon Territory” and “Missouri Territory” — is rather terrifying.

Reading accounts of the first settlers is pretty harrowing, Heart of Darkness stuff.  There were forests back then, forests so thick you couldn’t get your wagon through without hacking for hours on end. And then you died of diphtheria.

If a bear didn’t get you first. That’s what happened to Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), and he knew what he was doing.

Bass is part of Captain Henry’s  ( John Huston) fur trapping expedition, which has been out hunting pelts in the Northwest for a good two years or so.   Despite that they’ve all been slaughtering critters, only Bass seems to know how to really hunt.   At least, that’s what I took his exasperated “Great, now I have to go look for that gut shot deer!” huff to mean.   He takes two steps into the brush, and a bear gets him. He’s badly mauled before being saved by his party, who stitch him up, and leave him to die.

If this is sounding vaguely familiar to you, then you’ve been playing close attention to your newsfeeds! This is the same story of The Revenant, rumored to be John Hillcoat’s next bleak adventure.   Both The Revenant and Man in the Wilderness are based on the same true story of Hugh Glass, who miraculously survived death-by-bear-mauling and hunted down those who abandoned him.

Bass’ slow and painful recovery is the unflinching focus of this film.  For days, he survives on drops of river water before he can muster enough strength to catch and eat a raw crawfish. He covers himself up with rotten leaves and sand to stay warm.   How he avoids gangrene is a mystery. Eventually, he’s strong enough to locate a big stick, and crawl to a wolf pack, and steal a nice piece of raw, still-living bison.  Yep, it’s pretty gross.

Inch by painful inch, he gains more strength and more tools to facilitate his survival.   Whereas you or I would see a group of Native Americans and trappers and say “Help! Can you take me to a fort where I can get medical attention? Or at least  spare some flint or bison jerky? “, Bass just hides, banking on the fact that they will kill each other so he can loot the bodies.

At first glance, this really doesn’t seem worth it, as all he got was a piece of wire and a broken spear. But this is all he needs. By the next scene, he has a new fur coat, a nice fur-covered crutch, and a pack of meat snacks to see him on his journey.

Just to stress how capable he is, Man in the Wilderness keeps going back to the fate of his trapping crew.  They’re an incapable lot, stuck under the tyrannical thumb of Captain Henry, who is making them haul his boat over land.  He has no Fitzcarraldo pretensions of doing so in the name of art or opera, it simply has sentimental value, so they keep dragging it across hill and dale.

They’re looking over their shoulder the entire time, because they know Bass is after them.   The two years they’ve spent with the guy — months spent with his MacGyver talents of making do with simple tools — have taught them that no mere bear attack could keep him down and out for long.

As the film ticks down to its final minutes, it’s practically drooling in its own anticipation to see Bass wipe out this entire group with just a string and a spear. But that doesn’t happen in this film.   You’ll have to wait for John Hillcoat’s version to see that. Instead, Man in the Wilderness is about near death experiences giving you a change of heart, and softening you up a bit. Bass transforms into a guy who helps bunnies (no lie), contemplates the Bible, and hopes he survives just so he can finally meet his son.   Only Harris’ grim performance saves it from pure mawkishness.

For a film that begins with a bear mauling, it threatens to tilt that way more than once thanks to the softly lit ferns, rippling waters, and tinkling piano so beloved to 1960s and ’70s cinema. It’s actually a fascinating blend of  John Donne, ’60s New Age philosophy — be one with nature and find out who you really are, man –and stern frontier moralizing. While the film implies that no man is an island, it also prides itself on never having Bass ask for help.

He pulls himself up by his bootstraps, as real Americans used to do, and should continue to do.   Such self-sufficiency also allows for forgiveness. When you’re capable of conquering the frontier with just wire, you don’t need to kill your former friends for abandoning you to gangrene.

I wonder if a modern version of the story will take quite that view….

  • KB
    June 3, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I have this one on DVD and was going to recommend this to you two weeks ago, but never got around to it. I watched it last week to be reminded of how good it is. What a strange coincidence!! This is one of Richard Harris’ signature roles,along with ‘A Man Called Horse’ series. Not that you should forget him as English Bob or Dumbledore from Harry Potter. What a great talent he was and is sadly missed!

    You should also check out ‘Jeremiah Johnson’, starring Robert Redford and Will Geer.

  • Preston
    June 2, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Gandalf,Dumbledore,and Scotty + bunny splint= one oddly wonderful movie.

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