Man in the Wilderness

(Richard C. Sarafian, USA, 1971): Properly planted and nurtured in the soil of the American frontier, a tale could grow as tall as a century was long, and the story of mountaineer Hugh Glass had roots 150 years deep by the time The Man in the Wilderness got round to telling it in 1971. (It would again be re-told in 2015, as Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s The Revenant.) In this rendering, the story of the man mauled by a grizzly and left for dead by his trapping party unfolds as a parable of man bludgeoned by nature in order to be re-born to its glory and delivered to fresh communion with its wonders. The European in Glass (here named Zach Bass) is washed clean by the ordeal of crawling from the mud by the river where he is left, gunless and near gutted, and making his way toward the party that left him behind. The bear has done him a favour, and by the time the man finally catches up with the crew led by a Biblically nutty John Huston (outfitted spectacularly in a crushed top hat and hauling, in a bit of premonitory Herzogian imagery, a wooden ship over the Montana hills), Bass has become something of a revisionist-era ideal man: a white despoiler redeemed and reverted back to a state of natural grace, a man who not only knows Indians but has pretty much become one, a pelt-wearing, long-haired hippie warrior, equipped by the natural world not only to survive but soar like an eagle, and enlightened enough in his own fresh baptismal state to take a final pass on the wrath he is otherwise so divinely equipped (and entitled) to bring down when he catches up with his duly awed quarry. From the moments following Bass’s first re-awakening by the river, where the water sparkles in sunlight and deer sprint nearby, Sarafian’s movie makes a strategic refrain of emphasizing the man reborn into a new world. Although plagued by period-specific trippy flashbacks that reveal our hero as a sad and repressed ‘civilized’ man running literally for the American hills to escape his past, family and feelings, Bass is washed by that river in the first of a series of rituals that will also see him not only helped but ultimately revered by the Indians who know a good legend when they see one, befriended by the animals he elects not to eat, and reduced to tears at the sight of a Arikara woman delivering a baby on the forest floor. In the movie’s most striking feat of expressive visual contrast, Zach’s re-immersion in nature is counterbalanced by his former crew’s mad determination to pull that boat overland, the scowling Pentecostal scarecrow figure of Huston perched like a reverse Ahab at its prow, a picture of European ‘progress’ and ‘settlement’ as stark and surreal as any. Largely forgotten today and conspicuously absent from much of the discussion generated by Innaritu’s considerably more lavish re-telling of the Glass saga, The Man in the Wilderness is nevertheless a fascinating and illuminating encapsulation of the moment in Western movie and cultural history that produced it. The conviction that the entire direction of European settlement was a wrong-way enterprise in violation of natural law itself, the passionate conviction that the natives — whose so-called ‘savagery’ is here understood as a reasonable response to the storming of their doomed paradise — had it right all along, and the neo-romantic, saturating countercultural conviction that getting back to nature was the only hope of redemption, are 1971 in a nutshell. Or maybe wrapped up and stitched in a bear pelt. Whatever: all one needs to know of how embedded this idea of the west as a form of pop cultural reversion therapy was at this moment is evident simply in the careers of actor Richard Harris and screenwriter Jack De Witt, who also collaborated on three movies — A Man Called Horse and its sequels — where ‘going native’ was a white man’s only hope of atoning for the original sin of going west in the first place. (Warner Home Video)