Tag Archives: Mountain Men

The Last Frontier

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 11, 2014

The Last Frontier—Victor Mature, Guy Madison, Robert Preston, Anne Bancroft, James Whitmore, Pat Hogan (1955; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Since this is an Anthony Mann western (albeit without James Stewart), there are not one but two psychologically tortured characters.  The first is Jed Cooper, an almost feral man-child played by Victor Mature, a trapper who has apparently been raised in the wilderness by Gus (James Whitmore).  The other is Col. Frank Marston (Robert Preston), who got 1500 men killed in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and is now referred to as “the Butcher of Shiloh.”  He seems both unbalanced by that experience and surprisingly confident in himself. 

It’s 1864 in the mountains of northern Wyoming and southern Montana, the land roamed primarily by the Sioux.  Three mountain men-fur trappers (Gus, Jed and Mungo, an Indian of unspecified tribe) are taking the results of their annual labors to sell, when they are stopped by Indians who are painted for war.  It turns out they are led by Red Cloud, who takes their guns, horses and furs and tells them they are no longer welcome in his lands because of the new fort built by white men.

The three decide to head for newly-built Fort Shallan (fictional, apparently), which is understaffed because of the Civil War still raging in the east.  Capt. Glenn Riordan (Guy Madison) is in charge, since his commanding officer was killed by Indians.  He takes on the three as civilian scouts.  Jed is fascinated by the military and civilization and its trappings, although he’s never been around white people much.  Riordan won’t let him enlist in the military, judging correctly that he’s temperamentally and developmentally unsuited to such a regimented life.  Jed is also taken with Corinna Marston (a blond Anne Bancroft), wife of the missing Col. Marston.  She’s having none of his roughness, though.  For now.

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Jed (Victor Mature) and Mrs. Marston (Anne Bancroft).

Marston has been commanding Fort Medford (also fictional), from which his forces have been driven off and which has been burned to the ground by Indians.  He arrives with a few soldiers and by virtue of his higher rank assumes command at Fort Shallan.  Marston is obsessed with getting back at the Indians in battle, whereas Riordan thinks the only hope for survival in hostile territory is to wait out the approaching winter in the fort, after which the Civil War may end and allow for more troops to be sent out to this remote wilderness.  Fort Shallan’s troops are both untrained and too few to attack the Indians with any chance of success. 

It also becomes clear that there are tensions between the Marstons in their marriage.  And Jed and Corinna become more attracted to each other; that is, Corinna allows Jed to get closer.  He never had much restraint about his attraction to her.

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Col. Marston (Robert Preston) trapped in a bear pit.

Marston insists on accompanying a patrol stocking up on water near Red Cloud’s camp.  He and Jed scout the camp and Marston falls into a bear trap pit.  Jed refuses to help him out of it unless he agrees to give up his foolhardy plans to attack the Indians.  Back at the the fort, Gus and Corinna talk him into rescuing Marston anyway.  Marston gloats, “She wouldn’t let you do it, would she?”

Far from giving up his plans for attack, Marston proceeds with them.  He encourages a sadistic sergeant to attack Jed and when the fight results in the sergeant’s death, Marston calls for Jed’s execution.  Jed escapes into the forest and observes as Marston leads out a force guided by Gus.  The force is ambushed by Sioux, and Jed joins in the fighting, leading as many of the soldiers as can disengage back to Fort Shallan.  Both Gus and Marston are killed.  In the final scene, Jed is shown as a sergeant in a blue uniform at Fort Shellan in the winter.  Corrina Marston is still there.   Mungo (Pat Hogan) has gone back to the mountains.

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Jed scouts during the foolhardy battle with the Sioux.

Somehow that seems an unsatisfying ending for a spirit as independent as Jed’s.  Mann said that the ending was forced on him by the studio.  Victor Mature seems a little old to be as wild as Jed acts sometimes, but he’s fine.  Mature was actually eight years older than James Whitmore, who plays his father-figure Gus and is said in the film to have raised him.  The best performance in this film is given by Robert Preston as the snakily out-of-kilter Col. Marston (reminiscent perhaps of the Captain Queeg character who provokes a mutiny in the the World War II story The Caine Mutiny).  Madison is good as Riordan, and Anne Bancroft is fine as Corinna. 

This is a watchable western, but not among Mann’s best.  Based on the novel “The Gilded Rooster” by Richard Emery Roberts.  In color, 98 minutes.  Not to be confused with a 1986 television movie with the same title, set in Australia and directed by Simon Wincer.   On television, this has sometimes been shown with the title Savage Wilderness.  Although the story is set in the Northern Rockies, filming was done on location in Mexico.  That snow-capped mountain looming above the fort and the forests is Mt. Popocatapetl.

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Historically, the events in this seem a little premature.  Red Cloud’s War is usually dated from 1866 to 1868, when it was ended by the Treaty of Fort Laramie and the U.S. army gave up Fort Phil Kearney, which was burned to the ground by the Sioux as soon as it was vacated.  It’s still generally considered the only white-Indian war in U.S. history which the Indians won.  The effects of that victory lasted only eight years, however, until the next Sioux war, in which Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out but the Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahoes were forced onto reservations and lost these lands in Wyoming and Montana.   Some summaries place the events of this film in Oregon, perhaps because of the reference to Fort Medford and the beautiful mountain scenery, but Red Cloud’s war never got anywhere close to Oregon.  It was concentrated along the Bozeman Trail from central Wyoming to the gold mines of western Montana.

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The Big Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 29, 2013

The Big Sky—Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Henri Letondal, Steven Geray, Buddy Baer, Hank Worden, Jim Davis (1952; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

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Underrated and slow-developing story of the voyage of the keelboat Mandan up the Missouri River in 1832 to trade with the Blackfoot Indians.  In other words, it’s a mountain man movie–the second best of that kind, after Jeremiah Johnson.  The guide and hunter for the expedition is Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt); his nephew Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and Boone’s friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) learn their way in the unopened west as they go along.  Frenchie (Steven Geray), the head of the expedition, intends to bypass the usual fur company trade channels and go directly to trade with the Blackfeet at the headwaters of the Missouri, a trip of 2000 miles from St. Louis.  He is taking along non-English-speaking Teal Eye (half-Cherokee actress Elizabeth Threatt), a Blackfoot princess captured by the Crows and sold down the Missouri River, hoping she will facilitate trade with the otherwise hostile Blackfeet.  The expedition also acquires Poordevil (Hank Worden), an alcoholic Blackfoot who ends up being quite useful. 

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On the way upriver the Mandan is attacked by fur company minions led by Streak (Jim Davis) and by Crow allies of the fur company.  On the way Deakins and Caudill both develop relationships with Teal Eye, notwithstanding her initial hostility to Caudill and lack of English skills.  Aside from the conflicts with the fur company and Crows, the other questions are whether it will be Deakins or Caudill that Teal Eye will choose, and whether the one she chooses will stay with her or go back down the river. 

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The best actor in this film is Hunnicutt as mountain man Zeb Calloway, and he also provides the voice-over narration.  This may be his best role ever, and he is utterly convincing with period dialogue that could well seem highly artificial from another actor.  Kirk Douglas is the best-known of the stars today, and he is fine, playing the whole film with his hat pushed back on his head.  There are several reasons the film isn’t better-known today despite its top-of-the-line director and excellent quality.  Two of the leads, Threatt and Martin, didn’t have notable movie careers, although they are good here.  This was Threatt’s only film, and Martin had only a modest few good roles in the early 1950s before drifting into television work. 

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Elizabeth Threatt as Blackfoot maiden Teal Eye.  Douglas and director Hawks block out a fight scene.

Another is that the movie was not shot in widescreen or color at a time when westerns with any scope or ambition (Shane, Bend of the River) were mostly shot that way.  It was not particularly successful on its initial release.  A little slow-paced at its original 141 minutes, it was later edited down to 122 minutes by the studio, and it is difficult to find a decent print of the extended version these days.  That is what TCM shows, however, and the re-inserted material is of noticeably worse quality visually and in its sound.  It is in need of restoration and is not available on DVD currently (2013). 

This was an expensive production shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming–like Shane and Jubal.  Hawks was both director and producer.  Based on a classic novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, the screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach et al.).  The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan and supporting actor Hunnicutt were both nominated for Academy Awards.  The novel is probably still stronger than this film.  If it had been made a few years earlier (at the time of Hawks’ Red River, say, when color and scale expections were smaller), the movie would probably be regarded as a classic.  It’s one of Hawks’ three best westerns.

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If you like Arthur Hunnicutt here, look for him in smaller roles in two other good westerns from 1950:  Broken Arrow and Two Flags West.  For other westerns based on novels by A.B. Guthrie, see The Way West, also with Kirk Douglas (1967), or the seldom-seen These Thousand Hills (1959).  This is better, though.

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Jeremiah Johnson

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 23, 2013

Jeremiah Johnson—Robert Redford, Will Geer, Allyn Ann McLerie, Delle Bolton, Joaquin Martinez, Stefan Gierasch (1972; Dir:  Sidney Pollack)

This is perhaps the best mountain man movie ever made, although that’s kind of a limited field.  Robert Redford was a hot acting commodity in the years between Butch Cassidy and The Way We Were, and this was his second western.  It was filmed in Utah, much of it on the back side of Mount Timpanogos near Redford’s adoptive home.  Redford had been so taken with the Timp Haven ski resort there that he bought it and renamed it Sundance, after his character in Butch Cassidy.  Redford’s well-known ecological sensitivity is on display in the film.

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Jeremiah Johnson (or John Johnston) was an actual historical character during the late fur-trapping period.  He was sometimes referred to as Liver-Eating Johnson for his supposed culinary inclinations during a lengthy feud with the Crow Indians in Montana and Wyoming.  His story is as much legend as fact, however.   This movie conveys the beauty, the solitude and the dangers of the early west during that late fur-trapping period.  It depends on Redford’s star power to carry it, and he’s up to the task. 

Jeremiah Johnson is a disillusioned soldier from the Mexican War who heads as far away from people and civilization as he can get.  That puts the start of this movie in the late 1840s, after most of the fur-trapping era was done.  He goes to the mountains in the vicinity of Montana, with references to the Judith and Musselshell rivers of that state.  He encounters Bear Claw (Will Geer), an older mountain man whose specialty is hunting grizzly bears and who teaches him the basics of mountain hunting and survival.  Johnson later comes across Del Gue, a different kind of loud-talking trapper played by Stefan Gierasch.  Johnson accidentally acquires a family, taking on the mute young son of a crazy woman and receiving a Flathead wife in a situation where he can’t argue or refuse.

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Johnson and his mentor Bear Claw (Will Geer).

While guiding a party of soldiers to rescue stranded emigrants, he unwillingly (but not unwittingly) trespasses on a Crow burial ground, thereby touching off a feud with that tribe.  Taking revenge for the Crow killing of his Flathead wife and adoptive son, Johnson kills several of the Crows and the feud is on.  Once the feud has started, the Crows come at him one by one, as a point of honor.  Johnson doesn’t come out of these encounters unscathed, but he wins each one.  There’s no eating of livers in the movie, however. The final scene is a wordless encounter with Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez), Johnson’s avowed enemy since mid-film and the presumed force behind the attacks on Johnson.  Several hundred yards apart, Johnson reaches for his rifle for what he thinks will be a final duel, but Paints-His-Shirt-Red raises his arm, open-palmed, in a gesture of peace that Johnson returns, closing the film.

Some feel that the portions of the film where there isn’t much dialogue—and there are a lot of them—drag a bit.  The end feels abrupt and lacking in resolution, as if somebody just got tired of telling the story and quit.

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Johnson and Caleb encounter Del Gue.

The Indians in this movie look very authentic, if occasionally somewhat overdressed.  In particular, Delle Bolton, who plays Johnson’s quiet young Flathead wife Swan, is very effective in a limited role.  Redford doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the real Johnston, but he’s very good at the central role of the movie, maintaining an innate sense of mystery about his character.

Sidney Pollack was an excellent director not particularly known for westerns.  He was talked into doing this one by Redford, who made seven movies with him.  Something like this, with comparatively little dialogue, requires very high composition skills to take advantage of the natural setting, which becomes a primary character.  And it’s not just showing the mountains and background.  There’s a scene in which Johnson is shot from his horse and plays dead on the ground, while his assailant comes up behind him.  The camera work and editing are masterful in indicating clearly where Johnson lies, where his horse is standing and where the out-of-focus Indian that Johnson can’t see is coming from.  It must have been extremely hard to set it up so the action is that clear but mostly implied from Johnson’s point of view.

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Sam Peckinpah was originally attached the project to direct, with Clint Eastwood slated to star.  But Peckinpah and Eastwood did not get along, so Peckinpah left the project (just as well, probably); then Eastwood decided to make Dirty Harry instead. The script with its notably spare dialogue was originally written by John Milius, who says he was paid $5,000 to write it at first.  But he was then hired to rewrite it several times and wound up earning $80,000 on it, with Edward Anhalt.  Milius says he got the script’s idiom and American spirit from Carl Sandburg and was also influenced by Charles Portis’ novel True Grit.

liver-eatingjohnson The real Liver-Eating Johnston.

The bones of the story are based on Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s supposedly non-fiction book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man.  The music by Tim McIntire (the son of actors John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan, who also provides the voice-over narration for the film) and John Rubinstein (the son of internationally-known Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein) is a little pretentious for a western, with an overture and entr’acte.  But this is not a typical western, and the music works well enough in its way.

According to Hal Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), this is “an epic about loss, and how change will take from us everything we love, but that there are, indeed, things that endure.  Some people thinks it’s the greatest outdoor adventure movie ever made.”  For the second-best mountain man movie, try Howard HawksThe Big Sky, from 1952.

Narrator:  “His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man.  The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains.  Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much.  He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.  He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better.  He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better.  Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said good-bye to whatever life was down there below….”

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