The opening sequence of this strange Western is striking and memorable: A large expedition of fur trappers treks through the rugged American frontier, dragging a giant ship on wheels, the sea vessel’s towering mast dominating the skyline like a crucifix. Things only get weirder from there, and luckily for adventurous viewers, robust actors Richard Harris and John Huston deliver over-the-top performances that suit the bizarre material. Huston plays the expedition’s villainous leader, Captain Filmore Henry, an obsessed adventurer with a tentative grasp on reality and an almost utter lack of morality. With his black wardrobe, lanky frame, and phlegmatic voice, Huston personifies Captain Henry as a vision of sickly death. Harris is Zachary Bass, one of the captain’s trackers. Venturing away from the group at one point, Bass gets mauled by a bear, so Captain Henry orders him left for dead.
Man in the Wilderness gets trippy after this turn of events, because vast wordless swaths of the movie depict Bass crawling through the woods as he tries to rebuild his strength, drifting in and out of delirious flashbacks all the while. This material exists somewhere on the border between fascinating and interminable, because Harris’ solo scenes are so repetitive and uneventful that at a certain point viewers become as disoriented as the character. Adding to the offbeat nature of the film are interludes of the expedition as it moves on from the site of Bass’ presumed demise; the superstitious trappers get the idea that Bass’ spirit is haunting them, so they guard the wheeled boat in shifts, waiting for some awful apparition to strike at them from the darkness of the forest. Huston goes to town in these sequences, depicting Captain Henry’s decline into guilt-ridden paranoia with gusto. By the time these two extreme characters reunite for their inevitable confrontation, Bass’ desire for revenge has, to a certain degree, become the audience’s desire as well.
Harris spent much of the ’70s making violent Westerns about characters enduring horrible abuse, and Man in the Wilderness is the most surreal flick of the batch, which is saying something. The actor’s gift for portraying intense physicality makes the picture watchable in a masochistic sort of way, because his evocation of pain and suffering is excruciatingly vivid. With a characteristic lack of restraint, Harris plays to the cheap seats in every scene, even when he’s facedown in sludge, and that, too, adds to the effect: Harris seems like such a powerful force that it’s believable his character could survive an extraordinary ordeal. Therefore, despite the monotony and weirdness, the movie can’t be dismissed because of the fiery performances and because of the lushly textured widescreen images created by British cinematographer Gerry Fisher.
Man in the Wilderness: FREAKY