Producer Arthur R. Dubs spent the ’70s making gentle movies about gentle people living in North America’s snowy frontiers circa the late 1800s, including the Wilderness Family trilogy. While Dubs’ productions are distinguished by handsome nature photography, the generation of substantial narratives was not Dubs’ strong suit. Therefore, it’s peculiar that Dubs opted to make a fictionalized movie about Albert Johnson, a Canadian mountain man who was accused of murder and then became the target of an epic manhunt, eventually earning the moniker “The Mad Trapper of Rat River.” In Dubs’ hilariously whitewashed version of the story, Challenge to Be Free, the leading character known only as “Trapper” (Mike Mazurki) is a harmless recluse who lives in the mountains of Alaska, catching only what he needs to survive while frolicking with—and looking after—assorted furry friends. To give a sense of the movie’s tone, one long sequence features Trapper making flapjacks and feeding them to an elk, all to the accompaniment of cornpone voiceover narration and syrupy background music. In fact, the entire first half-hour of the movie feels like a second-rate Disney travelogue. Then the picture presents Trapper’s run-in with the law as a simple misunderstanding that gets out of hand—never mind that Trapper kills someone with a shotgun and flees the scene. The remainder the film comprises Trapper’s long flight from pursuing Mounties, culminating with his dramatic standoff atop a snowy mountain. Despite the presence of impressive location photography and countless shots of wild animals in what appear to be their natural habitats, the flick is deadly boring. Nearly all the dialogue was dubbed during post-production, giving a disjointed feel; the strain of squeezing a dark story into a G-rated paradigm drains the narrative of vitality; and Mazurki is an amiable bear of a man but nowhere near a movie star, in terms of acting chops and charisma. The story of “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” might be fascinating, but it’s nowhere to be found in the cloying and lifeless Challenge to Be Free.
Challenge to Be Free: LAME