Saturday, April 9, 2016

1980 Week: The Mountain Men

          A manly-man’s adventure flick filled with bloodshed, cartoonish characterizations, and playful vulgarity, The Mountain Men plays like a dumbed-down version of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the soulful Robert Redford melodrama about an iconoclastic frontiersman. Whereas that picture tapped into mythic themes by depicting one individual’s desire to find meaning through connection with the wilderness, The Mountain Men is about crude rascals concerned only with profit and survival. This material doesn’t fit leading man Charlton Heston especially well, since the actor’s best roles positioned Heston as a voice of righteous indignation within society. Although he was always believable with heavily physical characterizations, his take on coarse manners and salty language feels artificial, giving the impression of a little boy playing dress-up. Conversely, costar Brian Keith seems totally comfortable in every scene, hitting a fine balance between generating larger-than-life entertainment and rendering a consistent portrayal.
          It’s not quite fair to say that this mediocre and unmemorable picture is worth watching solely because of Keith’s performance, but his work is certainly the film’s strongest element. Also praiseworthy are the film’s robust location photography and the general intensity of the action scenes, because what the film lacks in substance, it makes up for with pulpy excitement.
          The slender narrative has longtime friends Bill Tyler (Heston) and Henry Frapp (Keith) agreeing to guide inexperienced travelers through unsettled parts of Wyoming circa the 1830s. This contrivance is merely a weak engine for delivering the real focus of the story, Bill’s quest to find an elusive valley filled with beavers, the trapper’s equivalent of a gold mine. Unfortunately, neither of these elements gives the film much momentum, since the script by first-timer Fraser Clark Heston (the star’s son, later to become a middling director of theatrical features) is exceedingly episodic. That’s not to say, however, that all of the episodes are uninteresting. The film’s most exciting scene involves a run-in between the trappers and a band of Blackfoot Indians, culminating with the startling image of warriors scalping Henry. In a separate passage of the storyline, Bill ends up stuck in the wilderness, using his stamina and wits in order to survive without proper resources. Some of this stuff is fun to watch, and some of it isn’t. 

The Mountain Men: FUNKY

No comments: