The Mountain Men

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THE MOUNTAIN MEN tripped over its own moccasin-clad left feet in 1980, fumbling an attempt to show a rowdy breed of men and wide-open way of life coming to a close in the late 1830s. Though it boasts some nice touches and spirited performances from its (overaged) stars, it feels, like its protagonists, out of touch with its era, a throwback to the 1940s or 50s, gussied up with violence and profanity. *

The Wyoming territory, near’abouts 1838. Veteran trapper ‘Bill Tyler’ (Charlton Heston) and his quarrelsome cuss-happy pal ‘Henry Frapp’ (Brian Keith), seeing that the lucrative beaver trade is skinned-out, make a dangerous trek into hostile Blackfeet territory, hoping to find a valley still flush with pelted critters. A skirmish with Blackfoot warrior ‘Heavy Eagle’ (Steven Macht) leaves his slave-wife ‘Running Moon’ (Victoria Racimo) in Tyler’s hands. As the crusty frontiersman and spirited girl develop a relationship, the ruthless brave seeks revenge. Many supporting players and extras will perish.

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The extra-salty screenplay was written by Fraser Clarke Heston, the star’s 22-year-old son. Direction was entrusted to first-time feature pilot Richard Lang, who’d done TV work for a decade. Filming was done during winter and spring in Wyoming at Grand Teton National Park, in Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests, and at Yellowstone National Park.

Heston and Keith play their bickering coots with gusto (Keith has the edge), though at 57 and 58, they’re a good generation too old; most of those real-life bruisers were young men in their 20s and 30s. Fans of the actors will indulge. Older trooper Victor Jory, 77, has sly fun in his career finale, a cameo as ‘Iron Belly’ an ancient but still randy Crow chief. Naturally, ‘Running Moon’ is a knockout—who speaks English—and 29-year-old Victoria Racimo is appealing; her mixed heritage of Filipino/Spanish/Irish does include being 1/4 Lenapi (once called Delaware) Native American.

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Coming off with much less glory is Steven Macht, whose makeup is mediocre for one thing, but he also gets the worst of the script, with “Injun talk” that is woefully dated. They all suffer extreme closeup’s from the director (Macht more than the others) that have cameraman Michel Hugo practically serving as an unlicensed dermatologist. Michel Legrand’s bland score is another weak element. There’s a ton of action, vigorous but not strong on likelihood, though there are some wince-inducing horsefalls that somehow got pulled off: the film makes special note in the end credits to state no animals were hurt.  If not, these must have been the best-trained mounts in stuntdom.

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Two sequences stand out. The riotous large-scale ‘rendezvous’ is a lusty winner for guy-hearty laughs (the p.c. sensitive will NOT be amused). Then there is the holy-cow! passage wherein the stunt doubles for Heston and Macht are swept downriver into raging rapids, a paycheck that looks to zoom past occupation-risky and into borderline-insane.

Reviews were dire. Box office came to $7,600,000, 83rd place for the year, which also suffered genre defeats with the disappointing Tom Horn and disastrous Heaven’s Gate. 100 minutes, with John Glover, Seymour Cassel (having a good time, playing it big), David Ackroyd, Cal Bellini, Inga Swenson and lovely Suzanna Trujillo.

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* Charlton: “the film that you saw was not the film that we conceived or shot. We compromised. My son’s script was much darker….He poured everything into the script and he resented the changes. But all artists compromise….My son learned that the people who put up the money control the film. When we saw the final cut, he was heartbroken…. I could have walked out. I could have put everything on the line but I don’t like to do that. It was the director’s first feature and I don’t like to throw my weight around. But maybe I should have. Maybe I made a mistake.”  Well, sure, Chuck, but even with a lame director and choppy editing, it’s doubtful a script like this would ever have gone anywhere to start with in 1980 if Fraser Heston’s father had been named Claude.

Plus, 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson cast a long spell; that hit boasting not just a more bankable star, closer in age to those real frontier rascals (Robert Redford was 35), but an ace director (Sydney Pollack) and writers (John Milius and Edward Anhalt). If you’re gonna hunt grizz, ya haf’ta load fer bear…

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