Fade in: Hunky bearded guy alone in the woods.
Cut to: Large, peeved grizzly charging him from out of the brush and viciously mauling him, leaving the man a bloodied, battered pulp. End with aghast critics, including the one who cites that "truly horrendous" bear scene and ends with: "All we got out of this ode to the pioneer spirit was one thing: never tango with a grizzly."
Sounds just like The Revenant, the unflinching Leonardo DiCaprio man-in-the-wilderness film opening next week. But in fact, we're talking about the actual Man in the Wilderness, a 44-year-old ode to frontier survival that predated and seemingly inspired The Revenant. Both are based on the life of early-19th-century fur trapper Hugh Glass (called "Zach Bass" in Man in the Wilderness, in which he's played by the late Richard Harris), and both are brutal, often hard-to-watch depictions of frontiersmen trying to make it on their own. Looking back, though, Man in the Wilderness was also part of a cinematic trend that still resonates: The wilderness as a daunting, sometimes lethal force that can be as much foe as friend.
It wasn't always that way in Hollywood. In the decade or two before that film, movies often painted a far more inviting, picturesque image of the Old West: In the Clint Eastwood musical Paint Your Wagon, the semi-comic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and even 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with its gorgeous Utah scenery, the wilderness was a thing of rugged, welcoming beauty. Even a hardship-of-the-frontier epic like 1962's How the West Was Won had a vivacious, blue-sky tone that almost made you want to live in a covered wagon for months. (Those Eastwood westerns of the '60s, like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, were downers, true, but those were more about man vs. man than man vs. nature.)
In the early '70s, a new crop of filmmakers cast a more jaundiced eye on America: All the President's Men, The Conversation, and The Parallax View dug into the dark side of American politics and government. Post-Vietnam and deep into Watergate, no one could be trusted anymore. The same revisionist thinking came into play in Old West films. Custer was a buffoon in the Dustin Hoffman-starring film Little Big Man; Bill Cody was a pompous show-biz fraud in Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. The title characters of Sam Peckinpah's elegiac Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, played by Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn respectively, were brooding anti-heroes.
Coming in for their own cynical scrutiny, the great outdoors suddenly weren't so great in the '70s, either. A year before Man in the Wilderness, poor Harris, the hard-living Irish actor (and voice behind that landmark of morose middle-aged-angst classical pop, "MacArthur Park"), was put through a similar torture in A Man Called Horse. Playing an English aristocrat hunting in the American wilds, he's taken hostage by Native Americans, who kill everyone in his party. Collared and dragged along like an animal, Harris's character endures humiliation and blood loss. (He's the woodsy equivalent of the Charlton Heston emasculated in The Planet of the Apes.) In the end, he becomes one of the leaders of the tribe and is accepted, but the movie makes it clear: He had to earn it.
The physical and mental hardship of nature was also a plot point in 1972's Jeremiah Johnson. Looking like a weathered version of the Sundance Kid, Robert Redford plays the title-character mountain man. Burnt out from serving in the Civil War, Johnson wants to get away from it all in the wilderness. But in learning how to survive, he accidentally kills his horse. He thinks he finds a degree of peace when he encounters a woman and her son, both recovering from a Native American attack — but his newfound family is soon killed by tribal warriors. Johnson winds up in a vengeful, Native American–killing craze until he once again retreats from the world. So much for quiet time in the woods.
Like DiCaprio's Hugh Glass in The Revenant, the main character in Man in the Wilderness is attacked by a bear, and even now, nearly 45 years later, that scene is intensely graphic, with quick-cut shots of ripped flesh and bone. Left for dead by the rest of his expedition — led by a scene-stealing John Huston — Bass, who's suffered a broken leg and broken ribs, hangs on, barely, and recovers. Thanks to Harris, every one of Bass's physical movements, from opening his scar-encircled eyes to a futile attempt at grasping for berries on a tree, is excruciating to watch.
Here and there, Man in the Wilderness has moments of cinematic rapture, like a scene in which Bass, with his handmade crutch, hobbles up a snowy peak — only to find an entire, daunting mountain range before him (the movie was actually filmed in Spain, an appropriate substitute for the West.) The movie's gray, foggy-hazy cinematography is a character in itself — a visual companion to the theme of the harshness of nature, even for those who, like Bass, have experience in it. Coming across a wounded bear, possibly the same one who killed him, he chases away a few wolves circling the animal — but only so he can rip raw bear meat out of the half-dead animal for himself.
Man in the Wilderness wasn't simply a precursor to The Revenant. With its like-minded '70s brethren, it cleared the brush for unsparing trouble-in-the-woods movies that doled out death (Into the Wild), self-mutilation as a form of survival (127 Hours), and Alec Baldwin gone wild (The Edge). In Man in the Wilderness, Bass — if not some of the men who abandoned him — survives. But in Hollywood, nature never did.