The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Mountain Men

Gunslingers, cavalry, wagon trains, settlers, stories and films of the settling of the west had them all in abundance. But what about some of the coolest, most interesting men who helped settle the American west. Those men? Mountain men. In film at least, they don't always get their due. There's movies like Jeremiah Johnson and a new one I can check off the list, 1980's The Mountain Men.

In the late 1830s along the Rocky Mountains, a veteran, very experienced mountain man named Bill Tyler (Charlton Heston) is coming down from the mountains with a pack mule full of beaver pelts. For the most part, Tyler likes to keep to himself, minding his own business, but when he meets a friend and fellow mountain man, Henry Frapp (Brian Keith), he decides to head to the yearly rendezvous. They want to sell their pelts, drink some whiskey and live it up a little. As the mountain man duo heads to the rendezvous, they run into trouble, a Blackfoot war party crossing their paths. Tyler rescues an Indian woman, Running Moon (Victoria Racimo), who just happens to be the squaw of the warrior leading the party, Heavy Eagle (Stephen Macht). Now instead of just looking to make some money for their winter work, Tyler and Frapp are now fighting it out with a Blackfoot war party.

The appeal of the mountain man is pretty obvious for me. Yeah, there's all those negatives -- impending doom around every corner, horrific weather, Indians trying to kill you, countless animals ready to rip you to pieces -- but is that such a big deal? Okay, sure, I guess. Maybe I'm thinking more of the romantic portrayal of the mountain men. These were the first white men to travel west into the American west, some of the first people to see some of our country's most beautiful features. They lived on their own, provided for themselves and lived among nature. Movies like this one and Jeremiah Johnson try to show that middle ground, the positive and the negative. From director Richard Lang, 'Mountain' is a beautiful movie that shows the epically big expanses of the west, filming on-location in several national parks and forests, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Shoshone, Bridger-Teton included. You really get a sense of 1830s America, what these men saw.

If you're going to cast two hard-edged, rough-looking mountain men, you'd better get it right. I didn't love this movie, but it's hard not to appreciate the casting here. Charlton Heston and Brian Keith are pretty perfect together, both for their similarities and differences. While they're not trapping partners, they have worked together in the past and consider each other friends. Heston's Bill Tyler is more quirky, more inward, more odd in his tendencies. Keith's Frapp is his polar opposite, a motor mouth who's always talking about one thing or another, always looking for his next drink of whiskey. That odd couple dynamic works from beginning to end, especially late when Frapp decides to go with Tyler on a dangerous ride into the mountains. There is an easygoing, friendly chemistry that helps tie the episodic story together throughout.

The best supporting part goes to Racimo as Indian squaw Running Moon, desperately looking to escape from her life. It's a good part if a little forced for the sake of the story. Her chemistry with Heston is solid, but their relationship seems to develop rather quickly. Macht gets to play the stereotypically angry Indian warrior, his Heavy Eagle a menacing villain but not really given any development. Longtime Hollywood veteran Victor Jory makes his last on-screen appearance as Iron Belly, an ancient Indian chief, only on-screen for one scene. Seymour Cassel and William Lucking play two less likable mountain men, a bit of a rivalry developing when the discussion of a lost valley of untrapped waters comes up. There's at least six or seven other parts I could mention, but none are on-screen for more than a minute or two. We meet an Easterner heading west, but he disappears quickly. We meet a vengeful warrior, but same thing. He Gone.

And that in general is why this movie struggles at times. It covers a ton of ground in its relatively short 102-minute running time. Too much ground if you ask me, as if 'Mountain' had a set list of things it wants to accomplish. Running time be damned, the story was going to hit these bullet points. Too many characters, too many episodic stops along the way for the story. I liked some stops along the way -- especially the finale -- but it takes a meandering road to get there. Decent, even good, but could have been much better.

The Mountain Men (1980): ** 1/2 /****

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