If this sounds like an interesting premise for a revisionist western, it is. There’s a lot of potential here, pitting the “mountain man” who is about to become obsolete once the Oregon Trail becomes fully established against the Native American who is about to be driven off his land and onto a reservation; not to mention the treatment of women by both men (and groups) in the untamed wilderness of the time. One might also like to find a commentary on sustainability (or a lack thereof): the effect the trade of furs has on the animal populations (and, for that matter, the humans who do the hunting and trading, both white and “red”).
But there is a problem: The screenplay was written by Fraser Clarke Heston, Charlton Heston’s son. And that is probably the only reason it was made into a movie, because it is absolutely terrible. The script never manages to tie the plot elements I mentioned above into a coherent, resonating whole. Whenever it tries, dialogue that is supposed to sound portentous and meaningful comes across as an amateurish imitation, with none of the actors possessing or willing to lend their performances the gravitas necessary to support those overwrought lines.
The director is probably partly to blame for this as well; beyond some pretty landscape photography, particularly at the beginning of the film, the direction by Richard Lang is unspectacular, and fails to elicit believable performances from his cast. Heston and Brian Keith, who plays a fellow trapper, are hammy as hell, which is at least somewhat entertaining; the same cannot be said of the supporting cast. The two main Indian characters, played by Stephen Macht and Victoria Racimo, are particular offenders, and would probably not have been any more convincing (under the same director) had their dialogue been any better.
There is one scene – a chase sequence featuring rapids and a waterfall – which is very well shot and quite thrilling. Maybe not coincidentally, it has no dialogue. It’s supported only by the action and by the driving underscore by Michel Legrand, which is quite good in other scenes as well (appropriately melodic or bombastic depending on the requirements of a scene). It belongs in and deserves a better movie.
Even disregarding how the screenplay forces the Indian characters to shoulder most of its thematic thrust (by talking about the evil white guys and explicitly pointing out their similarities, instead of competently showing the audience and letting us figure it out), the depiction of the Native Americans is quite unfortunate, veering from demeaning comic relief to untameable noble savage territory, and never straying from the Trail of Clichés. There are some attempts to move beyond caricature, probably intended to humanise the Natives, but they are rather ineffective; they come across either as pandering (= counterproductive), or make the Indians seem more pathetic and/or more despicable. The latter, of course, gives the audience more of a reason to root for Chuck Heston killing himself some Injuns. We don’t even need to feel bad about it, because for the most part, the “braves” (played by white actors, naturally) falling by Tyler’s rifle are cannon fodder with no characterisation or motivation; they’re mere extensions of Heavy Eagle’s hatred. For 1980, this is really disappointing.
Not that the white characters fare much better. We see only very little about the participants of the Oregon Trail, and what we see of the other trappers is negative: a bunch of foul-mouthed raucous drunkards with little in the way of a moral fibre. The audience isn’t even given a reason why we should care about Tyler and his quest, beyond the fact that he’s played by Charlton Heston, is the lead character, and we’re supposed to identify with and care about the lead character. He curses a lot, which I guess may have been unexpected and shocking in 1980, but today? Not so much. Even Heston’s magnetic presence can’t entirely salvage this blank slate of a character. Still, that I managed to last through the entire running time of the movie without dying of boredom is mostly thanks to him, his beard, and the cinematography.
In the end, the Robert Redford vehicle Jeremiah Johnson (1972) mines similar territory, but does so in a far superior way. Watch that movie instead. Or, if you’re interested in one character chasing another across a mountain range, the criminally underseen and underrated Pierce Brosnan/Liam Neeson western Seraphim Falls (2007).
Finally, a brief note about my legally purchased DVD of this 31-year old catalogue title: the copy protection mechanisms on it rendered the disc unplayable on one of my systems and nearly so on another. This is why other people have no qualms about “piracy”: not only do they save money, but they don’t have to put up with bullcrap like this and fear for the life of their hardware because of user-unfriendly little “safeguards” on the discs.