You loved "The Mountain Men" when you were a kid, although it played under a dozen different names at that time.
It didn't have the same stars, and the top 20 Western-movie cliches in the script may have been arranged in a slightly different chronological order. Fans who have retained a taste for those cliches will want to know that they are well photographed -- and acted with considerable distinction by Charlton Heston, Brian Keith and others -- in "The Mountain Men."
Now playing at nine suburban theaters, "The Mountain Men" has the inevitable scene where the grizzled old trapper gets four inches of arrow in the chest and exploits the occasion to make a three-minute death speech full of aphorisms and sad worldly wisdom. But in this one, he has at least the grace to make a semi-apology: "I'm bleeding to death and I'll talk as much as I want."
It has the mandatory scene where the white hero, trapped and trussed up in a tepee, is told by his implacable Indian foe: "Tomorrow, you see your last sunrise."
It has (rather briefly, to be sure, in a script where Indians spend most of their time skulking or getting killed) the scene where the warrior leader explains why he acts that way: "The long-knives, the hair-faces -- there are more and more of them. If they are not stopped, there will be no more food to hunt."
Whatever plot the picture has revolves around the possession of the maiden Running Moon (Victoria Racimo) whom Bill Tyler (Heston) and Chief Heavy Eagle (Stephen Macht) keep stealing from one another, much as they steal horses back and forth. But most of the picture is really about scenery and fighting and killing and chases and the decline of the beaver population in the 1830s. The screenplay was written by Heston's son in one of the notable Oedipal gestures of the year, and because of some good acting and photography the picture is actually somewhat better than it probably sounds.
It has the scene where a 108-year-old chief talks about a place in the mountains "where the beavers are as thick as stars in the sky," and the scene where the white man's faithful Indian friend comes galloping up with a crucial message, delivers it and then promptly dies, being no longer useful to the plot.
On top of all this, it has an "R" rating -- perhaps because the dialogue has a salty realism it didn't have when these cliches were new, perhaps because of the scene where an Indian brave "moons" his enemies from across the river and gets a load of buckshot in the exposed part of his anatomy, perhaps because after delivering his speech about the beaver the 108-year-old chief begins exploring the anatomy of a nymphet who is the solace of his declining years.
Finally, it has some breathtaking scenery, shot on location in Wyoming with a high level of technical excellence, and a few glimpses of animal life that are worthy of a Disney nature film.
"The Mountain Men" falls between the two basic cliche periods of the Indian film: the Leatherstocking Period and the 10-Gallon Hat Period. The action takes place around 1835 (we know that because the price of beaver is falling disastrously from the high of $6 per pelt which it attained in the early '30s, and the fur top hat is going out of fashion, replaced by black silk). The location ranges from Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons, and it should be noted that Charlton Heston cuts a livelier figure scrambling around those mountains than he did on Mount Sinai.
In spite of cliches as thick as stars in the sky, the price of admission to "The Mountain Men" may be worth almost as much as one 1830 beaver pelt.