The year is 1820 and the place is the far reaches of the North American continent, where the white man has not made so much progress in colonisation. There are fur trappers and gold prospectors there, however, and a group of the former has been led by Captain Henry (John Huston), who insists on taking his ship across land, pulled by mules, so they can have a vessel to sail down the river when they reach it, on the way to civilisation and a small fortune they can sell the pelts for. However, along the way Henry's most reliable man, Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), has struck out briefly on his own when suddenly he is attacked by a large bear, and it looks as if he will not survive...
You may be aware of this story from the account presented in the Oscar-winning film The Revenant, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, one of many versions of the true story that have been crafted in book and other forms down the centuries. The original tale was of Hugh Glass, a mountain man whose hardiest of constitutions saw to it that he survived a terrible ordeal by dragging himself - with a broken leg - across hundreds of miles of rough terrain to safety after nearly being mauled to death by a bear. His incredible feat of survival was recorded at the time, and has gone on to inspire all sorts of stories of endurance: this in particular was partly drawn from his experiences.
Though not completely, apparently so the producers did not have to pay royalties to the author of the book they had adapted the script from, a bit of a bad show that they were forced to settle for out of court with him at a later date. Setting that to one side (and also Harris's bad behaviour on the shoot, he was well into his hellraising stage by that point), what was on offer was a survival yarn obviously following on from its star's big hit A Man Called Horse from the previous year, with which this shared some similarities, largely in the depiction of gruelling physical pain to be overcome by sheer grit and determination rather than intellectually out-thinking whatever the problems were.
Bass is a man who runs on instinct, and though he doesn't do a whole lot of running here, what with the bad leg and all, his oneness with Mother Nature serves him well, not because she is benevolent, but because she demands so much from him, from everyone here, really, you have to respect her else she will see to it that you do not last. Therefore after being patched up by Henry's men, it is clear to them that he will die soon so they eventually abandon him, the two left (Percy Herbert and Dennis Waterman) fleeing when fearsome natives appear and strike the terror of self-preservation into their hearts. Yet the thing is, Bass is not dead, and in fact he's on the road to recovery, which explains why actors like Harris and DiCaprio are attracted to this role, for it offers the opportunity to wallow in suffering for their art.
The editing switched back and forth between the initially barely conscious Bass, and Henry on his ship as he mused that the man they left behind may still be alive, and worse than that may be intent on seeking revenge. When the Captain considers that this man is one of the toughest he ever met (another attraction for a star to play him), then if he does make it back to them he may not be in the sunniest of dispositions, which builds up the final confrontation for us to expect violence. Though there was a bloodthirsty finale, it was not quite what you might have anticipated, albeit the presence of the native tribes creating menace along the way (Bass witnesses an attack on a rival group by fearsome warriors) may have alerted you to the way this was heading. As with The Revenant, there was a sense of tactility to the drama, Richard C. Sarafian (fresh off Vanishing Point) evidently having a very specific vision as to how he wanted it to come across, which succeeded on those terms, yet was testing to watch purely because of those methods. Music by Johnny Harris.