Grizzled, cantankerous fur trappers Bill Tyler (Charlton Heston) and Henry Frapp (Brian Keith) are among the last of the mountain men that blazed a trail for American pioneers through the Northwest wilderness. Now their time is spent fighting hostile Blackfoot warriors as they hunt beaver pelts for trade, drink, carouse and reminisce about the old days. When Tyler shelters a runaway Native American woman named Running Moon (Victoria Racimo) he earns the enmity of her abusive husband, Heavy Eagle (Stephen Macht) who is determined to see them both dead.
Charlton Heston arguably delivered a worthy swansong western with Tom Gries' fine, elegaic Will Penny (1968) but twice returned to the genre with increasingly dreary results. Heston's final western, The Mountain Men was scripted by his son Fraser C. Heston. He would go on to play a larger role in the latter stage of his father's career: scripting, producing and occasionally directing vehicles like Mother Lode (1982), Treasure Island (1990) and the Sherlock Holmes adaptation Crucible of Blood (1991). Heston junior and even cast his famous dad as the villain in his family film Alaska (1998). Alas, their first screen collaboration came to an unfortunate end when producers drastically altered Fraser Heston's allegedly darker script. There remain a few hints as to what might have been: moments when Tyler and Frapp face the sobering truth that their time has passed; the otherwise brutal Heavy Eagle raises valid points about the destruction wrought by white settlers; a remarkably vivid tableaux of frontier life where trappers, pioneers, preachers and Native Americans gather to drink, carouse, chant, dance and fornicate in credibly grubby fashion. However the compromises and alterations are apparent in a story that ambles along with strange gaps where events seem to occur off-camera and characters with seemingly significant roles (e.g. John Glover as callow young frontiersman Nathan Wyeth, David Ackroyd as good-natured, accident-prone Crow warrior Medicine Wolf) just disappear.
What we are left with is a would-be rollicking lark. A sort of Grumpy Old Men go west wherein Heston and Keith bicker and brawl their way through one meandering mishap after another. That is when they are not battling Native Americans in scenes that play more uncomfortably now than did back then. Snowcapped mountain scenery, majestically photographed by D.P. Michael Hugo, imparts a mildly epic quality to what is a resolutely old-fashioned story even though first-time director Richard Lang rings the changes with profanity, casual nudity, bloodier violence and a rape scene. Lang stages the action in bland, even clumsy fashion. Realistic perhaps but dramatically inert. Scruffy, bearded and suitably weather-beaten Charlton Heston - then fifty-seven years old - still cuts an imposing heroic figure. He shines especially towards the latter stages where events take a grim turn and the film becomes a survival thriller with Tyler on his own fleeing the vengeful Heavy Eagle. Tense and suspenseful with a well orchestrated escape through raging white water rapids this portion of the film evokes Sam Fuller's cult western Run of the Arrow (1957), but was supposedly inspired by an actual historical event that befell John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Elsewhere Brian Keith is a solid presence in an otherwise under-developed role seemingly based on nineteenth century trapper and fur trader Henry Fraeb. Victoria Racimo gives a credibly strident performance that pleasingly refuses to fade into the background. Even if her character remains something of a possession fought over by men. Veteran character actor Victor Jory makes his final screen appearance as an ancient Indian chief. Much like Brian Keith, he looks a little too pleased with himself making out with disconcertingly young looking Native American girls. Too much in the film happens too abruptly including one character's death, inexplicable resurrection and swift killing off again. All of which suggests either Lang ran out of time to film certain key scenes or the movie was hastily reworked in post-production. Either way The Mountain Men falls short of its aspirations toward the lyricism of the similar but superior Jeremiah Johnson (1972).