Out of the five most significant works about mountain men, Hollywood managed to turn four into disappointing movies. Those four (according to a 1999 Western Literature Association survey and surveys by The San Francisco Chronicle, Hungry Mind Review and Heath American Literature Newsletter) are The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr.; Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred; Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher; and Wolf Song by Harvey Ferguson.
Song of Three Friends by John G. Neihardt is the fifth work. It is a poem rather than a novel, which might explain why Hollywood hasn’t mangled it into a film version.
One problem in writing “regional” books, as all western writers know, is that readers expect authenticity. Where a character in a Hemingway novel can “pull a heavy, ugly revolver from his pocket,” in a western novel he’s expected to draw a “Colt Single-Action Army with 7′ barrel.” Graham Greene’s readers don’t care if he calls a horse a “mount,” but in a western it had better be a Barb, Arab cross, buckskin gelding or a well-muscled roan showing mustang blood.
To achieve authenticity Neihardt, Guthrie, Manfred, Ferguson and Fisher studied first-hand accounts by frontier travelers, including Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1847), Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper (1848), Frederick Ruxton’s Life in the Far West (1848) and Lewis Garrard’s Wah-to-Yah and the Taos Trail (1850).
These travel narratives explain how mountain men “raised” beaver and ate “hump,” “fleece” and “boudoins.” Here are details about “mok’sins” and “capotes,” about Hawkens and “’hawks,” about Green Rivers and “G’lena pills.” Garrard was seventeen when he went west to find some Indians and mountain men; but savvy enough to record the lingo of Hatcher and Garmon and Louy—“Now, hobble your cavyard,” says Louy . . . “an’ drink coffee with us—you is true grit, an’ them’s the sort as kin have everything ‘on the prairie’ as belongs to me!”
Besides “true grit” Bill is possessed of a “black flask of Taos arwerdenty” or aguardiente, a.k.a. Taos lightning or brandy. Brandy is as expensive as tobacco, which Hatcher claims has risen to “two plews a plug for bacca, three fur powder and so on.” Earlier in Garrard’s account Hatcher makes an oft-quoted speech (“This child hates an American what hasn’t seen Injuns skulped, or doesn’t know a Yute from a Khian mok’sin”) and claims that trading post prices are so bad that it’s “a plew a plug, an Dupont and G’lena, a Green River or so. Durn the white diggin’s while thar’s buffler in the mountains!”
Dupont was mountain talk for gunpowder. Galena was bullet lead. Arbuckle meant coffee; a Green River was a butcher knife. “On the prairie” meant it was free. But all this is merely vocabulary, peculiar to that time and place. The novelist’s real task is to push through such details and create a story that will interpret the underlying myth of a cultural experience—in this case the time between Ashley’s 1823 expedition and the 1840s decline of the market for beaver plews.
Wallace Stegner described Boone Caudill of The Big Sky: “Caudill is an avatar of the oldest of all the American myths—the civilized man re-created in savagery, rebaptized into innocence on a wilderness continent.”
Introducing Mountain Man, Vardis Fisher quotes Bernard DeVoto: “. . . but the loveliest myth of all America was the Far West . . . a lost impossible province . . . where men were not dwarfs and where adventure truly was. For a brief season . . . the myth so generously begotten became fact.”
About Lord Grizzly John R. Milton writes that he could only find 292 identifiable mountain men—yet their story reflects “the ebb and flow of the relationship between man and nature and between the individual and the group or his society.” And that is what myth is all about.
Harvey Ferguson’s Wolf Song needs no introduction. You read the first line and feel the myth beginning: “Up from the edge of the prairie and over the range rode three.”
You feel it coming in the opening of Neihardt’s poem, Song of Hugh Glass:
“It happened then that Major Henry went
With eighty trappers up the dwindling Grand,
Bound through the weird, unfriending barren-land
For where the Big Horn meets the Yellowstone;
And old Hugh Glass went with them.”
Hugh Glass is savaged by a grizzly, left for dead by his compañeros and crawls over a hundred miles to Fort Kiowa. Neihardt made an epic of it; Manfred turned the legend into a magnificently mythic story. Then in 1971 Hollywood mangled it into a laughable dog’s breakfast titled Man in the Wilderness, a mishmash of ham acting and misrepresentation.
Throughout the film the “mountain men” are doing something no mountain men ever did, namely hauling a 50-foot keelboat on wooden wheels over the mountains to the headwaters of some unnamed river. Recovering from his grizzly mangling Hugh Glass, expert tracker, can’t find the tracks of forty men dragging a fifty foot boat. When he finally catches up, he demands the return of his rifle. Unfortunately he forgets to ask for powder, lead, patches and flints—and stomps off into the wilderness lugging a useless Hawken rifle weighing ten pounds.
As for Hollywood’s 1929 film of Wolf Song, let’s just say that the most interesting moment is Gary Cooper in full monty, bathing in a stream. In Ferguson’s book it’s the Spanish beauty Lola Salazar who is naked in the hot springs.
Hollywood’s The Big Sky (1952) attempted most of Guthrie’s novel, but besides close-ups of Kirk Douglas’s cleft chin and staged Indian attacks by whooping extras (who according to their costumes are a mixture of Kiowa, Navajo, Comanche and Eskimo but are supposed to be “Sioux”) the chief point of interest is the question of whether it’s Kirk or Dewey Martin who will sleep with Elizabeth Threatt (Teal Eye).
Filmmakers love the costumes, dialect, scenery and action of mountain man stories. But even Jeremiah Johnson, the film version of Vardis Fisher’s novel, fails to convey the essence of the mountain man experience, that elusively ubiquitous spark of the mythic. Robert Redford isn’t Fisher’s Sam Minard. He’s not John Johnson, either (there never was a “Jeremiah”): he’s an actor in leather pants whose most philosophic utterance seems to be “hah?” By contrast, the mountain man in Fisher’s book broods about the approaching end of his way of life, finding it “as answerless as fate and as inexorable as death.”
Dr. James Work is the editor of the textbook Prose and Poetry of the American West, past-president of the Western Literature Association, and author of eight novels set in the West.
More articles in this series:
• “The Five Most Important Cowboy Novels Ever” by James Work