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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Man In The Wilderness (Blu-ray)
Man In The Wilderness (Blu-ray)
Warner Archive // PG // August 16, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 27, 2016 | E-mail the Author

It would be impossible to review Richard Sarafian's Man in the Wilderness (1971) without at least mentioning Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant, last year's Oscar-winning blockbuster that stemmed from one of the most difficult film shoots ever. Both are based on the historical account ("legend" is probably a better word) of one Hugh Glass, an American fur trapper who survived against incredible odds in the South Dakotan wilderness after being brutally mauled by a bear and left for dead by his own men. Both films examine the trials of a reluctant survivalist from different perspectives---and since it'd be pointless to nitpick the historical accuracy of what's basically more of a folk tale than anything else, let's instead just focus on what Man in the Wilderness offers from a dramatic perspective.

More intimate and briskly paced than your average "epic adventure", Man in the Wilderness gets right down to business by throwing the renamed "Zach Bass" (Richard Harris) right into the fire before the first reel ends. He looks death in the face as his trapping party, led by Captain Henry (John Huston), heads for higher ground, doing little more than stitching up Bass' wounds and leaving two men---young, sympathetic Lowrie (Dennis Waterman) and the less compassionate Fogarty (Percy Herbert)---to bury him when the time comes. Less than a day later, approaching Rickaree warriors force Lowrie and Fogarty to flee before their job is finished...and soon enough, Bass is crawling on his elbows, barely able to stand from blood loss, fatigue, and thirst. He's not only up against wild animals, roaming Rickaree, and the approaching winter: Bass is much more likely to die of his own injuries than anything else.

In both films, Bass' survival is obviously motivated by revenge...but to its credit, Man in the Wilderness doesn't exactly pour on the fuel as its story progresses. Instead, Bass softens during his long and difficult road to renewal: he earns respect from the Rickaree tribe, witnesses a touching moment between a squaw and her newborn baby, and recounts a number of pivotal moments from his youth and young adulthood (told via intermittent flashbacks) that make his journey as much a mental and spiritual recovery as a physical one. There's also no murdered half-Indian son to avenge, no digitally-sweetened blue overtones, and no dead horse dissection to stay warm for the night. For these reasons and others, Man in the Wilderness maintains an intimate focus as the drama unfolds and Bass eventually catches up with his former teammates, who continue to haul their massive horse-drawn boat (which could've easy held him, right?) to the nearest river. Will he choose revenge, reintegration, or something else entirely?

That's not to say that Man in the Wilderness is without a few logical flaws, not the least of which is Captain Henry's cartoonishly unreasonable behavior and the aforementioned Ark-like boat that no one in their right mind would haul for hundreds of miles. But it's still an entertaining and rousing adventure, albeit one that was generally ignored on DVD and has faded into obscurity during the last 45 years. Luckily, the massive popularity of The Revenant changed all that, and Warner Bros. has belatedly resurrected Man in the Wilderness as part of their Archive Collection. It's predictably light on bonus features, but the film's the real draw here and it looks and sounds better than ever.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

I've been very impressed with just about every Warner Bros. Archive Collection Blu-ray that's crossed my path, and Man in the Wilderness is no exception. This was never released as a stand-alone title on Region 1 DVD; both versions I'm aware of (a Region 1 Double Feature DVD with 1973's The Deadly Trackers [also recently released on Blu-ray as part of the Archive Collection], as well as a region-free PAL import) are of presumably good quality but almost a decade old. This appears to be a new transfer that, like the DVDs, retains the film's extra-wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Image detail and textures range from very good to excellent, as 95% of this film was shot outdoors and mostly in natural light. The color palette, unlike The Revenant's chilly blue overtones, favors rugged browns and greens without looking muddy. Dirt and debris are basically absent, and no digital manipulation (excessive noise reduction, color grading changes, etc.) were detected either. It's fantastic treatment of a deserving film, without question.

DISCLAIMER: These compressed and resized screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.

The audio is presented in its original DTS-HD Master Audio mono format and defaults to a two-channel spread, and what's here definitely reflects the era in which Man in the Wilderness was made. Dialogue and music are often clear but not especially dynamic, there's modest depth at times, and very little low frequency that undersells some of the bigger action sequences. Still, it sounds exactly like a 45 year-old drama ought to---especially a low-budget one shot under difficult conditions---and I'd rather have flat mono than a faux-surround "upgrade". Defects are minimal, and the only other distractions are a few stray moments of questionable ADR along the way. Fortunately, optional English subtitles are included during the film, which makes a few moments of softer dialogue easier to decipher.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The static menu (more or less identical to the cover and disc artwork) is clean, simple, and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is packaged in a standard blue keepcase with attractive art and no inserts of any kind. Unfortunately, no bonus features have been included aside from the rousing but spoiler-heavy Theatrical Trailer (2:30). In the meantime, check out this enjoyable blooper reel from the late Richard Harris' personal collection.

Final Thoughts

Though based on the same source material as The Revenant, Richard Sarafian's Man in the Wilderness serves up a much different atmosphere and scope than last year's big-budget blockbuster. It's undoubtedly a more intimate and down-to-Earth film, with an extremely likable lead performance and more even-handed treatment of just about everyone else. Man in the Wilderness is also more focused with less extraneous subplots, although its shorting running time and "smaller" journey undercut the film's dramatic intentions at times. Bottom line: both are worthy adaptations for (mostly) different reasons...and without the rousing success of The Revenant, I doubt we'd have ever gotten a Blu-ray of this lesser-seen 1971 production. Warner's "Archive Collection" package predictably skimps on the bonus feautres, but the A/V presentation is better than expected. Firmly Recommended to fans and first-timers alike.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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