In some ways this is a hippie western. Released in 1971 when many films had darker, cynical storylines and themes this one takes a hopeless situation and turns it into a positive, hopeful moral lesson.
It is directed by Richard Sarafian the same year he released Vanishing Point but Man in the Wilderness is less existential and, in many ways, less fun. It's a survival tale with not much of a pay off. But Harris is good coming off of his more famous role the year before in A Man Called Horse. John Huston chews the scenery a bit as the captain who moves west on a land ship with his crew and waits for the inevitable showdown with Harris.
I like the way the films unfolds almost as a silent. There is little dialogue. And the world of wilderness he encounters; starting with a bear attack, wolves feeding on an still living buffalo calf, Native American's killing one another and a lot of dirt, mud, rock and brush gives the film an authentic, gritty feel. It doesn't have beautiful scenery as one gets used to in many movies that take place in the west.
I'm reviewing this in part because my dad was a fan of Hugh Glass and had written a treatment that became another story altogether. But also because I recently read The Revenant by Michael Punke, which is the same story - although with different motivations and ending. And also because of the forthcoming movie of the book by Alejandro González Iñárritu with Leonardo DiCaprio, which comes out around Christmas. I feel that film may be better if only because the ending of Man in the Wilderness is both a bit unrealistic [why would the Natives suddenly stop fighting?] and anti-climactic.
On the other hand, it is meant to be a satisfying, almost family friendly, ending. That is - in part - what really sets this movie apart from so many other movies of the early 1970's. There is a strong Christian theme of forgiveness and redemption running through the narrative. Harris reflects back on Bible study, which he never understood. But now, alone in the wilderness, waiting to die, he sees the light. [In one scene he has befriended a bunny, that for some reason he chooses to cuddle up with rather than kill and eat].
Still, the ending could have been so much better, in my opinion, if the Native American attack was that much more savage, thus making the Harris character see that revenge is not only ugly but not necessary. THAT I think would have made his final decision much more real and effective because it would have shown a man turning away from violence and heading back to civilization.