Canada 1931: The unsociable trapper Johnson lives for himself in the ice-cold mountains near the Yukon river. During a visit in the town he witnesses a dog-fight. He interrupts the game and buys one of the dogs - almost dead already - for $200 against the owner's will. When the owner Hasel complains to Mountie Sergeant Millen, he refuses to take action. But then the loathing breeder and his friends accuse Johnson of murder. So Millen, although sympathetic, has to try to take him under arrest - but Johnson defends his freedom in every way possible. Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
When Millen takes his revolver out of the suitcase he opens it and you can see that it is loaded. Then he closes it and without cocking it he sights along the gun. You then hear the sound of a cocked gun being dry fired, even though the gun was not cocked and was loaded. See more »
I have always been intrigued by this film, mostly because of the fantasy it suggests, and even obtained a VHS copy to look it over more closely. Using the leads posted by other readers, I have been able to glean the following facts from various Internet and library resources concerning the strange tale of The Mad Trapper of Rat River, played in Death Hunt by Charles Bronson;
a] A man referring to himself as Albert Johnson [identified post mortem by associates as Albert Nelson, although that was also an assumed name] arrived in the Aklavik area and brought attention onto himself from a large purchase of ammunition, a new shotgun, and an inexplicable refusal to get himself a trapper's license. Johnson ran afoul of a Constable Edgar Millen [Lee Marvin's character] during the New Years season of 1931-32 after his apparent meddlings with the traps of some of the local types, who suggested that he had gone bonkers in the isolation of the mountains.
b] Two posses did in fact make seperate trips to Johnson's handmade cabin [measuring 8 feet by 8 feet] and one of the Mounties did in fact have a brief encounter with Johnson through an open window; The first time he simply wouldn't answer their knocks, and the second time he shot a Mountie through his closed door with a .38 automatic. A third posse, with Const. Millens, then made the 80 mile dogsled trip and blew up Johnson's cabin after he again refused to acknowledge them.
c] After they blew up his cabin, Johnson did indeed jump up out of a foxhole he had been hiding in, firing a sawed off shotgun and a .22 repeater with the stock removed. The Mounties retreated, and Johnson slipped away in the darkness.
d] A resulting "death hunt" did indeed ensue, set entirely above the arctic circle, and by the first-time ever use of wireless radios by law enforcement, kept the public of Canada and America riveted with their newspaper and wire reports of the two week long manhunt that was the O.J. Simpson crime case of it's day.
Johnson proved a remarkable adversary, using every trick in the book to confound his pursuers, and managed to survive the nightly -40 tempetures with little or no supplies or survival gear. They did manage to corner him on one occasion; there was a gunfight, Constable Millens was killed, and Johnson escaped by climbing a sheer cliff with his bare hands in the dead of night during a blizzard.
e] A bush pilot and former WW1 air ace became involved in the pursuit, not only by resupplying the posse and flying out wounded men, but played an invaluable role in tracking Johnson after he had made his initial escape, using another wireless radio to vector in the ground pursuit in another law enforcement first. He damn near well almost escaped too, though he was finally cut down in a hail of lead after keeping the authorities at bay for 48 days.
f] The whole case was dubbed "The Mad Trapper of Rat River" incident by the press owing to the locals' contention that Johnson had gone cabin happy. He was found to be carrying a $2400 bankroll when searched, and I have found two references to "gold teeth" or gold fillings; The natives of the area had a fable about "The Trapper who steals the gold from men's teeth" that may have been attributed to Johnson after he was found to have some gold dental work in his posession.
Whether they were his or someone else's is unknown, but their presence plus all that cash led to a rumor that he got rich by prying folks' gold fillings out. This has never been substantiated, and the "Mad Trapper" name was pinned to him before these revelations came to light. To this very day, Johnson's actual identity remains a complete mystery, and his bid for freedom one of the most remarkable examples of man surviving the elements.
NOW, with that in mind, Death Hunt's scriptwriters took a few liberties with the facts to create a more romanticized tale;
Bronson's Abert Johnson is now a decoarted war veteran trained in Special
Ops, which accounts for his hardiness, comfort with weapons and wealth of survival skills.
- The conflict with the locals is initiated by having Bronson break up a dog fight, making his character sympathetic when compared to the dirt bags who pick a scrap with him afterwards.
The dog is then killed to provide Bronson with an understandable motive to
blow someone's head off and escalate the confrontation. Poor doggie...
- William Beckamn's character of Old Bill is introduced to provide a way for Bronson's character to survive the film after Lee Marvin manages to blow Bill's face off with a single slug. Nice shootin'.
- Lee Marvin's Sgt. Millens also survives and is credited with the man who killed Albert Johnson. Maybe the producers though this was a way of paying homage to Millen's memory.
- The pilot is turned into a jerk to create a "new world vs. old values" conflict with Marvin, then provided with a machine gun equipped biplane to he can gun down Apollo Creed and reinforce the senselessness of it all. The actual pilot. a Capt. "Wop" May, was widely regarded as a hero for the role he played.
- The film was shot during the spring and summer thaw so that characters could wander around in open jackets and sweaters. Much of the pursuing posse footage looks like it was filmed on a snowed over golf course somewhere; we never get a feel that these men are actually battling against the elements.
- The one scene that Bronson and Marvin share is so strangely shot and edited as to suggest that the two actors were not on the set at the same time. Watch it closely -- you can never see both men's faces in the same shot.
Yet I will always have a soft spot for Death Hunt -- it is probably the first R rated film I ever saw. It would be interesting to see a more historically accurate account of the Mad Trapper comitted to film; think of this as the fanciful and romanticized version.
If you have ever dreamed of taking a pack of supplies, a rifle and a dog up into the mountains and saying To Hell With Civilization, this film was made for you.
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