Charles Bronson once said of his Albert Johnson character in this movie: "There are two schools of thought about the characters . . . Some believe the man [Albert Johnson] was a criminal. Others believe, as I do, that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. We decided to show him as a man who was a victim of someone else's need to perform violence. In trying to protect himself against an unprovoked attack, he was forced to kill one of his assailants."
The story for this movie has actually been filmed twice before making this the third version. The first time was The Mad Trapper (1972) and the second time was Challenge to Be Free (1975) (aka "The Mad Trapper" aka "Ride a Wild Mare" and "The Mad Trapper of the Yukon"). A fourth version will be The Mad Trapper (2017).
When they appeared together in the box-office hit movie The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lee Marvin was the top-billed star whilst Charles Bronson was among the ensemble cast credited alphabetically and after Marvin. After Paint Your Wagon (1969) Marvin's career and star power declined considerably. Bronson received top billing for Death Hunt (1981) whilst Marvin received second billing. However, some theatrical posters have Marvin's name elevated in height above Bronson's even though Bronson's appears first on the left and Marvin's second on the right.
The manhunt that this movie is based on was the first time that airplanes were used by authorities in Canada to track down a wanted fugitive. The type of plane used was a a Bristol open cockpit bi-plane and a real-life replica was constructed for this movie.
Pilot Vern Ohmert was hired by the production to build an actual working replica of a Bristol open cockpit bi-plane the make and model of which had been used in 1931 by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). This aircraft was the actual type of plane that was used by the Canadian Mounties to hunt down Albert Johnson during the 1930s. Ohmert visited the Imperial War Museum in London where two original planes were housed. Ohmert photographed and measured the historic planes to their exact technical specifications for the building of his model plane for the movie.
In this movie, the pilot character of Captain Hank Tucker of the Royal Canadian Air Force, played by Scott Hylands, was based on Captain Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May, OBE, DFC who was the real life pilot who assisted the manhunt with aerial surveillance.
The movie was directed by Peter R. Hunt whose work on the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) was a significant factor in his hiring, as both this picture and that film are both predominantly set in snow-capped mountains. Hunt also shares a last name with one of the words in the film's "Death Hunt" title. Star Charles Bronson would later be directed by Hunt again around six years later on Assassination (1987).
The film is a fictionalized account of the greatest manhunt in Canadian history. The chase by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was conducted during the early 1930s in the Canadian regions of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in Northern Canada.
When Lee Marvin was going through his luggage of guns with Angie Dickinson, he pulled out his .45 revolver which was loaded. He pointed it, and held it while the sound of a dry pulled trigger was heard. No motion of trigger was done by Marvin.
The 2nd November 1979 edition of show-business trade paper 'The Hollywood Reporter announced that 'Robert Aldrich' was the film's director with actors Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson starring. The three had previously all worked on The Dirty Dozen (1967). However, Aldrich ended up leaving the film, being replaced by Peter R. Hunt. Death Hunt (1981) almost celebrates the 15th Anniversary year of The Dirty Dozen (1967). One DVD edition sleeve notes state: "Fifteen years after The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson and Marvin re-teamed for this...".
The 17th January 1980 edition of show-business trade paper 'Daily Variety' announced that actor Strother Martin and actress Joan Collins would be appearing in the film with Peter R. Hunt as director. However, ultimately neither of these two thespians appeared in the movie.
The 9th May 1979 edition of show-business trade paper 'Variety' reported that the Guinness Film Group (GFG) financier was attached to the production, the film being known then under the title of 'Arctic Rampage', the article reported a budget of US $8 million, a start date of November 1979, with actors 'Peter Falk' and Charles Bronson under negotiation. In the end, only Bronson was retained, with GFG and Falk in the end not proceeding on the film project. Moreover, the title changed to 'Death Hunt' and principal photography did not commence until March 1980.
The 12th March 1980 edition of show-business trade paper 'The Hollywood Reporter' announced that production on the picture with a principal photography period of ten weeks had commenced on 3rd March 1980 in Banff, Canada with a budget of US $10 million and with a title change from 'Arctic Rampage' to 'Death Hunt'.
The 4th October 1979 edition of show-business trade paper 'The Hollywood Reporter' reported that German investor run Classic Films and Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest productions would be financing a number of productions of which this movie, then known as 'Arctic Rampage', was one of them. ' Albert S. Ruddy and Raymond Chow would both be executive producers. Production on the picture was slated to start in February 1980 with actor Telly Savalas set to star opposite Charles Bronson. In the end, Savalas did not appear, being replaced by Lee Marvin. Chow and Ruddy remained as exec producers.
The film's closing credits declare that this picture was "photographed under the supervision of the C.S.P.C.A.", had "portions of the main title of this picture were filmed in the Cibola National Forest, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture", whilst "the Producers wish to thank the government and the people of Alberta, Canada, for their cooperation during the filming of this motion picture".
The name of the trading post store was the "W.W. Douglas Trading Post". Goods that the shop stocked according to its exterior sign included traps, guns, groceries, crockery, hardware, ammunition, tobacco, drugs, and medicine.
In Borderline (1980), Charles Bronson's previous picture to Death Hunt (1981), the lead central character Bronson played was "Jeb Maynard", who was based on legendary US-Mexico border patrolman Ab Taylor (aka "Albert Taylor"), who also acted as a technical consultant to that earlier film's production. Bronson actually portrayed a character also called "Albert" in this his very next cinema movie, Death Hunt (1981), where Bronson portrayed trapper "Albert Johnson".
Because the word 'Death' appeared in this movie's Death Hunt (1981) title, the film evoked Charles Bronson's controversial earlier movie, Death Wish (1974). This movie was actually Bronson's first of two consecutive pictures to feature the word 'Death' in the title. Death Wish II (1982) was his next picture. Bronson made seven movies with this word in the title, five of them being in the 'Death Wish' franchise. "Messenger of Death" (aka "Avenging Angels") was another example [See: Messenger of Death (1988)]. The final time would be in Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), where the word "death" appeared twice.
This Charles Bronson movie is set in the snowy Canadian Yukon Territory Mountains. It was made and released only just a couple of years after Bronson's Love and Bullets (1979) whose main location was the snow-capped Swiss Mountains.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The Sergeant Edgar Millen character of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police was fictionalized for this movie. Played by Lee Marvin, the character was changed from being a young-buck as he was in 1931-1932 to a hardened middle-aged hard-drinking man typical of Marvin's persona, both on-screen and off. In the true life story that this movie is based on, Constable Edgar Millen was shot dead by Albert Johnson (who is played by Charles Bronson), but this doesn't happen in the movie.
The Captain Hank Tucker of the Royal Canadian Air Force character was fictionalized for this movie. In this picture he is portrayed as a yahoo who fires wildly at the search party and ends up dead. In the real life events of 1931-1932, the person his character is based on, Captain Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May, did not die in these circumstances by crashing his plane into the side of a mountain. May was credited for both tracking down Albert Johnson and saving one of the mounties who had been shot by him.