When Facts Are Re-Imagined For The Movies: Death Hunt (1981)

Having just watched a short documentary on the 1931 manhunt the movie was based on, I was pretty amazed to find out just how “superhuman” the real guy (Bronson’s character) was. These are the sorts of details a lot of screenwriters and producers might instinctively tone down, or omit altogether, on the assumption audiences would find them too far-fetched and ‘movie-like’, despite the fact they were true.

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The real Mad Trapper did survive the prolonged shootout at his cabin. The shootout’s finale– when Bronson’s character survives the posse blowing his cabin up with dynamite and jumps out of the wreckage, guns blazing, to escape, killing another posse member in the process– actually happened that way.

While eluding the posse, the real guy did manage to survive the extreme cold for a prolonged period, which even the Canadian aboriginal trackers were astonished by, but he was also extremely emaciated by the time the posse finally caught up with him months later. He was also around 35 years of age; Bronson was in his late 50s when he filmed the role.

They never have been able to figure out the true identity of the Mad Trapper, but, judging from the expensive, advanced dental work he’d had done, it’s likely he came from an urban environment and considerable wealth. He was unusually skillful at surviving on the run in that wilderness for as long as he did, including successfully hiking over a mountain the aboriginal trackers believed he’d never maneuver without killing himself.

Much like the film adaptation of First Blood, though, where original author David Morrell’s psychotic, bloodthirsty Rambo was toned down and made more sympathetic (i.e. more palatable) for mainstream movie audiences (*)…

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…the real Mad Trapper was also reimagined for Death Hunt. The actual guy was an antisocial paranoid who overreacted with violence at the arrival of the RCMP (who were investigating a minor offense) and was reported to have laughed after he later gunned one of them down.

Instead of rescuing a dog from cackling, sadistic bad guys, as in the movie, the 1931 case was set off by the Mad Trapper vandalizing aboriginal trap lines. That’s why the RCMP showed up at his cabin to speak with him. He refused to come out.

When the Mounties returned later with more men, the Trapper had prepped his cabin for war. That’s when the shooting started. Unlike the movie version, in real life both Bronson’s and Marvin’s characters died at the end of the manhunt.

Interesting as I found the details of the real case to be, I still consider Death Hunt one of my favorite Bronson movies, along with Chato’s Land.

(*Movie Rambo maims every Deputy in the Sheriff’s posse; one Deputy dies inadvertantly when Rambo throws a rock at him in self-defense. Then Rambo scares some National Guardsmen by shooting at them, drives a large truck into some police cars pursuing him, causes property damage in town and wounds the Sheriff during a gun battle before surrendering to his former Green Beret CO.

Novel Rambo gleefully slaughters every Deputy in the Sheriff’s posse, then proceeds to kill a staggering number of police officers, National Guardsmen and civilians before decimating the Sheriff’s entire town with explosives. Rambo then mortally wounds the Sheriff during a gun battle before having his head blown off with a shotgun by his former Green Beret CO.

Movie Rambo? Persecuted Underdog.
Novel Rambo? Homicidal Psychopath.

 

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