In the Yukon Territory in 1931, World War I veteran Albert Johnson (Bronson) arrives in a frontier town and quickly makes an enemy out of the locals by interrupting an illegal dogfight. Things go from bad to worse when a local band attack Johnson's cabin, who retaliates by killing one of their men. Disillusioned RCMP Sergeant Edgar Millen (Marvin) is forced to hunt down Johnson in the extreme north before he can escape beyond their jurisdiction into Alaska.
This film provides examples of:
- Age Lift: The real Edgar Millen was a popular young Constable who more closely resembled Constable Alvin Adams, the new rookie in the film. He's instead portrayed as a weary, alcoholic older Sergeant of the RCMP.
- Asshole Victim: Hazel and his mob, Tucker and Luce.
- Beastly Bloodsports: Albert Johnson breaks up a dogfight after he arrives in the Yukon frontier town and rescues a wounded dog. The locals try to get payback for this by laying siege to Johnson's cabin, killing the dog in the process.
- Gold Tooth: Albert Johnson, a Yukon trapper in 1931, is wrongfully accused of being a "mad trapper" believed to be murdering people for their gold teeth. After the real Mad Trapper is shot in the face and found to be carrying a pouch full of gold teeth, the Mounties pretend it's Albert Johnson's body and let him escape.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Albert Johnson was a real person who was the subject of a months-long manhunt in the Yukon Territory in 1931-1932. While he kept to himself in a cabin in the wilderness, reportedly he kept messing with the locals' hunting traps. The mounties tried to question him two separate times, bringing a search warrant the second time around, but he ignored them. This eventually resulted in a shoot-out between Johnson and the mounties after they forced his door, wounding several lawmen. The film makes him a lot more sympathetic by turning him into a Great War veteran who is really just a kind-hearted hermit, having him nurse a maltreated dog back to health, and only becoming a fugitive after a group of vengeful locals force him into a shoot-out by attacking him.
- Named After Somebody Famous: Sundog (Carl Weathers) reveals that his real name is George Washington Lincoln Brown, which he hates being called.
- Spared by the Adaptation: The real Albert Johnson was killed by the Mounties after a months-long manhunt. In the film, the corpse of a local killer who was actually stealing gold teeth is made up to look like him, while Johnson escapes into Alaska.
- Spiritual Predecessor: To First Blood released a year later after this film, due to its similar premise.
- Stern Chase: Albert Johson is a hunter/trapper in 1931 depression-era Yukon Territory who is falsely accused of murder, and is doggedly pursued by an Inspector Javert-type Canadian Mountie. In a reverse to the usual run-for-the-border scenario, Johnson's only hope is to survive long enough to escape to the United States, at the Alaska territory border.
- Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Sergeant Millen knows that the local mob antagonized Albert Johnson to begin with and are asking for his head. He offers Johnson safety if he'll come down to the station with them, but this is ruined by a member of the mob opening fire unprovoked. Millen knows that there's nothing for him to do but kill or take in Johnson from there, even if he doesn't enjoy it.