When their truck breaks down in a mountain stream in the dead of winter, Waylan Jackson (Kurt Russell), must find shelter for his young daughter, Paula, and her pet pig, Scarlet. The recently widowed Jackson, who had packed their belongings back in Pennsylvania, was traveling through 1934 America looking for a new place to put down roots and ply his trade.
Jackson, a gentle clock maker who has never known anything more rugged than icy bathing in his native Norway, now finds himself in a place where civilization has barely made inroads.
In an isolated farmhouse deep in the mountains, they come upon Colley Wright, (Kelly McGillis) an unwed mother, and her baby son, Jonathan. Though awkward with, and suspicious of, strangers, Colley offers them the accommodations of the rock house next to hers. Sharp and perceptive, Colley sums up her first impression of the stranger to the baby she jounces on her arm. “His hands are soft as mama’s, Jonathan, and let’s his child rule him.”
Returning next day with Colley, Jonathan, and Paula, to the site where he broke down, Jackson finds the harsh and unruly Campbell clan vandalizing his truck and stealing his possessions. Yet, even though the clan patriarch, Drury Campbell (Mitchell Ryan), jerks Colley and baby face down into the stream, Jackson does not challenge them. Paula, ashamed that her father stood by and did nothing, later screams out her frustration and bursts into tears. “I’m all you have,” Jackson softly replies. “I can’t take risks.”
At first Jackson is viewed with suspicion and scorn by Colley’s father, William Wright (Lloyd Bridges), her brothers, and the townspeople. His profession also brings little respect. “Is that the sort of thing a man does where you come from?” asks Wright, who views Jackson as little more than a tinker, a vagrant jack-of-all-trades.
But this small, gentle man soon proves his worthiness among the mountain men, and proves to Colley that gentleness can cloak an iron will. The black bear in this movie seems to embody all the mountain’s challenges to the newcomer. An annual bear hunt draws Jackson into the circle of the coarse, earthy mountain men. It is on this hunt that he must call upon untried skills and untested courage in a life-threatening face-off.
He is soon challenged again, this time by a wild, mysterious black-haired stranger, Cole Campbell (Jeffrey Meek) who returns to claim his woman and his child. A huge, rough-hewn, and ferocious bear of a man, he mocks the reasoning and courteous clock maker. Rising to another challenge of proving that a clock maker is more than a tinker, Jackson becomes involved in building a clock tower just like “the one in Europe”, for the isolated mountain village; a clock with a ferocious black bear who emerges to strike the hour.
Then, as Jackson becomes embroiled in an “eye-for-an-eye” tragedy, and is faced with exile from the village, he looks at the unfinished clock tower for the last time. It seems to represent all that will now remain unfinished in his life. But in a surprise twist, Colley strikes a terrible bargain, and offers up a living sacrifice to the unforgiving Campbells.
Warning: although “Winter People” is one of my all-time favorite movies, the men represented here are crude — they look coarse, act coarse, and talk coarse. It is not a movie for children, or for those whose sensibilities are easily offended. And let me say here that I do not like coarseness for its own sake — that which is thrown in just to titillate those who think it’s funny. It must be an integral and natural part of the setting, the characters, and the story.