Jeremiah Johnson

Dir: Sydney Pollack, 1972. Starring: Robert Redford, Will Geer, Delle Bolton, Stefan Gierasch. Western.
Jeremiah Johnson

"The mountain's got its own ways." --Jeremiah Johnson

Among those who are big fans of the Western genre, I find myself having to defend this delightful movie. Aside from the repetition in the soundtrack, I couldn't come up with a single complaint. It is known and kept in high regard for its breathtaking cinematography (Duke Callaghan [Conan the Barbarian]) and for the fact that it was shot entirely on the mountains of Utah. We find Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford), a man fresh from a war, and set on avoiding the coming Mexican War, who also wants to make a clean break from society. He decides to learn how to become a trapper, hunting various types of game in order to survive and trading furs with local tribes. His quest was both to define himself and to break free of social constraints, and yet he discovers that every land has a law. These rules are breakable, but not excusable merely by ignorance. Soon he finds out that the mountain and its tribes intend to put him in his place.

Their presence is not needed at first. Poor Jeremiah is a terrible shot and can hardly get a fire going in the harsh winter. He stumbles upon an eccentric, old, white man by the name of Bear Claw (Will Geer), the nickname coming from his hobby of hunting and skinning grizzly bears and the necklace of their claws that he wears. He teaches Jeremiah skills that a good trapper needs and warns him about the tribes and their rules until Jeremiah can go off on his own. However, his every move is tracked by two tribes: the friendly Franco-dominated Blackfoot, who speak French and are Christian; and the Crow—a ruthless and well-hidden tribe who've kept a close eye on him since he arrived. Their territory is the land on which he eventually settles. He keeps to himself, communicating with them only in times of trade and thus gaining their respect. Others were not as lucky to get on their good side, and soon he stumbles upon a single mother who has lost two of her small children to the Crow's wrath. Jeremiah assists her, leaving with her surviving son when it becomes obvious that she is too distraught to care for him.

From there he meets Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a zany fool who keeps a shaved head so that the tribes won't be tempted to scalp him. Through a series of events Del Gue gets Jeremiah's help with a problem and introduces him to the leader of the Blackfoots. An exchange of powerful gifts to the chief leads to Jeremiah being offered his daughter, Swan (Delle Bolton), as a gift of equal stature.

Though Jeremiah came to a place where he thought he could not be changed or broken, he receives a valuable lesson. One cannot escape the savagery of mankind, nor can they ignore its beauty and necessity. He came to mold his own fate, but a series of circumstances surrounding his new family and past obligations force him to learn the hard way. He becomes a man who is hunted after he makes the mistake of blending his past with his current situation. The war no longer stands as him against the earth, but with the mountain's people as well. There are movies where a nobody becomes a somebody, or goes from rags to riches. In the heroic sense, this story is somewhat similar. Jeremiah went from begin a soldier without a place in the world to the unstoppable enemy of the terrain's merciless tribes.

The story is taken from two sources, a book called Mountain Man and a story by the name of Crow Killer. The sense of folklore and naturalism is perfect for the landscapes which it is set against. It was rumored that Clint Eastwood was to star in the lead and Sam Peckinpah was to direct, and I am so happy that this was not the case. Peckinpah is awesome, no question, but there is a humble chemistry between Redford and Pollack that allowed for a sensational experience. Redford was said to have a lot of influence on the development of the character and was even a pallbearer during a ceremony to relocate the grave of the man on whom the film was based. He was also thought of as a nature boy. He fills out this character down to the bone and works well with the cast to deliver a film that is as haunting as it is hilarious. This is my favorite Western and one of my favorite performances by Redford. Highly Recommended.  

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 12, 2010 4:52pm
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