Sydney Pollack’s JEREMIAH JOHNSON
In tribute to the annual Sundance Film Festival here’s a review one of our favorite films starring Robert Redford. This film was shot in and around Sundance, Utah…
“His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none. He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better. He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better. Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said good-bye to whatever life was down there below.”
In 1972 Director Sydney Pollack shot the western-adventure film Jeremiah Johnson. Based on Raymond Thorp & Robert Bunker’s book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man, its the tale of an American soldier fresh out of the Mexican War who makes his way to Colorado to try his hand at living in the mountains using only his wits and a Hawken gun to help him survive. Jeremiah soon finds living out in the wild is one tough job and that his amateur knowledge of fishing and trapping aren’t good at all.
One day while tromping through the woods, Johnson meets “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp (Will Geer) a loud talking, grizzled old resident of the area that takes him in and teaches him the basic tools of survival including how to “skin grizz”. Soon, with a bit more know how, Jeremiah takes off on his own once again. He later comes upon a log cabin where a pioneer family has been massacred by Indians, only the mother and son have survived. The woman has clearly lost her mind from the shock and pleads with Jeremiah to take her young son (a mute) with him. Jeremiah obliges and the two leave the woman to her fate. Jeremiah decides to give the boy a new name, he chooses Caleb.
Jeremiah and Caleb soon encounter a strange bald man named Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a helluva ornery character who has been buried up to his neck in sand by renegade Indians after a…misunderstanding. Jeremiah digs him out and invites Del to travel with him and Caleb. As they ride along, they are suddenly confronted by a group of Indians who notice a bunch of scalps Del secretly placed on Jeremiah’s horse. The Indians are thrilled at the sight of scalps since they’re taken from their enemies. In thanks they bring the men to their home. While there, Jeremiah and Del meet with the Indian Chief (who is fluent in French after being taught by missionaries). Jeremiah mistakenly offers the Chief his belongings which puts him in a position of disrespect if The Chief can’t give him a better gift. Without knowing what’s been said between Del and the tribe’s leader, Jeremiah ends up being forced to marry the chief’s daughter Swan (Delle Bolton).
In a strange twist, the mountain man who set off to live alone suddenly finds himself a new family. Johnson takes on this charge and does his best to be an honorable husband/father and continues to weather the storms the hostile mountain life throws at him at every pass like killer wolves and a terrible tragedy that tests his very soul.
The screenplay was written by John Milius and Edward Anhalt. If you look at John Milius’ works they have a reoccurring theme, men who are outlaws and renegades in society from Evel Knievel (1972) to Dillinger (1973) to Magnum Force (1973) to Apocalypse Now (1979) to Conan The Barbarian (1982). The screenplay for this film in particular has the kind of story that Milius is best at writing about: Mythical, wild, colorful, untamed characters living life their own way.
Robert Redford creates one of his most memorable roles here as the ‘tough as nails’ Jeremiah. He brings his unique style/wit and trademark dry humor to the pioneer character which makes him even more enjoyable to watch. It should also be noted, Pollack and Redford worked on several films together throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s and all of them are great collaborations.
Jeremiah Johnson is another furious film that fans of 70s cinema should definitely take a look at. If you love tales of high adventure, westerns and survival stories, this is one you won’t want to miss!