Based on Raymond Thorp/Robert Bunker's "Crow Killer" and Vardis Fisher's "Mountain Man" and scripted by John Milius and Edward Anhalt - with input from frequent Redford/Pollack cooperator David Rayfiel - Sydney Pollack's and Robert Redford's 1972 movie loosely traces the mythical hunter's legend, opening with his arrival at the fort where he buys his first horse and gun. "Ride due west as the sun sets. Turn left at the Rocky Mountains," is a trader's goodnatured answer to Johnson's naive inquiry where to find "bear, beaver and other critters worth cash money when skinned." But soon he finds that his lowland skills no longer do him any good, almost starving in the freezing mountainous winter before being taken in by old "griz" hunter Bear Claw Chris Lapp (Will Geer in a stand-out role - his and Redford's deadpan exchanges alone make this movie worth its price).
Setting out on his own again the following year Johnson fares better, even gaining the respect of a Crow warrior prosaically named Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquin Martinez), the first person he encountered in the mountains. After assisting a settler's wife who had to watch her family massacred by Indians (Allyn Ann McLerie) and reluctantly agreeing to take charge of her son (Josh Albee) - a boy grown mute by the horrors he witnessed, whom he names Caleb - he comes across white hunter Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), buried up to his head in sand by a band of Blackfeet. Revenging that act unwittingly leaves Johnson with a wife, in exchange for bestowing the Blackfeet's ponies and guns on Flathead chief Two-Tongues-Lebeaux (Richard Angarola): the chief's daughter Swan (Delle Bolton). Although neither embraces the match enthusiastically, over time Jeremiah and Swan learn to appreciate and, eventually, love each other. But then fate strikes: Against better judgment pressured into guiding a cavalry company through Crow burial ground, Johnson finds Swan and Caleb murdered upon his return. He sets out after the Crow who invaded his home ... and plants the seeds of his myth.
"Jeremiah Johnson" was Redford's and Pollack's second of seven collaborations after 1966's "This Property is Condemned." What most obviously characterizes this movie is the breathtaking manner in which its cinematography uses Utah's mountains (doubling for the story's actual Montana setting): despite studio budgetary limits shot entirely on location, the film had Redford acting as a virtual tour guide to the magnificent Wasatch, which he had recently made his home himself.
But the movie also shows enormous restraint, particularly given its violent underlying story. There's no blood-gushing "Braveheart"-style, no dramatic score; fights are mostly one-on-one, occurring as they would in real life - silently, with only the opponents' grunts being heard - and despite his fearsome epithet we never actually see Johnson eat a dead Crow warrior's liver. (Reportedly a script change on which Redford insisted: wisely so.) Similarly, Johnson's and Swan's relationship builds on small symbolic gestures, moving from his coarse attempts to teach her English and refusal to learn her language to conversations in Salish (Flathead); and from her submissive expectation of his exercising his marital rights on their wedding night (which rather repulses him) to later-exchanged tender glances and smiles: Thus, we only learn about their marriage's belated consummation when one morning Swan points to his beard in response to his question about her reddish cheeks. - Further, there's no dramatic conclusion; no final battle: as Johnson's myth begins to grow and he withdraws deeper and deeper into the mountains, he retraces his steps and meets in reverse order the people he encountered after his arrival: Del Gue, the settler now living in Caleb's mother's cabin, Bear Claw Chris Lapp; and finally Paints His Shirt Red who, although a Crow, created a monument in Johnson's honor and sends him off with a last salute, which Johnson reciprocates; ending the movie in an immortalizing freeze-frame shot - again, a feature insisted on by Redford, doubtlessly reminiscent of "Butch and Sundance" (and repeated one way or another in several subsequent movies).
Despite its languid pace and although just under two hours long, "Jeremiah Johnson" formally takes an epic approach, complete with overture, entr'acte and narrator (uncredited, but I think Willie Nelson), whose subtle voiceovers and brief songs provide key narrative bridges. While the latter match the movie's overall style and the overture at least corresponds with Johnson's mythical stature - albeit also setting up ultimately unfulfilled expectations of a dramatic finale - adding an entr'acte may have been a bit much, particularly in the middle of the ride through the Crow burial ground (incidentally a screenplay addition designed to give the Indians a reason to punish Johnson and not make them appear as mindless killers). In my view this breaks the dramatic tension rather than enhancing it; problematic insofar as virtually all that remains thereafter is Johnson's gradual withdrawal into the mountains and fights with the Crow. But no matter. This is a terrific movie, featuring great banter with Johnson's fellow hunters as well as some wonderfully delicate scenes with Swan, showcasing some of North America's most dramatically beautiful scenery, and growing on you more and more the more often you watch it.
And some say he's up there still ...
"The way that you wander is the way that you choose. The day that you tarry is the day that you lose. Sunshine or thunder, a man will always wonder where the fair wind blows ..."
(Lyrics, Jeremiah Johnson's theme.)
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