Jeremiah Johnson: Robert Redford is sublime as the Mountain Man who became a legend in his own time

Sydney Pollack’s 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson is one of the most poetic and atmospheric westerns that is at once mythical and a myth-shattering visceral experience.

Jeremiah Johnson has one of my most favorite movie openings of all time:  Robert Redford, wearing an Army uniform, is seen stepping off a barge into a rustic settlement- what appears to be the frontier line between civilized America and the wilderness. We hear the following vice over on the soundtrack by an unknown narrator:

“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…Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said goodbye to whatever life was down there below.”

Redford’s Johnson equips himself, and sets off following the instruction, “Ride due west as the sun sets. Turn left at the Rocky Mountains.”,  in his search for “bear, beaver and other critters worth cash for trapping.”. This is followed by his journey into the wilderness while the titles appear on the screen, and on the soundtrack we hear Tim McIntyre singing the Jeremiah Johnson theme song.

This is such a simple, informal, yet appropriately mythical beginning for a western film and a western hero. Nobody knows where he is from?, why did he come here?, what did he do before? and what made him leave  civilization behind to become a mountain man?. But he is “here” and the film is going to be about his journey, which becomes a metaphor for a man’s life journey: a total rebirth and recreation of the man, stage by stage . It has an episodic narrative in which we would see a ‘child’  grow up to be a man and man into a mythical god worshiped by his native American enemies. It would take him into a  wilderness that’s, both, beautiful and terrifying. The film would build on (and also debunk) a lot of myths about life on the western frontier. Suffice to say that Jeremiah Johnson is one of the greatest westerns ever made , which showcases the west at its most atmospheric and Robert Redford, the star\Actor, at his greatest.

Jeremiah Johnson is a film that is devoid of any well constructed plot or a straight story line. It’s a film made up of moods and rhythms. There is no actual setup or build up that is going to lead up to a spectacular climax: it’s very much in the mold of the New Hollywood cinema that was experimenting with the form of the medium, though Pollack himself is a self-confessed non-innovator when it comes to visualization and form breaking. It’s an extended meditation on man’s relationship with nature and the power that nature bequeaths upon him, when he becomes one with it, that transform him into a force of nature, a mythical being.

Johnson’s initial attempts at making it out as a mountain man are all failures. Like a new born baby trying to come to terms with his surroundings, the new man in the wilderness is practically a fish out of a water. He clumsily attempts to catch fish with his hands, an incident that coincides with his first encounter with the Native crow chief Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquin Martinez). The chief, realizing that he is harmless and wouldn’t survive  much long, just rides away without inflicting any harm. As Johnson’s unsuccessful journey continues, he comes close to freezing and starving to death. But then he finds a mentor\protector\father figure at the right time; Bear Claw (Will Geer), an old timer who makes his living hunting grizzly bears. Under Bear Claw’s tutelage, Johnson finally develops a mountain man’s tact and technique. His training is as tough as the wilderness; sleeping on burning coal, shooting exercises  that get Johnson almost stampeded by his horse and  skinning a beer that is still alive, are all part of the training program. Eventually, as in happens in a civilized society, the boy,  after completing his education, bids adieu to his teacher\father. Leaving Bear Claw behind, Johnson rides off to find his own way through the mountains.

In the next episodes in his life, we see him become a father, friend and husband. He has his first encounter with frontier violence when he comes across a woman (Allyn Ann McLerie) driven insane by the massacre of her family by Indians. Her husband has disappeared, and the only other survivor is a young boy (Josh Albee), struck mute by the killing. The woman hands over the boy to Johnson and runs away, most probably, to commit suicide. This moment marks the beginning of  Johnson’s transformation; now a father, with a boy (whom he names Caleb) of is own to look after. As they continue on their journey, they come across Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), who is buried up to his neck in dirt after being robbed by a band of Blackfoot Indians. Both Johnson and Del pursues the blackfoots and, in a violent  encounter, manage to kill them and retrieve the stolen goods. Soon they are encountered by a bunch of flatfoot Christian natives, who are happy to see their mortal enemies ,The Blackfoots being killed. The Flatfoot chief gives his daughter, Swan, as bride to a very reluctant Johnson, who is forced to accept her- as rejecting the ‘gift’ would be an insult, penalty for which will be death. Once the wife enters Johnson’s life, Del part ways with him and rides away. So now with a wife and a child, Johnson becomes the most unlikely family man. He continues on until finally he  finds an appropriate place for them to settle down. They build a log house and starts their domestic life with all three of them, from very different backgrounds and cultures, bonding together to form a close, loving family. At this point in the story, Johnson’s transformation to a (Mountain) Man looks complete.

But Johnson’s story is not over yet; the final episode in his life – the transformation from man to myth –  is still left. It is brought about by an intervention from the civilized society, rather than by the savage Natives.  Johnson family’s idyllic life is broken when Johnson reluctantly agrees to lead a cavalry patrol to rescue a wagon train bogged down in snow in one of the high passes. To get there, the troop has to ride through a sacred tribal burial ground- which is a taboo according to Crow traditions. Johnson knows that there would be repercussions to this action , but he is forced to continue on. The Crow retaliation is swift and deadly. By the time Johnson returns to his cabin, his wife and child are killed. Overcome by grief, he burns down the cabin and sets out to track down the killers. He ruthlessly pursues and murders the killers of his family. The Crow retaliates by sending more warriors to kill Johnson, but he kills everyone of them. His legend spreads far and wide, with The Crow building a  monument to Johnson’s bravery, periodically leaving trinkets and talismans as tribute.  Johnson drifts on; unstoppable, indestructible, undefeated, and finally, at a distance, faces The Chief, Paints His Shirt Red.  Johnson begins to reach for his rifle, but holds as Paints His Shirt Red raises his hand in peace. Johnson reaches his own hand out as if to touch the brave. It seems the war is finally over, and Tim McIntyre’s voice returns to sing , “And some folks think…he’s up there still…”

The script of the film, based on the novels Mountain Man and Crow killer, is a collaboration between John Milius (the writer of Conan the Barbarian) and Edward Anhalt (the writer of Becket). In any other scenario , this would have been a marriage made in hell, but here, under Pollack’s supervision, it turns out to be a perfect marriage. Milius always works with a broad, well defined Black and white moral palette, where a man does what has to be done to survive. While  Anhalt creates a nuanced, more complex world and characters. Their collaboration contributed to the creation of this unique film; that emphasizes authenticity and detailing in language and lifestyle of the characters; that appears very masculine and violent on the surface, but is very elegiac and philosophical in tone; and ultimately breaks the regular pattern of westerns dealing with mountain men.

The two main stars of the film are Robert Redford and the breathtaking Utah Landscape. Redford is in practically every scene of the film and he is always photographed in relationship to his surroundings.  The landscape reflects the emotional state of Johnson. In the beginning The landscape is harsh, bitterly cold and snowy, and Johnson is photographed as a tiny speck in this large canvas. But as he slowly transforms from a novice to an expert, the landscape changes to rocky mountains, sun drenched desert, wild forests and finally back to snowy winter. But by the end he is not dwarfed by the landscape anymore , he towers over it. Redford gives one of his greatest (if not the greatest) performances as Johnson. His lean , economic style of acting is perfect for the character and the film. Redford is a classical American movie actor- in the mold of Robert Mitchum or John Wayne- who is more of a reactor than an actor. Of course being a trained stage actor , he is capable of delivering those active ‘actorly’ performance as in Barefoot in the Park or The Sting. But he is at his best When  he is reacting to his surroundings or to his co-actors, which suits a  film about a  man who is trying to adapt and get along with his surroundings. He is also a great actor of silences, as seen in his recent film All is lost. His best acting moment in his career is perhaps in this film; in the scene where, on his return from escorting the troops , he finds Swan and Caleb dead. Right from the moment when he comes running to the cabin- and Pollack accentuates the moment from his perspective by using handheld camera; to his reaction and breakdown on seeing the dead bodies, he just nails the pain and horror. And as he sits there in the dark in front of the corpses of his wife and child, Pollock’s camera unflinchingly focuses on his grief-stricken face . He sits there for what looks like an eternity. Then there is a dissolve and the camera zooms out of his face and now the expression seems to have changed slightly, but the emotion that it conveys is totally different from before: It’s a mixture of resignation and resolve. We feel something sinister brewing inside him. He then burns down the house and sets out to take revenge; and as he spots his enemies, he walks towards them, with guns in hand, with almost the same expression he had earlier; he kills them all, except one, whom he lets go. Its a 20 minute wordless sequence which Redford , with some help from Pollack, pulls off magnificently. There are also moments where we get to witness his skill with words and his comic timing. Like the time where he tries to strike up a conversation with Swan, who doesn’t know English. He teaches her to say “yes” to everything, and uses words like ‘fine figure of a man‘ to describe himself; thereby showing a different facet of his character. His classic good looks and sophisticated persona adds an extra dimension to the character and is very much in sync with the more sensitive, artistic western that Pollack was going for here. This would not have been possible if the role was played by someone earthy like Lee Marvin. The role was also a great marriage of Redford, the environmentalist, and Redford, the actor, as the film was as much about preserving, and harmonizing, with nature – something that he passionately espouses in real life. – as it was a Western adventure story.

The film was originally intended for Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood and to be directed by Sam Peckinpah, but once Redford came on board, he convinced his old friend  Sydney Pollack to direct. The film was a major turning point for Pollack. Though he had directed films in the past and had done This property is condemned with Redford, this was a huge undertaking . The studio wanted the film to be shot n the backlot to cut costs. But Pollock convinced the studio that he can do it for the same cost on outdoors. He was so passionate about the project that he mortgaged his house to supplement the required budget.  The film would not have been the same without those real locations. Shooting on location gave the film the kind of atmosphere and texture that would have never gotten on shooting on the backlot.  Pollack had a knack for blending commercially-appealing properties with a more sensitive, intelligent and even artistic sensibility that made his films stand apart from the crass commercial mainstream movies. This is evident here, as he takes the template of the western and alters it, keeping in with the counter culture mood of the late 60’s and early 70’s, to come up with a unique western that is as gritty and authentic as it is poetic and romantic. This theme of this film – “The lead protagonist’s attempts at surviving a hostile and alien environment”- will become a continuing theme for him in his future movies. Three Days of Condor will be Jeremiah Johnson set in the city, with the lead character of Turner trying to navigate the unfamiliar  urban  terrain of spies and conspiracies, that is as treacherous as the snow capped mountains. Out of Africa would be a gender reversed version of this film where instead of a man , its a European woman trying to survive in the African wilderness. The film also solidified a strong artistic bond between Redford and Pollack. Pollack would turn out to be the best director to bring out the strengths of Redford as a performer- his gift for ‘reaction’, his skill with silences as well as with terse, economical throwaway lines-  which is already discussed above, but more than that , he would be instrumental in turning Redford into a superstar with back to back hit films. Their collaboration will spawn 5 more films after this (7 in total), of which, except their last film Havana, all others would turn out to be critical and commercial successes.

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5 thoughts on “Jeremiah Johnson: Robert Redford is sublime as the Mountain Man who became a legend in his own time

  1. Totally agree with your evaluation of the poetic Jeremiah Johnson. Nicely written (as usual).
    Interesting note: the film was made on property owned by Redford. Keep up the fine work!

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  2. If this movie was made today you just know that the studio would insist on a whole backstory for Johnson, explaining who he is and why he wanted to become a mountain man. Which misses the whole point of the movie. It doesn’t matter who Johnson was before he came to the mountains. The point where we meet him is where his life truly begins.

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  3. Pollack , early in his career, had some experience with Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone.” It was “just a television show” but it was a great way to learn from some of the best directors, writers, and actors around. One of those actors was the very young Robert Redford. Interesting.

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