Jeremiah Johnson (1972) ****1/2
Directed by Sydney Pollack
I’m really glad that I decided to do a Sydney Pollack directing marathon in order to experience the greatness that I’ve heard about the man. Had I not chosen to do the marathon, I probably would never have seen Jeremiah Johnson. This violent western plays like a swift kick in the chin. For the first two-thirds of the film, we are presented with the most beautiful storyline, but then things change almost too quickly. There was a part of me that was hoping that Jeremiah was just dreaming what he saw upon returning from the state government’s journey. Jeremiah Johnson truly goes through some really intense experiences, which makes the transformation of his character from beginning to end completely believable.
Robert Redford, giving his best performance that I’ve seen, plays the title character, a soldier that wants to become a mountain man in order to live a life of solitude so that he can find himself. Lucky for him, he befriends an odd but experienced mountain man named Bear Claw (Will Geer) who gives him some much needed advice and words of wisdom. The film begins almost as a collection of vignettes which leads him from Bear Claw, to a crazy woman, to an Indian Tribe, to marriage, to a government mission that needs his help, to explosive revenge against Indian killers, back to Bear Claw and finally back to the house of the crazy woman he visited many years earlier. By the end, he has become a legend and a man of deep respect among people all throughout the mountains.
The crazy woman mentioned above presumably loses her sanity because she finds all but one of her young children dead and scalped by the sadistic Blackfeet Indians. Jeremiah helps her bury the children, and in doing so, discovers a boy cowering in the house. The boy, named Caleb by Jeremiah, never speaks, probably because he witnessed the murders. The crazy woman gives the boy to Jeremiah, who reluctantly agrees, therefore, giving up his life of solitude.
Next, Jeremiah, the boy and Bear Claw are taken in by the friendly Indians who believe Jeremiah to be a god. As such, the Chief gives his daughter over to Jeremiah to be his wife. Bear Claw explains that he better accept or else they will all be killed. He does, so now his journey, after Bear Claw leaves, is accompanied by a mute boy and an Indian woman that doesn’t speak much English. This unconventional family begins to grow close as Jeremiah’s wife named Swan (Delle Bolton) comes to understand that he is a good and noble man. The boy, still not willing to speak, though at one point it seems like he tries, admires Jeremiah and finally feels safe.
All that gets flipped upside down when delegates from the state government dragoon Jeremiah to lead them to an Indian tent village in order to rescue employees that have been taken prisoner. Jeremiah doesn’t want to since it’s a long and dangerous journey, but he does agree and gets them there safely. Unfortunately, when he returns, he finds the most unimaginable horror inside his home affecting these two people he has come to love deeply.
Now, Jeremiah, in a mad rage, seeks his revenge on the Crow Indians with whom he was once on very friendly terms. The scenes of revenge are brutal even by today’s standards. As I watched each physical blow and each new death, I was filled with sadness because I knew that none of this violence would bring his family back to him. These are powerful but disturbing scenes to watch.
Surprisingly, the film does not end with the conclusion of his revenge, as I expected it to. Instead, Jeremiah returns to Bear Claw and receives validation that he is a true mountain man. Returning to the crazy woman’s home, Jeremiah sees a young man that wants to be a settler in the wild. The young man looks at Jeremiah in awe since the name Jeremiah Johnson is the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, old wounds are opened when Jeremiah discovers that this man is hiding his family in deplorable conditions in fear of the Indians.
Sydney Pollack directs much of Jeremiah Johnson gorgeously, with some really beautiful landscape and nature images. I still have a problem, though, with some of his choices as a director. Some transition shots were awkward, and the editing of the entire film isn’t as crisp as it could be. Also, we get these stupid songs played in the background that may have been written for the movie since they’re all about a man named Jeremiah Johnson. Also, there was one or two times where Jeremiah, Swan and Caleb looked like they were ready to pose for an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue.
That being said, this dark western does offer a fascinating meditation on the West during the late nineteenth century. Also, we discover that Jeremiah actually needed the company of others rather than solitude to truly understand who he is and what his life should be. The film is based on the real life story of a mountain man named Trapper John Johnson. Patience is required at the beginning of the film in order for the viewer not to become bored by its slow pace. The effort is worth it though, and I’d even recommend that you enjoy the film’s down time because by the end, you will witness a man explode in rage. I promise that you will leave Jeremiah Johnson disturbed and unsettled.