The actor and environmentalist Robert Redford moved to Utah, the birthplace of his first wife Lola Van Wagenen, at the turn of the 1960s. He built a home for his young family and gradually got to know the beautiful and unforgiving terrain of the state, much like the titular character Redford played in 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson, a revisionist western by Sydney Pollack which explores themes of racial conflict, peace, boundaries, customs and the struggle for survival in a richly satisfying way.
Set near the end of the Mexican War, Johnson is a jaded soldier who has turned his back on the conflict to start a new life as a mountain man in the Rockies. (Based in part on the life of mountain man Liver-eating Johnson, as detailed in Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man and my own resplendent tome – even if I do say so myself – 350 Great Raw Liver Recipes By Liver-eating Johnson.) After nearly starving to death during a harsh winter he meets an eccentric trapper by the name of ‘Bear Claw’ Chris Lapp (an effervescent Will Geer), who teaches him how to survive when the weather is at its coldest and food is scarce. The old hunter’s idea of fun is to release a live bear into a cabin while Jeremiah is inside, but he eventually proves to be a useful friend and mentor, teaching Johnson several important skills for survival during the winter and explaining some aspects of Native American culture to the younger man. Heading out into the wilderness on his own with more wisdom, Johnson meets a variety of people, gaining along the way an adopted son named Caleb (Josh Albee) and a Native American wife named Swan (Delle Bolton).
This oddly-forged family settles by a river and enjoys an idyllic, calm period of life, but before long friction between Native American tribes and white settlers in the region shatters the peace. Johnson finds himself in a long-running clash with the Crow tribe in particular, led by Paints His Shirts Red (Joaquín Martínez), and the struggle for survival in the mountains takes on a bloody, relentless edge. Jeremiah and the Crows find themselves at an impasse of sorts, and the story subsequently examines the way in which adversaries are able to reconcile in order to co-exist harmoniously; shoot-outs and fist fights in this film do not constitute the end to a conflict, as per so many other westerns, but are instead stepping-stones taken in order to achieve a peaceful resolution.
Where many westerns simply accept the fact that a racial divide in the old west existed and subsequently led to conflict, and use that as a jumping off point for generic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ action, Pollack’s film is more concerned with the reasons why such clashes and misunderstandings happened, and it doesn’t necessarily side with Johnson despite the fact he is the primary focus of the movie. Pollack was far too smart a filmmaker to bother with the idea of archetypal good guys and bad guys, or heroes and villains, and instead the film allows us to sympathise with the situations of nearly all of its characters, eschewing the usual stereotyping on both sides and recognising that many mountain men preferred Native American company to that of their fellow white settlers.
Still, there is some insight into the pressures that existed in the mid-19th Century as Native American tribes were forced to share their territory (or worse) with the new Americans that spread into the west in search of new lives and fortunes, but amid all the mistrust on both sides there is a clear desire to develop good relations for trading and other purposes. Johnson receives an early indication regarding the value of such interracial bonds when he comes across the body of a Native American-hating mountain man who has frozen to death; before expiring in the cold he managed to write a note expressing his hope that a white man finds his body and takes his gun, rather than a Native American.
Pollack is adept at highlighting the frequent misunderstandings that happened when two distinct, strong and barely-adaptable cultures came into contact with each other during this period in history. In Jeremiah Johnson some of these incidents lead to horrific acts of retribution, whereas others result in vaguely-comical warnings; at one point Jeremiah meets a sneaky trader named Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who is buried up to his neck in the ground because a trade he was making unexpectedly went south. More obviously Jeremiah’s union with Swan is born out of a cultural faux pas, when Jeremiah innocently offers a gift of enemy scalps to a Flat Head Chief who is forced to respond with an even greater gift – his daughter’s hand in marriage – so as not to lose face.
These fascinating incidents build up gradually throughout the film, with the consequences growing ever more serious. In the end Johnson leads a party of soldiers looking for a stranded wagon train through a Native American burial ground, and though he is aware of the dangers of this act of trespass, he is not prepared for the severity of the response. It comes at an interesting point, where the character has made a breakthrough of sorts with Swan and a mutual admiration – love, even – is clearly developing. One minute Johnson appears to have gained enough knowledge about Native American beliefs and their culture to establish a ‘normal’ family life, the next his apparent lack of awareness and understanding leaves him punished and seemingly doomed.
Redford is terrific in the starring role, in a film made when the actor was at the peak of his popularity. He is a charismatic lead, equally believable in the movie’s exciting action scenes and its vaguely-comic moments. Disappointingly, though, the wear and tear of life in the Rockies isn’t all that apparent, and in several scenes he looks as if he has has just enjoyed a three hour session with the old Head n’ Shoulders in a luxury trailer. His teeth are always Movie Star White, too, and despite the scarcity of food in the mountains (especially when he needs to provide for his wife and adopted son) his waistline clearly expands during the film. The support is also entertaining, and although I would like to have seen more scenes involving Martínez’s character, I am appreciative of the fact that Pollack didn’t turn Paints-His-Shirts-Red into an obvious nemesis.
In a similar fashion to Clint Eastwood’s later western The Outlaw Josey Wales, Jeremiah Johnson paints a more sympathetic picture of Native Americans than the 1950s and 1960s norm without necessarily glossing over the conflicts and violence that existed in the mid-19th Century. It’s a fascinating film, with great rhythm, superior cinematography by Duke Callaghan and an intelligent, enthralling screenplay by Edward Anhalt and John Milius (Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now) that gets to grips with the key themes early on and examines life in the Rockies more than adequately, often wittily. Pollack gives the film additional gravitas by incorporating an overture and an intermission (despite a running time of 118 minutes in total), and teases out one of Redford’s finest performances. All told this is a very good western; while it rejects many of the genre’s cliches it doesn’t shy away from a tomahawk fight or two and the action is handled well. As exciting as it is thought-provoking, it’s no surprise that Jeremiah Johnson was a big critical and commercial success at the time of its release, but the strong revisionist attitude – still a fairly leftfield approach at the time – means it has aged well too.
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Written by: Edward Anhalt, John Milius, Raymond Thorp, Robert Bunker
Starring: Robert Redford, Delle Bolton, Will Geer, Stefan Gierasch
Running Time: 116 minutes