Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A strong “new” western of the 1970s type, possibly emphasizing pacifism or nature or something.
What did I get? I am fond of both Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford, truly, but my expectations for them have a strict upper limit. In that spirit, I expected Jeremiah Johnson to be a stimulating nature-western, but well short of greatness. So I was not prepared for the accomplished and resonant movie that Jeremiah Johnson is. Without reexamining their respective resumes, it surely ranks among the best movies either man has ever made.
In a ballsy move, Pollack starts Jeremiah Johnson with a musical “overture” and sticks an “entr-acte” halfway through — and the movie (at 115 minutes, the shortest movie with an intermission I can think of) triumphantly earns those grandiose trappings. Choosing mountain life over American society, the eponymous hero, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, undergoes a remarkable transformation in front of our very eyes.
Johnson’s choice to head for the hills reeks of hubris, and the movie wastes no time in roughing up the fresh-faced newbie. Inept at fishing and bear hunting, Johnson is at risk of starving to death until “Bear Claw,” an eccentric grizzled hunter of grizzlies, offers his guidance. This is the first of a series of amusing and lively characters who enliven Johnson’s lot.
Having inherited a mute youngster from a raving widow and stumbled into a wedding of obligation to a Flathead Indian maiden, Johnson recapitulates the founding of the colonies by building for his family a homestead from scratch. (That his companions never utter a word usefully keeps the emphasis on the visual.) This idyll is interrupted by an impromptu (and unwelcome) mission from the U.S. Army Cavalry, who needs Johnson to help make their way to a stranded wagon train in need of aid. Under protest, Johnson leads the expedition through Crow burial grounds, and returns to find that the Crows have massacred his family in retribution.
In what can be taken for a metaphor for the white man’s general lack of proportionate response, Johnson responds to this tragedy with a frenzy of murderous revenge, spending several weeks attacking any Crows he can find. After that vengeful energy is expended, the film ends with Johnson’s status as an authentic man of the mountains — and distance from his original self — confirmed.
Pollack’s use of the glorious Utah landscape may be unprecedented in the western genre, but it’s hard to explain just how. The perspective is neither worm’s-eye view nor epic-panorama — it’s somehow both at once. The plot is fully integrated in the lush, craggy setting, allowing us to take in its beauty while never feeling that it’s just for “show.” The movie is dotted with fantastic set pieces, from the unfortunate frozen hunter whose bear rifle Jeremiah inherits (“Lord hope it be a white man”) to the kinetic wolf attack to the climactic revenge montage. There’s no shortage of jaw-dropping moments.
Likewise, one wonders if this is the first American western to honor Native American subjectivity. Redford’s Jeremiah may go on a revenge spree against Crow Indians, but their narrative status is rather higher than the wild card Del Gue, whose inane banter periodically punctuates the movie.
I’m no particular fan of writer/director John Milius, whose resume includes Dirty Harry, 1941, Red Dawn, and Conan the Barbarian, but he is a talented fellow, and it’s clear that it’s his brutal worldview that gives Jeremiah Johnson its fascination. Clearly it was Milius, not Pollack, who had an interest in the remarkable life of John “Liver-Eating” Johnson, and equally clearly it was Pollack, not Milius, who sanitized Johnson’s tale enough for public consumption (much to Milius’s annoyance). Pollack was largely right about this, I think. We could use a more accurate version of Johnson’s insane life, but good art results from finding the universal in his life, not from making us gawk at the sheer barbarousness of it all.
In a judgment that may shock some of my film-loving pals, I think I might prefer it to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. McCabe‘s great too, more original perhaps, but as much as I love Altman — and I do love Altman — I know his methodology risks being shallow, to hew to a too-obvious overarching premise, in McCabe‘s case that the original settlers were fuckups. Jeremiah Johnson has richer ideas. I appreciate its foursquare approach.
What here smacks of 1972? The “back to nature” ethic and the general treatment of the Indians would not have been possible in a Hollywood movie 10 years earlier.
IMDB score: 7.5
My score: 10
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: John Milius and Edward Anhalt
Starring: Robert Redford, Will Geer, Delle Bolton, Josh Albee, Joaquín Martínez, Allyn Ann McLerie, Stefan Gierasch, Richard Angarola, Paul Benedict, Charles Tyner, Jack Colvin, Matt Clark
IMDB synopsis: A mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians when he proves to be the match of their warriors in one-to-one combat on the early frontier.