From Warner Bros.
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Allyn Ann McLerie
It is probably my favorite Robert Redford character. That is not to say it is my favorite Robert Redford movie. That is my second favorite movie. This was a character and a film that meant a lot to Redford; it's been said it has a spiritual feeling for him. Some of that is no doubt in part due to being filmed practically in his back yard in his adopted state of Utah.
I think Redford has said it is his favorite film. It was his second of seven actor-director collaborations with Sydney Pollack and it proved to be one of their happier filmmaking experiences. (I also loved their first outing together, This Property Is Condemned, another of my 50 favorite films.) Anyway, the love Redford had for this project simply shines throughout the film.
Jeremiah Johnson looks so damned authentic. I imagine this is the look of the life the mountain people led. It was based at least partly on the life of a real mountain man, Liver-Eating Johnson (could you see that on a marquee?) featured in two works on which the film is based. While the film is about him, it is spread out over a canvas that includes a glimpse into the values and differences between whites and Indians. There didn't appear to be any Hollywood silly whooping it up between the two groups and we no doubt have Redford to thank for some more authenticity.
After an overture, the film opens with a narrative:
His name was Jeremiah Johnson. They say he was born to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper width and adventurous spirit suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and it don't seem to matter much. He was a young man; ghostly stories about the tall hills didn't seem to scare him none. He was looking for a Hawken gun, 50 caliber or better. He settled for a 30 but damn it was a genuine Hawken. You couldn't go no better. Bought him a good horse, traps and other trustings that went with being a mountain man and said goodbye to whatever life was down below.
Before this beautifully-filmed piece is over, Johnson has learned how to start fires, deal with the winters, learn to trap and trade and deal with the animals and hone his shooting and listening skills. He has a preference to lead a solitary existence and his life (and ours) is generally rewarded when he comes across others.
The first is Will Geer as Bear Claw in a colorful performance as an old mountain man, long in the hills, whose main function is to teach Johnson some much-needed skills. For us, he provides a bucket full of humor. At one point Johnson asks Bear Claw is he's ever lonesome and Bear Claw says, "For what?"
After coming to the aid of a mother and her only surviving child in an Indian raid, he takes the boy with him. Played most effectively by Josh Albee, he speaks nary a word. Johnson is then duped into marrying an Indian woman (Delle Bolton) and the segment featuring the three of them is the best. Nothing seems to last in the mountains except the weather and the difficulty. Relationships come and go and are brief at best.
Redford may not have looked as handsome in this one as he did in a number of other films, but one would be hard-pressed to find fault with this performance.
This is a fabulous rainy-day movie. Camp out in your favorite chair, turn on the big screen TV, munch some buttered popcorn and sip at your favorite drink. It is a glorious western, trying to say something about a part of American history in an authentic way. And again, it is gorgeously filmed. It was a huge commercial and critical hit.
Here, have a peek:
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