Ride due west as the sun sets; turn left at the Rocky Mountains . . .
With this simple advice, Jeremiah Johnson sets forth on a brutal course toward life anew. Robert Redford is the titular hero recently returned from the Mexican-American war in Sydney Pollack’s 1972 western. He abandons civilization for the mystic allure of the Rockies with plans to hunt “bear, beaver, and other critters worth cash money when skinned.” This journey completely reshapes Jeremiah, gradually molding the tale of his harrowing fate into a mythical, merciless, ice-cold mountain ghost story.
In spite of his goal to escape the clatter of humanity, the mountain coaxes Jeremiah into a strange wilderness thick with people both living and dead. First he finds Hatchet Jack, a corpse frozen at the base of a tree with eyes locked deep in an empty gaze. Jeremiah pries Jack’s .50 caliber rifle from his frosted clasp and quickly happens upon Bear Claw, a wise cracking, wild-bearded mountain man played with subtle tenderness by Will Geer. He saves Jeremiah from starvation and eventually shares decades of his rugged hinterland wisdom. These scenes are executed with tremendous control by Redford and Geer. Their poignant synergy yields an unusual kinship while quietly revealing numerous scars of isolation. Bear Claw is a reflection of the man Jeremiah will become, a subtle warning of the harsh life ahead.
Alone once again, Jeremiah wanders into the mountain barrens, this time boasting a survivalist’s education. Hatchet Jack’s rifle and these newfound skills provide a stroke of good luck and allow him to thrive for a short while. Opportunities soon arise to trade furs with a Crow Indian called Paints His Shirt Red. Jeremiah even lets loose and tugs a few puffs from the peace pipe.
While thankful of his rapport with the Crow, Jeremiah still hopes to conquer the wild riding solo. Unfortunately, the mountain has a different idea. He discovers the aftermath of a grisly massacre where two survivors remain: a young boy shocked mute and his hysterical mother. He helps bury their dead and sings along over the fresh graves as the woman howls a painful hymn. She then scuttles into the brush to die alone, leaving her son to live with Jeremiah. Not long after becoming a father, he finds himself married to a Flathead woman called Swan thanks in part to the careless savagery of a bald-headed scoundrel named Del Gue.
Though initially bothered by their presence, he slowly fosters affection for Swan and his son, whom he calls Caleb. This blossoming affinity is paralleled with the physical act of constructing their family cabin in a powerful scene that ignores sluggish exposition in favor of rich montage and music. As they work together, palms raw from exhausting labor, a faint glimmer of hope dances between them. It appears Jeremiah has found peace in an unlikely place.
“Mountain’s got its own ways.”
Early in the film, when Bear Claw first says these words, they go without notice from Jeremiah. The dreadful truth emerges when he agrees to lead a tired company of soldiers into the bowels of the mountain to rescue starving settlers. They arrive at the outskirts of a Crow burial ground grimly decorated with old bones and tribal altars to honor the dead. He warns of the repercussion in desecrating such sacred land, but the soldiers remind him of their dire mission. Unable to ignore the poor souls in jeopardy, he guides them through and pays the ultimate price. A small band of Crow invade his home and butcher his family as punishment. The scene that follows provides one of the film’s most visceral, striking sequences. With the lifeless bodies of his loved ones entombed inside, Jeremiah sets the cabin ablaze like a makeshift funeral pyre. The flames curl and climb, slowly eating what remains of the life they forged. It’s in this tragic moment that the film takes a violent turn. No longer concerned with solitude or harmony, Jeremiah instead veers down a path toward sorrow and blood-soaked vengeance.
Jeremiah wastes no time in finding the Crow. He growls and stomps through their camp, fighting all five men at once like a ruthless demon. The tale of his revenge is told by the lone survivor, which rouses a seemingly endless barrage of retaliations sent by the jaded Crow. In another impressive use of montage, a storm of surprise-attacks synthesize in slick fashion, each with Jeremiah as the eventual victor. The story of his unforgiving resistance rattles the wilderness and all the people within, drawing the film further into mythological terrain. It doesn’t take long for word to spread of the lonely white man slowly dismantling the Crow. Enemies begin to fear him like a snarling beast from their nightmares. Some think he’s a ghost, others believe he’s immortal. Soon everyone knows the legend of Jeremiah Johnson.
This isn’t a Western crowded by shootouts or horse and buggy chases. Pollack’s film is a fascinating character study that relies on stellar acting and poetic images to spur the story. Redford boldly embodies the role and achieves a level of placid realism by saying more with his eyes than any dialogue could communicate. The magnificent frames of cinematographer Duke Callaghan invite the viewer to traipse through the snow and shiver with the hero in his struggle for survival. The editing is cautious, but full of meaningful intent. It implies a deep-rooted relativity between man and mountain, dissolving many shots of Redford into landscapes of the cruel environment, ingeniously emphasizing nature’s undying intervention in Jeremiah’s life.
At times Pollack’s film aims toward an intellectual audience. It begins with an overture and pauses for a brief intermission somewhere in the 108-minute runtime. The sparse amount of dialogue demands the story be digested through patient, visual comprehension. Redford doesn’t rush his soft-spoken characterization, allowing himself ample time to develop his role through Jeremiah’s actions. Littered among these triumphant moments are aspects that pull the film in an opposite direction, away from its art-house sensibilities, hinting at somewhat of an identity crisis hidden under the skin. Banjo-accompanied scenes of slapstick with Bear Claw, Del Gue’s bumbling, cartoonish delivery—these scenes seem better fit for cowboy television from decades prior. Humor is steadfast in the western genre, but here it feels forced and is spread far too thin, leaving a hokey aftertaste as it fails to add balance to the strenuous narrative.
The music of Jeremiah Johnson is another element plagued by inconsistency. John Rubinstein’s score is beautiful and constantly engaging, but his instrumentals are book-ended by a cringe-inducing theme song. Tim McIntire’s vocals in “The Ballad of Jeremiah Johnson” are dull and meandering, summarizing the story before the film can even begin. What’s the point of half-heartedly telling the audience something the camera will soon reveal with great poise and eloquence? The singing oddly reappears once more out of the thin mountain air as McIntire muddles the excellent final words, “And some say…he’s still up there,” sounding winded like he sprinted to the studio to record at the last minute. The film was based upon a folk legend, and the song seems intent on enhancing the mythical vibes of the source material, but there isn’t enough time for the tune to resonate. This results in an awkward rather than uplifting song, leaving viewers like me to search for logical explanations to justify its inclusion.
These weaknesses are somewhat inconsequential. Pollack’s film still shines unlike any other western. Jeremiah Johnson is not just simple entertainment, but a work of art that requires an open mind and undivided attention to pay it proper respect. It’s said to have a devoted cult following which comes as no surprise. A few years ago, I watched it with a friend and his father, an avid VHS collector and passionate fan of the film. From the first narration to the final credits, he mumbled nearly every word of dialogue crackling from the television. Though initially a bit off-putting, I later noticed scuffs on the tape from constantly feeding it to the VCR, and in this moment the film’s endearing impact became indisputable. This sentiment was reaffirmed with my most recent viewing. I again found Jeremiah Johnson to be a unique cinematic experience that almost entirely evades the weathering of time. I suggest seeing the film at least once, alone or with a group of close friends or family, if only to absorb the exquisite artistry that unravels on screen.