by Sam Juliano
A mountain man’s a lonely man
And he leaves a life behind
It ought to have been different, but oftimes you will find,
That the story doesn’t always go that way you had in mind.
Jeremiah’s story was that kind. . .
Jeremiah’s story was that kind.
An extraordinarily diverse and eclectic New York cultural maven opined in 1932 that “the strong silent man is the heir of the American pioneer, the brother of Daniel Boone whom James Fenimore Cooper immortalized as the American type for Europe. In what was truly to be a redefinition of this quiet but resilient recluse, the mountain man Jeremiah Johnson is given some directions – “Ride due west as the sun sets and turn left at the Rocky Mountains and then proceeds to embark upon a lifetime journey that takes him to a place of beauty and terror, a land ruled by a savage ethic and populated in large measure by those no longer invested in the land of the living. Jeremiah is the title character and central focus of Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, a 1972 western starring Robert Redford at the peak of his appeal, a film that’s narratively straightforward but is underscored by a mythic ethos and a pulsating spirituality.
Jeremiah Johnson is one of the most compelling documents on film that purports to examine the ferocious, yet entrancingly beautiful outer reaches of American civilization – a wilderness where peril and uncertainty lurk at every turn. As captured by cinematographer Duke Callaghan the mountains evince a visual duality – bathed in golden sunshine, yet at other times capped by milky white snow that serves as a kind of ominous portal that beckons less precautionary adventures to their demise. The specter of the mountains also serves as a challenge for even the most rugged of men, reminding them that there is no way to defeat them. One must co-exist and rely on favorable timing and sheer good luck. The film is one of three westerns that makes powerful use of it’s snowy terrain (the others are Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Andre de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw) Yet, Jeremiah Johnson is the only one of the three where the raw and unforgiving terrain serves as the backdrop for what ultimately plays out as a meditative solo odyssey focused on a search for the meaning of life, one played out as a kind of re-creation of how the mountain man lives within the thematic parameters of man vs. nature a la Jack London. Conservationist actor Redford had relocated to Utah in the late 60’s and he purchased a ski resort in Provo Canyon. Located within a stone’s throw of a national forest and the Rockies, the region showcased natural beauty that at the end of the day was a godsend for Pollack and Callaghan, who set up camp with the cast and crew for the coming winter shooting schedule.
Broadly adapted on the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher, and a story “Crow Killer” by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker, Jeremiah Johnson (1972) is set sometime around the mid 1840’s, at the tail end of the pre-eminence of the mountain man, a time when western migration had commenced. The character of Jeremiah was drawn from real-life hunters who worked extensively in the mountain regions of Colorado. Johnson, as played by Redford is a disaffected soldier who has defected from service in the brutal Mexican War to take on the adventure of the mountain man. In the early going the man vs. nature contest is nearly lost as Johnson barely escapes freezing to death but is saved by the sage and resourceful Bear Claw (played by Will Gear) a scruffy old geezer who proudly declares that he makes his living by “hunting grizz.” He displays some tactical and comic propensity in fact by letting a hungry grizzly bear follow him into the cabin Johnson has entered, and is most pleased when he hears the gunshot that leads to a late night feast on the grill. After a baptism under fire when his clothes catch fire after not following Bear Claw’s instructions to bury the coals deeper to generate heat without complications, Johnson leaves to follow his own way. In no time he comes upon a crazed woman who is unhinged by the massacre of her family by Indians. Her husband is gone, and only a mute young boy has survived the carnage. The woman insists that Johnson take the boy (Caleb) with him, but the mountain man resists until he seemingly realizes the woman is a danger to both herself and those around her.
With the boy at his side Johnson then comes upon a charismatic motor mouth – a trapper named Del Gue who is buried in the ground up to his mouth – a result no doubt of a deal gone bad with Indian traders. Jeremiah digs Del out and helps him get his horse back from his attackers, but only at the expense of a failed ambush that leaves all the Indians dead. They then encounter a peaceful tribe of rival Flathead Indians and offer the chief a gift of scalps taken by Del. This act of kindness though will force the leader to ante up a far more formidable present – one that can’t be refused as Del Gue confirms on pain of death- his daughter Swan’s hand in marriage. A short-lived idyllic period ensues when Johnson takes his new family into the wilderness to chop down trees and clear an opening near a stream to build a cabin. Some serious bonding brings the three together in a most unlikely kinship. Inevitably, the hostile land kicks back, and Swan and Caleb are murdered off-screen by Crow Indians looking to gain retribution after Johnson reluctantly assists a cavalry patrol aiming to rescue a wagon train stuck in snow. The only way to reach the party is through Crow burial ground. As an actor, there is no finer moment in the film for Redford than the cathartic moment when he arrived to the cabin to find the unconscionable carnage. It immediately recalls the celebrated scene in The Searchers when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) discovers the (unseen) bodies of his brother Aaron, sister-in-law Martha and niece Lucy after a Comanche ploy to draw his away from his family. Redford is initially shattered, and unable to emote, but is shocked back into the realization that life can change on a dime in this forbidding landscape, when he observes his horse rustling in the doorway. He covers the bodies and then sets fire to the cabin. This entire passage of understatement says so much more than any macho anger could ever transcribe, and as a result its all that more aching.
Again, like Ethan Edwards, Jeremiah is silently consumed with revenge, and he tracks down the raiding party, killing every member except for one he grants clemency to after the brave begins a poignant death chant. Single Indians are subsequently dispatched to kill Johnson, but each attempt is unsuccessful against the man on a mission. He again passes through the hollow where he first encountered the crazed woman and Caleb and discovers a white settler named Qualen and his family. Qualen tells Johnson that the Crows have paid a tribute to their “great enemy” by way of a symbolic monument. He finally comes upon the Indian Paints His Shirt Red, but after reaching for his rifle his assumed adversary offers his hand in peace. Johnson reciprocates and the message is that peace has finally been achieved. It’s a weary peace to be sure, but Johnson’s violent heroics earned him divine protection. He return to Bear Claw, receiving validation that he he is a genuine mountain man. With his vindication satisfied Johnson then moves on. It is reported that Pollack preferred to have Johnson freeze to death, while Redford favored leaving the mountain man’s fate to the audience’s imagination, by leading him back into uncharted mountain territory and away from the Crow and their love/hate regard for him. Redford’s more ambiguous choice was the one finally honored. The theme of the protagonist trying to find himself while making destructive choices that still lead to self-revelatory closure can be found throughout director Sydney Pollack’s work, especially Tootsie, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor and Out of Africa, but especially in Jeremiah Johnson, where nature prevents any true escape. John Milius’s original script, which was altered much to the writer’s dismay, Johnson’s adopted son is not murdered, but is taken by the Crow and raised as one of their own. Again, we have echoes of The Searchers, in which Debbie Edwards is reared by the Comanche. Similarly, Johnson’s run of killings is triggered by the desire to recover the boy, much as Ethan Edwards was driven over years to reclaim his sole family survivor. But if Milius’s original story is less severe than the actual screenplay we see by having the boy live, (temporarily anyway) it takes a more perverse turn later when Johnson consumes the livers of his victims. The labels of myth and/or legend are then applied to him by white hunters and Indians. He is finally captured and set to die, but is rescued by trappers intent on his release. During the assault, he learns to his horror that his son Caleb is among the many killed in this operation. Johnson joins the Crow tribe in their mourning and moves to co-exist with his enemies, seemingly destined to circulate in a white-washed purgatory, but enlightened with the realization that no man could ever live alone.
Pollack’s filming style is largely conventional, but there are a number of exceptional touches. The first -and one that establishes the picture’s visual textures and raw authenticity- is the use of a hand-held camera that ushers in Johnson’s arrival in an Indian flat boat and follows him to his new life in an unforgiving yet mysterious terrain. This gives the film a documentary look from the start and helps to diminish a few of the movieland touches that ensure, one being when Redford survives a spear to the gut. Pollack pulls back from a burial on a hilltop to austere and powerful effect and his zooming on trapped wagons give the images a sense of urgency. There’s a visual elegance too in the scene where Redford chances upon a frozen-stiff trapper, and the later quiet and fateful ride through the Crow burial ground, both of which are pictorially striking. Pollack tried to size up the film to Film Comment in 1975: “The picture in part is about the illusion of trying to get away from it all. I feel you have to make it work where you are. There is no getting away. The original ending of Jeremiah showed him as an exact duplication of the frozen man with a gun. He climbs higher and higher. First he turns his horse free, then he begins to eat snow. He keeps going higher and higher, getting more and more distant in long, long shots until he almost disappears in the clouds. The last shot shows him encased in ice–a kind of pathetic movement to himself. But I decided it was excessive, and nobody understood it, so I took it out.”
Unlike the sentimental overkill seen in Dances With Wolves -another film about an isolated white man living among the Indians that promotes the notion of the Noble savage (Little Big Man is another) Jeremiah Johnson maintains a moral ambiguity throughout and stands clear of politics and the iniquity of western expansion. Its simply a story of survival and self-determination, tempered with the fate offered up by the unpredictable wilderness. It is no wonder that with such a context that the film plays largely in episodic and impressionistic terms. Milius and Edward Anhalt (Becket, Panic in the Streets, The Member of the Wedding) understood from the outset that in a story of inward reflection, dialogue needed to be simple and minimal, especially as the primary thrust of the work must remain visual. Weather-beaten montages replace narrative arc to create a film that speaks in sensory terms, one that strings together seemingly minor events to create a life and the seasons around it.
In the spirit of such a focus, the film’s most exceptionally vital component is the remarkable score written by John Rubinstein and Tim McIntire. As melodic as it is suffused with folksiness and a grand strain of Americana, the full-bodied music establishes and sustains setting, while underscoring the emotional reactions of Jeremiah with homespun freshness and vitality. Some of the score’s most beautiful passages, including the breathtaking main theme, are carried by flute and woodwinds. The temper is wistful and elegiac, and though the harmonic structure isn’t anything unconventional, it speaks the language of the film and accentuates key moments in the narrative and the reflective nature of the work. McIntire’s flavorful country-style ballads including “Jeremiah Johnson” serve as a springboard for the development of some of the supporting musical motifs, much as Rubinstein’s main theme is carried throughout with some supple variations that boast orchestral diversity. Rubinstein, a young man in his 20’s when he received the assignment from Pollack, is the son of Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most celebrated classical pianists of the twentieth century, and one regarded by many as the greatest Chopin interpreter of his time. In an interview given to Alexander Kaplan for the Film Score Monthly release of the CD score, Rubinstein discusses his irresistible main theme: “The Jeremiah Johnson tune from the beginning you hear constantly in the movie–I don’t actually play the whole tune but if you listen for it you can hear it almost all the time. I didn’t want it to be a constant repetition of that tune, partially because Sydney (Pollack) had very much his original idea of breaking the movie into sections and I made the musical sections more integral to themselves.”
Some of the numerous musical highlights include the soulful collaboration of a fiddle and harmonica during the poignant “Hachet Jack’s Letter” sequence, when a gentle waltz underscores Jeremiah’s reading aloud a letter taken from the dead man’s coat, one that gleefully announces that whoever finds his remains will inherit his bear rifle; a particularly lovely setting of the main theme after Jeremiah and Bear Claw depart – followed by a short but bouncy segue bringing together a cello, English horn and piano that announces Jeremiah has developed survival skills – and capped again by an even warmer incarnation of the main theme; a splendid fiddle-piano liason that re-visits the lovely secondary theme heard several times previously during the montage of the family taking down trees and building the cabin; a Coplandesque passage that pulsates with an eerie sense of foreboding during fateful Calvary patrol sequence that alters Johnson’s future – the melody is from a later ballad – “He’s Never Been Known to be Wrong”; a mournful orchestral coda of “The Way That You Wonder” delivered by horn and clarinet as Johnson watches the results of his setting fire to the cabin and the bodies of his wife and adopted son; a beautiful flute rendition (again of “The Way You Wonder”) complete with a brief encore of the hoedown theme as Jeremiah again sees Bear Claw as the film winds down. The music here is string-dominated, with an aura of triumph, as Bear Claw commends Johnson (as always referring to him as “Pilgrim”) for the successful negotiation of his trials and tribulations that have cemented his stature as a true mountain man who has fought back many attempts on his life by the Crows; the final McIntire rendition of the title song-in view of what has transpired more evocative and haunting than the early appearances. Though the film runs less than two hours, Pollack opted to have Rubinstein and McIntire write a three minute overture that encapsulates the main themes, though it did not originally appear in US theaters, rather only in overseas markets. The ravishing piece, however, has been restored on both the DVD and blu-ray releases of the film. The film is musically divided by an intermission sequence that runs for less than a minute. Ironically and miraculously, as Rubinstein admitted, he composed Jeremiah Johnson long before he actually studied composition. In a career where acting took a far greater chunk of his time investment, this film remains his musical masterpiece, and one of the finest scores ever written for a western film.
It would be difficult to make a case against the position that Robert Redford gives his finest performance in a storied career as the mythical mountain man. Redford, an actor with a lean, unsparing style, is a perfect fit for the stamina-on-steroids introvert – a man of few words (he chides young Caleb for remaining silent, telling him “Suit yourself – I was pretty much the same way) who manages a convincing feel for the speech of the time and through his looks and personality helps to make his Jeremiah Johnson a larger than life character – a symbol of all the mountain men who were never able to connect with society. Yet Redford in the aforementioned scene in the cabin when he discovers the slaughter, is capable of sparks in his electrifying path from one emotion to the other. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his character and his performance is that there is a visible metamorphosis from the early scenes where he desires a new lifestyle to the final ones, where he experienced unspeakable grief and got a taste of the vital contribution of interaction (and even love) in the daily existence. There’s more than a hint at a spiritual awakening too, but one can easily enough conclude the mountain man has been sobered by the overwhelming tragedy and violence that must be negotiated when walking down this road. Redford’s eponymous hero at the end of the day embodies clashing values of nostalgia and cynicism and answers the question of whether a peaceful man could be forced into murderous revenge. We got that answer one year before Jeremiah Johnson released from Sam Peckinpah, who directed Dustin Hoffman to a similar mission of retribution in Straw Dogs, and it could rightly be asserted that there are some striking similarities in both characters and of how each actor plays them. In examining Redford’s performance, one must also concede that the actor is adroit at imparting dry humor in a disarming manner between the more fateful passages in the screenplay, and that he beats back the early speculation that his suave demeanor and matinee looks would undermine his attempts to portray a gruff outdoors man. Perhaps the most resonating quality in Jeremiah is the humanist interior that does bare itself a few times in the film. Redford’s reading of Hatchet Jack’s letter is deeply affecting:
I, Hatchet, being of sound mind and broken legs, do leaveth my rifle to the next thing who finds it; Lord hope he be a white man. It is a good rifle, and kilt the bear that kilt me. Anyway I am dead. Sincerely, Hatchet Jack
The performance remains a particular favorite of Redford’s to this very day.
Allyn Ann McLerie projects an unbalanced mental state quite convincingly as the woman who witnessed the slaughter of her family; young Josh Albee (Caleb), the sole survivor of that attack has become a mute from shock, though he grows to admire Johnson up until his own violent death. As Del Gue, Stepfan Gierasch provides comic relief and is entrusted with some of the screenplay’s best lines. When Redford comes upon him for the first time, he asks the imprisoned drifter how is is doing. Del Gue answers: “I got a fine horse under me.”
Unlike most westerns, Jeremiah Johnson does acknowledge Indian feuds, which in this film pits the Flatheads against the Crows. The manner in which the Indians are portrayed is relatively complex and it moves beyond the black and white social conventions too often seen in this genre. Episodic in structure, and marked by seemingly small moments that in the end redefine the man in his environment, Jeremiah Johnson is a wholly rapturous experience for the eyes and ears, a story where the setting vies with the titular character for thematic and narrative pre-eminence. That it forges path to the human heart makes it even more life affirming.