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‘Jeremiah Johnson’ Hollywood’s Most Beautiful – and Saddest – Western

‘Jeremiah Johnson’ Hollywood’s Most Beautiful – and Saddest – Western

Jeremiah JohnsonJeremiah Johnson

Directed by Sydney Pollack
Written by Edward Anhalt and John Milius

The Western, at its creative and commercial peak – the late 1960s-early 1970s – proved itself an astoundingly pliable genre. It could be molded to deal with topical subject matter like racism (Skin Game, 1971), feminism (The Ballad of Josie, 1967), the excesses of capitalism (Oklahoma Crude, 1973). It could be bent into religious allegories (High Plains Drifter, 1973), or an equally allegorical address of the country’s most controversial war (Ulzana’s Raid, 1972). Westerns could be used to deconstruct America’s most self-congratulatory myths (Doc, 1971), and address historical slights and omissions (Little Big Man, 1970). They could provide heady social commentary (Hombre, 1967), or simple adventure and excitement (The Professionals, 1966). They could be funny (The Hallelujah Trail, 1965), unremittingly grim (Hour of the Gun, 1967), surreal (Greaser’s Palace, 1972), even be stretched into the shape of rock musical (Zachariah, 1971) or monster movie (Valley of Gwangi, 1969).

But what Westerns were rarely about was The West.

Oh, there were – and always have been – Western movies about the pioneers pushing West, settling the wilderness, turning the open range into the tilled land that would feed a nation, taming the lawless frontier – all the familiar tropes.

But The West itself…The West…

That strange, tugging, magical hold it had that pulled on a people, on a nation, hypnotizing it into a march that stopped only where the Pacific began. That part of the West – that thing which made The West The West…rarely found its way onto the screen.

And that was no surprise. The Indians, the deserts and plains, the buffalo, the masked Bad Men and badged Good Guys, the ranches, the farms…those were easily identifiable, concrete things. But those were only the accoutrements of The West. None of them explained the West and those ineffable, intangible qualities which kept it a vital part of the American psyche almost into the 21st Century.

Why did we revere it so for so long? Why did generations of little boys fantasize about it? Why did storytellers as disparate as Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, Edward Abbey and Cormac McCarthy mourn its passing?


Jeremiah Johnson (1972) is as close as I’ve ever seen a film come to portraying the ferocious, entrancing majesty of that 19th Century place beyond American civilization’s outermost borders often marked on maps of the time as simply, bluntly, “Unexplored.”

Robert Redford is Johnson, a disaffected soldier who’s bailed on the carnage of the Mexican War (which sets the movie in the mid-1840s) for the life of a mountain man. He steps off a barge into a rustic settlement – the demarcation line between cultivated America and wilderness – equips himself, and sets off following the instruction, “Ride due west as the sun sets. Turn left at the Rocky Mountains.”

But the Rockies have little tolerance for brave fools, and Johnson comes close to freezing and/or starving to death, saved only by the sage Bear Claw (Will Geer), an old timer who makes his living “huntin’ grizz” (grizzly bears). Under Bear Claw’s tutelage, Johnson finally develops a mountain man’s savvy, although at times it seems Bear Claw’s form of teaching is as dangerous as the Rockies. One night, Johnson follows Bear Claw’s example of sleeping on a bed of warm coals covered by a layer of earth to keep warm through the mountain night. It’s not long before Johnson is dancing around the camp in pain, beating at his smoldering clothes. “Didn’t bury ‘em deep enough,” says Bear Claw matter-of-factly as he rolls over to go back to sleep. “Seen it right off.”

Eventually, Johnson rides off to find his own way. In a small hollow, he finds a woman (Allyn Ann McLerie) driven insane by the massacre of her family by Indians. Her husband has disappeared, and the only other survivor is a young boy (Josh Albee), struck mute by the killing. The woman is clearly suicidal, so Johnson takes the boy with him, christening him Caleb.

They come across the colorful and loquacious trapper Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), and cross paths with a tribe of Flathead Indians. Johnson’s misstep of offering the Flathead chief a grand peace-making gift puts the chief in the position of having to provide an even greater gift: his daughter Swan (Delle Bolton) as a wife.

With a wife and son he’d never wanted, Johnson leads his ad hoc family into the wilds and finds a suitable place to set up a permanent home. Working together building their cabin, hunting and playing together, the three become a true, loving family.

But the idyll is broken when Johnson reluctantly agrees to lead a cavalry patrol to rescue a wagon train bogged down in snow in one of the high passes. To get there, the troop violates a Crow taboo by cutting through a tribal burial ground. By the time Johnson returns to his cabin, the Crow have taken their revenge; Johnson finds Swan and Caleb murdered.

Johnson tracks down the Crow raiding party and kills them all but one, leaving the last survivor to sing his death song. Thereafter, Crow braves singly track Johnson down, but Johnson always emerges the victor. He drifts back through the hollow where he’d found the crazy woman, her cabin now taken over by the settler Qualen (Matt Clark) and his family. There, the Crow have created what Qualen describes as something akin to “a monument” – a tribute to the Crow’s great enemy, Johnson. “Some say you’re dead ‘cause of this,” says Qualen, meaning the tribute. “Some say you never will be ‘cause of this.”

Johnson drifts on, and finally, at a distance, faces a Crow brave he’d met when he was still a floundering, half-frozen mountain novice — Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquin Martinez). Johnson begins to reach for his rifle, but holds as Paints His Shirt Red raises his hand in peace. Johnson reaches his own hand out as if to touch the brave. It seems the war is finally over.


The screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson violates any number of taboos set down by today’s screenwriting gurus. We learn very little about Johnson. We never learn where he’s from, or why he’s come to the frontier. He’s simply introduced in the opening scene by Tim McIntire’s earthy, gravelly voiceover:

“His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none…Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said goodbye to whatever life was down there below.”

We get clues, hints. There’s the Army uniform he wears when he shows up at the outpost, and his near-total disinterest in life “down there below.” Later in the film, as he leads the cavalry troop on their rescue mission, he asks the troop commander about the war with Mexico. When told it’s over, he asks, without any real interest, “Who won?”

And still later, after witnessing Johnson fend off yet another Crow attack, when Del Gue suggests it might be better if Johnson went down to the safety of a town, Johnson replies quietly, “I’ve seen a town, Del.” Redford gives the line a weight that says more than the words; that says for all the grief and pain Johnson has suffered, and, at the hands of the Crow, will continue to suffer, the piney mountains are still more of a home to him than the civilization he left behind.

There is no great, driving thrust to the story. Johnson is not on a quest, there is no one thing he is after. Even through the film’s later section, as he fends off one Crow attack after another, there’s no build to some single, culminating fight; no, “If I just beat the chief…” cathartic climax. There is simply a quiet, unspoken agreement between Johnson and Paints His Shirt Red that the duel is over. There’s no explanation why: impasse, acknowledged defeat, respect, the tired recognition that enough blood has been shed – it could be any or all of them, yet that understated, opaque coda still seems part of the film’s natural order of things.


The film is episodic (another supposed screenwriting taboo), with an amiable, ambling drift, not unlike the travels of its title character. Rather than a conventional narrative arc, it offers a portrait of a man who, for his own, unshared reasons, detaches himself from “down there below” to recreate himself – chapter by chapter — amidst the wilds of the high country.

And in so doing, without ever overtly stating it, the film suggests the arc of the opening and closing of the West. At first, the country is virgin to Johnson, and every new episode expands the film’s vision of the boundless, unmapped expanse of the frontier and the endless variety of beings who inhabit it. But after the death of Swan and Caleb, the territory begins to feel played out; there are no more firsts. Johnson recrosses paths with Del Gue, Bear Claw, Paints His Shirt Red. Johnson and Del Gue talk about country in Canada that entices because it’s land “no man has ever seen.” Bear Claw laments that “There’s no more grizz…” Johnson wanders back to the hollow and the cabin where he’d first found Caleb and his grief-crazed mother. The woman is dead, her cabin now occupied by Qualen and his family. When Qualen tells Johnson he’s a settler, the word registers with Johnson: the coming of settlers is the beginning of the end for the territory as mountain man country.


The two screenwriters who developed Jeremiah Johnson were polar opposites in temperament and sensibility.

(The screenplay would also pass through the uncredited hands of David Rayfiel, Pollack’s go-to script doctor whose strength was in dialogue and character.)

John Milius was – and remains – one of Hollywood’s great macho posturers. A self-professed gun nut and militarist, Milius’ films – either as a screenwriter or writer/director (i.e. The Wind and the Lion [1975], Conan the Barbarian [1982], Red Dawn [1984], Flight of the Intruder [1991]) – are bathed in a romanticized, violence-laced machismo, throwbacks to a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do ethic played against an often simple-minded, black-and-white moral terrain. Think of the testosterone fest that’s Conan, the atavistic flag-waving of Red Dawn and Flight of the Intruder. Milius’ is a world that recognizes little in the way of moral complexity, and is peopled by stoic heroes willing to cut through the bull with a sword-swipe or a well-placed bullet or bomb. Milius would often later voice his unhappiness over the finished film. At one point, Sam Peckinpah was considered to direct and Clint Eastwood star as Johnson, and no doubt that would have produced a more visceral tale than the one that evolved and which would probably have been more to Milius’ taste.

After Warner Bros. bought Milius’ original script as a vehicle for Robert Redford, Edward Anhalt took over the screenplay chores. A veteran screenwriter at the time, Anhalt had always been a more reflective, more nuanced, headier writer. He shared an Oscar (with his wife) for the story for Elia Kazan’s gritty Panic in the Streets (1950), and his films ranged from the very un-Milius sprawling antiwar saga The Young Lines (1958) to the medieval drama of Becket (1964). The Boston Strangler (1968) is a surprisingly thoughtful treatment of the sensational serial murder case from the 1960s; Hour of the Gun a ruminative revisionist take on the Gunfight at the OK Corral and its aftermath. Even when Anhalt was doing a straight-ahead thriller, like The Satan Bug (1965), he wrote with intelligence, preferring real-world weight to overstated myth and Hollywoody histrionics.

Yet somehow these two conflicting sensibilities – drawing on Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man, and Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker’s non-fiction account, Crow Killer, about the real-life inspiration for Jeremiah Johnson; John “Liver Eating” Jonstone, a mountain man who went on a revenge spree after a Crow party murdered his pregnant wife – come together in a seamless, elegant balance between a rugged and often brutal authenticity, and a rustic poetry.

Death is a constant factor in Johnson, even long before the titular character’s drawn-out fight with the Crow. Bone-chilling cold, lack of food and shelter, bears, wolves – death is everywhere. Simply staying alive is an accomplishment; there’s the authenticity.

And it rides comfortably alongside the poetry. One of Johnson’s most lyrical moments comes after the death of Swan and Caleb and Johnson has met up again with the scoundrel with a poet’s heart, Del Gue. As they part company, Del Gue rides off across open ground toward the jagged wall of the Rockies in the distance. Inspired by the unspoiled beauty of the high country, Del Gue indulges in what could be taken as the evangel of mountain men, the thing that has drawn them all into this place to which, despite its rigors and punishments, they all come to find themselves bound. As Del Gue recedes into the distance, his voice rises hoarsely in rabid devotion, as if he’s proclaiming his love for the land as much to the universe as to the man he’s left behind:

“Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man. Acted like they was gut-shot. ‘Make your life go here, son. Here’s where the peoples is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.’ ‘Mother Gue,’ I says, ‘the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,’ and by God, I was right…I ain’t never seen ‘em, but my common sense tells me the Andes is foothills, and the Alps is for children to climb!…These here is God’s finest sculpturings! And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones! And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones! And there ain’t no churches except for this right here! And there ain’t no priests excepting the birds! By God, I are a mountain man, and I’ll live ‘til an arrow or a bullet finds me!…”

I remember a reviewer once saying of Robert Redford that his often overlooked strength wasn’t that he was an actor, but an excellent re-actor in the way that the events and people around him were reflected on his face. In his best roles, Redford worked with a precise economy. He could be as charming as any other leading man (think of him in The Sting, 1973) but he was even better as the man who holds it in, someone who only hinted at the roiling feelings inside. Other than George Roy Hill – who directed Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting, and The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) — no director knew better how to exploit Redford’s particular reflective gifts than Sydney Pollack.

Pollack had an edge over other directors who worked with Redford. Pollack had started his career as an actor, having studied with the legendary Sanford Meisner, and he and Redford met as fellow actors cast in the low-budget war movie, War Hunt (1960). They became friends on the shoot, and the friendship lasted until Pollack’s death in 2008. All told, he and Redford would make seven films together, including the hits The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Out of Africa (1985).


Throughout his career, Pollack was always considered an actor-friendly director, and he had a knack for blending commercially-appealing properties with a more sensitive, intelligent, even artistic sensibility. It was a winning combination that, along with his share of box office winners, racked up 48 Oscar nominations including 11 wins for everything from performances to two wins as Best Director.

Pollack understood the camera, and he understood Redford, and knew the latter didn’t have to do much for it to have an impact on the former. Redford’s lean style gives the simplest of lines the greatest of weight: “I’ve seen a town, Del.” Or in the same conversation, when Del Gue seems surprised that Redford had stayed with Swan rather than – as Del had suggested – he sell her off, Redford answers simply, “She weren’t no trouble.” And that seems to say it all.

I couldn’t even tell you how he does it, what to look for, but somehow over the running time of the movie, Redford’s Johnson goes from clueless naïf to melancholy drifter, and you can almost see the weight of his accumulating scars dragging at him in some internal way.

That low-key style gives Redford’s few explosive moments all that much more effect. After yet another attack by a Crow warrior, the battered Redford stands, his usual stoicism shatters as he shouts to the skies, to the witnessing mountains which rebound his yell – a mixture of defiance and rage, exasperation and grief.

But Redford’s best moment – and equally the best example of Pollack’s understanding of the actor – is on his return to his cabin to find Swan and Caleb dead. In the shadowy interior of the cabin, Redford sits with the bodies of his loved ones for a day, a night, into the next day. With the smallest of adjustments, he face goes from pained grief, to a duller, more lingering ache, and then resignation. He’s stirred back to connecting with the outside world by the restless shifting of his horse. He goes to the horse, cradles its head as it nuzzles him; a warm, friendly touch such as he’ll never know again from the family behind him. Then he sets Swan and Caleb together in bed and sets fire to the cabin.

There is no breast-beating, no hysterical sobs, no bellowing of “Nooooo!” to the skies. And because of that, the moment is all the more poignant.


Though Pollack is rarely referred to as the most conspicuously visual of directors, in the works where it mattered, he had a keen understanding of the importance of place; that the setting of a movie not only could be a character, but be one of a story’s most important characters. Think of the medieval castle at the center of Castle Keep (1969), the glorious vistas of Out of Africa, and it is particularly true of Jeremiah Johnson.

Cinematographer Duke Callaghan and Second Unit Director Mike Moder do more than take pretty pictures. The terrain forges men like Johnson and Bear Claw and Del Gue into the scrappy, tough-hided, prosaic survivors they are. The mountains – sometimes bathed in bright sunshine, sometimes cloaked in brilliantly white snow, other times wreathed in ominous clouds – entice, threaten, stand in witness. Like the sirens of Greek legend, they beckon adventurers onward, often to their doom. It is the rare man who can make a life there. The mountains are never conquered; one either learns to respect them, or die through any number of ways the mountains can kill.

And for the man who does find his life in the mountains, “down below” becomes a distant, alien place. Late in the movie, when Johnson and Bear Claw meet up in snowy woods and share a bite to eat, Johnson asks, “You wouldn’t happen to know what month of the year it is?”

Bear Claw doesn’t know either.

The mountains, for them, are a world not governed by the calendar but by the passing of the snows, the coming and going of the animals. Time doesn’t exist.

And so it seems perfectly reasonable – even believable – when the film ends freezing on the image of Johnson reaching out in peace toward Paints His Shirt Red, and Tim McIntire’s rough-edged voice sings, “And some folks think…he’s up there still…”

– Bill Mesce