(SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patronising one).
Bear Claw: You sure are cocky, for a starvin’ pilgrim.
The picture was originally envisaged for Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood but fell apart when they didn’t get on (I’m unsurprised Clint didn’t want to work with a temperamental old soak, however talented). Redford, whose biggest hit by far up to that point was a western – and represented his real breakout as a bona fide star, despite a decade of prior work – was doubtless on the lookout for more of the same and signed on (I think he’s actually a more interesting choice than Clint, where it would have been him playing that loner character again). He brought Pollack aboard, who was also in need of a hit (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They being his most successful thus far, and definitely on the eclectic side). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t get on with Milius, then at his fable-spinning zenith, and he was fired. Edward Anhalt was brought in (who earned a co-credit), and then David Rayfiel (who didn’t). And then Milius was rehired.
A sanitised account of the life of trapper John Johnston, Jeremiah Johnson is not, you’ll be pleased to learn, a cannibal (which doubtless distinguishes him from the predominance of the Hollywood elite). The real Johnston was not nearly as reluctant as Jeremiah to kill Crow Indians, and much less peaceable in disposition towards them; he’d cut out and eat their livers (yeah, they killed his wife, but I’m not sure a proportionate response to said action is eating the murderers). There are various other inventions that come with the Redford-ising of the character – Johnson’s reluctant transgressing of the Crow burial grounds, and the actual man being less of a loner since he actively recruited other mountain men to his cause – but the part about assassins being sent after him appears to be true. Jeremiah Johnson isn’t a revisionist western exactly, then, but it’s definitely a post-Wayne one.
Perhaps where the picture scores most highly is in early scenes of Johnson surviving it alone and making all manner of novice errors (amusingly lighting a fire beneath a snow-laden tree). It’s a quirky testament to just how difficult the romantic vision of getting back to nature, off the grid, would be in practice; the various waifs and strays and loonies encountered along his way evidence that such a lifestyle – particularly solo – is for the dedicated few, unless they’re willing to carry others’ weight. Johnson’s distinctive survival skills eventually make him somewhat legendary, helped by a case of mistaken scalping identity (this is important, because in fairness to the movie’s critics, Redford doesn’t exude mythmaking; essentially, he wants to be liked too much). In that sense, voices suggesting Dances with Wolves would have been perfect for Redford are probably right, and conversely too that Costner (who is nevertheless fine in Dances, if over sincere at times) would have been a better fit for the loner Johnson, since Costner’s happy not to be.
Dances with Wolves is painstakingly conscientious towards portraying the Native Americans positively. Jeremiah Jonson not so much. Pollack offers our hero initial affability, complete with wife Swan (Delle Bolton), given to him by the Crows who eventually become his enemy. Things take a turn when he leads a rescue party through their burial ground – and then, in his hurry to get home, returns through it solo – and he discovers that, in revenge for his sacrilege, his wife and “adopted” son have been slaughtered. He attacks and kills a Crow hunting party – barring one who spreads the word – and must then deal with assassins, whom he repeatedly bests.
Del Gue: Lucky they were Crow. Apaches would have sent fifty at once.
Some reviews have made out – notably Pauline Kael’s – that this is an overt mission on Johnson’s part, but the film doesn’t really present it that way. True, he’s not in any hurry to make himself scarce, but following that initial revenge attack, he doesn’t expressly appear to be looking for trouble. This contrasts with Kael’s characterisation of his “going on a revenge rampage, killing Crows for the rest of the movie”. I wouldn’t argue with her appraisal of the general thrust of such romantic loner fare, however, whereby “In the guise of gritty realism, action films have become far more primitive, celebrating tooth-and-claw revenge in a manner that would have been unthinkable in early westerns, or even ten years ago”. I mean, that is what Milius is all about. Nevertheless, it’s notable that the trials by combat following the first – very messy and “uncool” – encounter, are presented as a montage sequence, one that seems to me to be directly challenging Kael’s position. This sequence should be the movie, according her charge, but Pollack shuns any such embrace.
Of course, Kael notably entirely misconstrued the final scene on first viewing – apparently because she hadn’t worn her glasses to the screening, although she doesn’t admit as much in the postscript to her published Reeling collection – as having Johnson give Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) the finger in response to the latter’s peace gesture (Johnson actually returns Paints-His-Shirt-Red’s gesture). Kael’s also not completely fair to Redford’s performance (“The cool silence of the Coop [Gary Cooper] archetype implied depths. There are no depths in Redford that he’s willing to reveal; his cool is just modern existential chic…”)
Donnell Stoneman’s contemporary review of Dances with Wolves compared Costner’s performance with Redford’s here, and I think he’s closer to the problem that arises with Jeremiah Johnson, that “Redford, with his movie star good looks, has difficulty fitting into the natural environment”. For the most part, I don’t think that’s the issue; in fact, I think the negative star aura Donnell refers to works well in tandem with Bob’s massive beard. No, it’s when the Hollywood elements intrude – perhaps a consequence of the glib, tragi-comic previous Redford western, where it was germane as a commentary on those old Hollywood westerns – that Jeremiah Johnson feels like it’s drifting off course. The soundtrack from Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein is often just too jaunty for proceedings that should be more sombre or meditative (likewise, while Pollack may have called it his silent movie, such terms are relative, since he rarely simply allows the man in the environment to breathe long enough to inhabit that space; we’re quickly on to the next encounter or incident).
Most glaring in this regard is the signature star moment. On the pretext of Swan getting beard rash, sensitive Jeremiah proceeds to shave off the face fungus, so allowing a vision of the full unvarnished heartthrob audiences flocked to see (it’s akin to Brad flaunting his rooftop abs). It’s a shameless moment, and it’s one that comes in tandem with an often-schematic structure. It has been noted that Jeremiah Johnson goes down the mountain only to come up again, but that could be thematically resonant (I don’t think it is particularly, but it could be). Instead, what we get are a succession of grizzly-but-cosy companions for his journey, from old-hand eccentric Bear Claw (Will Geer), to temperamental Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), to our loner reluctantly gathering a surrogate family in his wake (effectively-orphaned Caleb, played by Josh Albee, and Swan). The latter element comes on like a template for The Outlaw Josey Wales, so it’s a relief – in classical narrative terms – when they are dispensed with.
Del Gue: Keep your nose in the wind, and your eye along the skyline.
Many of Jeremiah Johnson’s scenes were apparently shot on Redford’s own Utah property (nice, if you can get it). He won’t enjoy being relocated to a megacity. The movie was a bit hit for the star, and it’s easy to see why. It straddles the territory of classic Hollywood storytelling but with a trendily, rougher-hewn, less overly romantic streak – despite also being overly romantic in its own way – common to the New Hollywood. As a consequence, Jeremiah Johnson hasn’t remained evergreen in the manner of many of its era, but it’s still an appealing picture. Mainstream but not too mainstream. I’d like to have seen the undiluted Milius version, though.