(director: Sydney Pollack screenwriters: Edward Anhalt/John Milius/based on the novel “Mountain Man” by Vardis Fisher and the story “Crow Killer” by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker; cinematographer: Duke Callaghan; editor: Thomas Stanford; music: Tim McIntire/John Rubinstein; cast: Robert Redford (Jeremiah Johnson), Will Geer (Bear Claw Chris Rapp), Delle Bolton (Swan), Josh Albee (Caleb), Allyn Ann McLerie (Deranged Woman), Joaquin Martinez (Paints His Shirt Red), Stefan Gierasch (Del Gue), Richard Angarola (Two-Tongues Lebeaux), Paul Benedict (Reverend Lindquist), Jack Colvin (Lieutenant Mulvey), Matt Clark (Qualen); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Joe Wizan; Warner Bros.; 1972)
“Beautifully photographed in the remote mountains of Utah.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Sydney Pollack (“Castle Keep”/”This Property Is Condemned”/”Slender Thread”) and star Robert Redford collaborated seven times and this is their second time working together. It’s beautifully photographed in the remote mountains of Utah (shot on location in Zion National Park, Utah, near Redford’s Sundance home, and in the Uinta National Forest). It tells about the real-life legendary mountain man, Jeremiah Johnson, a recluse who sought refuge in the Rocky Mountains. In real-life he earned the nickname of “liver-eating Johnson” for his cannibalistic eating habits, but in the film Pollack ignores this and makes it a basic survival film about a grizzly trapper determined to survive among hostile Crows and the harsh elements of an uncivilized world. It’s based on the historical mythic novel “Mountain Man” by Vardis Fisher and the story “Crow Killer” by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker.
Pollack ran into money problems with Warner Bros., who wanted him to shoot the last part of the film on the backlot. Instead of retreating to those foolish demands, Pollack mortgaged his house to shoot it on location. The appealing film received great reviews and even though the studio failed to give it publicity, it was through word of mouth and Redford talking it up on a media tour that it drew the attention of the public (it earned more than $22 million in the U.S. and Canada alone upon its theater release).
Redford plays the loner ex-soldier Jeremiah Johnson, who drops out of society to return to nature and live in the mountains on the American-Canadian borders in the Rocky Mountains in the 1830s and as a tenderfoot has a tough time surviving until he is helped by an ornery experienced white trapper named Bear Claw (Will Geer). For a year or so he’s tutored by the wily mountain man and then goes off alone. An Indian raiding party massacres a settler’s family and the surviving lady (Allyn Ann McLerie) is left deranged, so Johnson reluctantly agrees to adopt her quiet adolescent son whom he names Caleb (Josh Albee). Later Johnson rescues a bald trapper (Stefan Gierasch) buried in the sand by hostile Crow.
Since Johnson previously gave the Flathead Indians the scalps of their enemies as a gift, they are so pleased they return the favor by giving him the chief’s daughter, Swan (Delle Bolton), to be his squaw. They don’t speak the same language but the laconic kid, Swan and Johnson bond to live together in harmony in a log cabin home. Their peace is broken however when a US Cavalry unit with an outspoken Reverend come to him for help on their rescue mission and ask Johnson to be their guide to find a stranded wagon train of Christian settlers before the Indians get them or they starve to death. To get there in time, the party insists that Johnson take them across a Crow sacred burial ground and not the long way. He reluctantly does so, knowing the Crow don’t take kindly to intruders. Johnson finds on his return home that a Crow raiding party slaughtered his wife and Caleb. In revenge, Johnson seeks out the Indian culprits and dispatches them in hand-to-hand combat.
How Johnson meets his fate was up in the air in the unwritten script. Pollack wanted Johnson to freeze to death; while Redford wanted to leave Johnson’s fate up to the audience’s imagination by having him move on in the mountains to a different location, escaping from the Crow who were still after him but at the same time worshiped him as a great warrior, which is the way it was finally decided. That ambiguous fate is supposedly what happened to the real Johnson.
The film had many great moments, such as its opening which is shot almost documentary style with scenes of Redford learning how to survive on his own. But when it leaves Vardis Fisher’s novel for the storytelling found in the Thorp and Bunker book, there’s a bit of a lag in the John Milius picaresque adventure script. Overall it caught the feel of how a real mountain man might have existed back in the day, and keeps the mythic mountain man legend intact with its lively and appealing tale.
REVIEWED ON 6/3/2008 GRADE: A-