Very often, a movie star’s persona is a projection of how the star imagines his or her best self—we all know, for instance, about the wide gulf between Henry Fonda’s onscreen aw-shucks decency and the coldness that created distance between the actor and his famous children. For Robert Redford, who spent the early ’70s evolving from a box-office attraction to a legend, perhaps no single film more clearly articulates the person Redford aspires to be than Jeremiah Johnson. A singularly beautiful film with amazing locations, eccentric characterizations, long wordless sequences, and powerful depictions of culture clashes, Jeremiah Johnson aligns perfectly with the vision of Redford as a mountain man who disdains the duplicity of the modern world, preferring the environmentalism and spirituality of Native Americans—even though the title character, like Redford, occupies a complicated space bridging these two worlds.
Based on two different literary sources and originally written by mad genius John Milius (whose script bore the unwieldy title Liver-Eating Johnson: The Legend of the Crow-Killer), Jeremiah Johnson was heavily rewritten by Edward Anhalt and an uncredited David Rayfiel. Yet the real authors, in a sense, are Redford and his frequent collaborator, director Sydney Pollack, because they shaped the material to suit Redford’s affection for the Utah mountains in which the film was shot, as well as the liberal political bent that both artists shared. (RIP, Sydney.) Despite its torturous birthing process, however, Jeremiah Johnson feels coherent and purposeful. Holding the thing together is the simple contrivance of the story. In the Old West era, Jeremiah Johnson (Redford) withdraws from society to become a mountain man, eventually forming deep bonds with people he meets in the wilderness—until a pivotal occurrence reveals how out of place Johnson actually is among the snow-capped peaks of the frontier.
The image of gleaming god Redford disappearing behind a thick beard and head-to-toe furs functions as a recurring visual metaphor. Similarly, Redford’s matchless ability to express himself through physical action and subtle facial expressions reinforces the idea of a character who’s more comfortable with animals than other people. Plus, since Redford insisted the picture be photographed in the same area where he built a home once he became a superstar, the actor’s deep love for Utah’s glorious topography permeates every frame. Therefore, in many regards, Jeremiah Johnson wasn’t a character whom Redford needed to “play,” since the line separating performer and role was so fine. As Redford told biographer Michael Feeney Callan: “It was grueling and I was changed by it, no question. We re-created a way of life that real people lived in these real mountains.”
Pollack’s predilection toward romantic sweep is held in check by the macho textures of the story, though the filmmaker achieves poetic effects once Johnson takes an Indian woman for a bride. Similarly, Pollack’s gift for articulating bittersweet nuances elevates sequences in which Johnson falls out of sync with his adopted terrain. Among the supporting cast, Will Geer stands out as Bear Claw—a flamboyant mountain man whom Johnson befriends—and Jack Colvin lends memorable wickedness as a U.S. military officer whose disdain for Indian beliefs has tragic consequences. Equally enjoyable as a mood piece, a narrative, or a hymn to wide open spaces, Jeremiah Johnson ranks with the finest accomplishments of every person involved in its making.
Jeremiah Johnson: RIGHT ON