Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Coming into this film I was bringing a lot of expectation. After reading about Jeremiah Johnson (1972) in a few books I thought I had a pretty good idea of how this film would look, feel and be. I think I set my expectations a little too high, my idea of what the film is, is completely different. Also because I haven’t been able to find it until now (neither on TV or DVD) I saw it as a more sought-after film, one that if you don’t see it you’re missing something special, which is in a way I suppose. The less accessible a film is the more you look forward to seeing it. Like friends that rarely see, you make the most of the time you have together. Jeremiah Johnson and I are not quite on those terms yet.
Another reason I wanted to see this film is part of my understanding of the Native American Western, how the sub-genre developed. I was lead to believe that Robert Redford‘s titular character would become a revered other of the Crow nation in the mountains, shedding his white civilisation past to become to the other which we have seen so many times feared in the genre. I kept thinking more about Man in the Wilderness (1971) which saw Richard Harris‘s character comes closer to reaching that transformation. His was however not out of choice, more survival. Learning the way of the mountain Natives who we see as almost god-like, they have done nothing to be feared. The built-in cliché that they are dangerous savages is not really mentioned. Both films are however set before the Civil War when most Westerns take place or there-after. Western society is still forming, still moving westward and yet to truly tackle the “Indian Problem” that we see in so many other films.
So I’ve already established my initial thoughts, the early comparison to probably a better film, what’s it all about. Staying with the idea it’s about the white man becoming the other, the one whose feared, which I believe is a reading that is nonsense to an extent. He never truly crosses over from one culture to another like Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who rejects all that is white about him. Johnson is one of the early mountain-men as we meet a few others. The type whose found in other westerns whose respected for his knowledge of the natives, much older than those settlers making their way West. People who come with dangerous experience, if you cross them they could leave you on your own to defend yourself. Some become scouts for the Army as they built new forts. These men cannot function in society, but enable it to grow outside the boundaries we already find it. Much like the gunfighter, the danger they bring with them leaves them unable to stay in one place for too long. Out in the mountains they are able to live an acceptable life-style, one with nature you could say.
I’m still trying to pin down what this film is about, maybe an escape from what was going on in America at the time. It was the beginning of a new age of directorial freedom which I admire, enjoying the work of those who are now respected names. But that would be going of on a tangent. In westerns we rarely focus on the mountain man, we see riders traveling through, hiding out or fighting Native American’s who have a clear advantage over the white men. Here is a chance to understand the mountain man, what drives him. We first meet Johnson as a soldier returning to civilian life in a 19th century Catamaran that delivers him to the outskirts of civilisation, he’s on the cusp of the unknown. Feeling his doesn’t below down with the frontiersman and settler he leaves them all behind. Now here’s where my expectations start to get dashed. Thinking that this film was going to be mostly absent of dialogue, I found it more of a 50/50 split really, which I still have to accept after what I had previously read. Johnson is trying to catch fish, all with his bare hands, grabbing the fish in the water. Not having any tools, a rare moment of comedy in this otherwise dramatic Western. Its here we meet for the first time Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquín Martínez) whose the man that Johnson wants to be, to be able to live in the mountain, surrounded by prizes from his many hunts in the mountains.
Things become more complicated when he comes across a homesteader (Allyn Ann McLerie) and her son (Josh Albee) who he later adopts and renames Caleb. A silent child who was more than likely trumatised by the death of his father. Leaving his mother mentally unstable, left to wander the mountains. A victim left alive from the Natives who are seen off-screen to be. They still victims of the cliche, or are they just defending themselves. This is quite problematic for me as the 1970’s is a decade of revisionism of the genre with films such as Little Big Man (1970), the Man Called Horse films that shows them in a fresh light. There’s still a savagery about these people, mostly the Crow who are seen by other mountain men such as Bear Claw (Will Geer) and Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who both admire and fear those who have lived there for centuries. Of course fighting with other Nations. It is the invasion of the white man in the mountain that is causing the conflict.
I cannot ignore the two mountain men Bear Claw and Del Gue who both help form the legend that becomes Jeremiah Johnson over the course of the film. Bear Claw is an almost God-like figure who has lived in the mountains for all his adult life. He assumes the role of the teacher to Johnson teaching all he needs to know to survive. Where as Del Gue is living the dream of the mountain man, he respects and fears the Natives. First meeting him bald, not wanting to be scalped – a common form of torture carried out by Native American’s, all part of the cliche that has been built up over the time. We next meet him with a full head of hair, and some of the best lines of the film, comparing hair to God’s greatest sculptures.
“I ain’t never seen ’em, but my common sense tells me the Andes is foothills, and the Alps is for children to climb! Keep good care of your hair! These here is God’s finest scupturings! 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. And then I’ll leave my bones on this great map of the magnificent…”
He sums up what it means to be a mountain man, a free-spirit, the closest a white-man who wants to live the life of a Native American, to be with nature. These are men who want to live in the rawness of nature, rejecting civilsation for all that is primal, a part from a gun and a knife or two. It’s not an easy life as Johnson discovers, recreating the massacre scene from The Searchers (1956) that we play out in our minds. The genre has grown up to all these harsher images. He becomes a far more dangerous Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who kills his enemy with little thought, but plenty of skill. When tired he shockingly sleeps among his victims. Its all or nothing.
I come away from the film still conflicted after the image of the film I built up in my mind has become something else – the actual film. Is is pro-Native American or not is my real question. It’s not even revisionist really. It’s another aspect of the genre that is explored in more detail, the life of the mountain man that serve little purpose in the arc of the western as whole, we hardly see them until now.