The Westerns of the early 1970s were quite different and turned the genre upside down. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, A Man Called Horse, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, The Missouri Breaks and Little Big Man showed how the West was changing. In the late 1960s, films became more violent and more open with themes and attitudes that were often kept under the surface or polished to not be offensive to general audiences. Westerns became as much in your head as on the screen with revisionist deconstruction of the genre and existentialism borrowed from bleak Scandinavian cinema. You were not watching John Ford or Howard Hawks.
In the 1970s, directors injected more artistic mood and flipped the emotional scale. Westerns were not “pretty” to look at, forget the Technicolor and the vivid colors that pop. These were dusty, over-saturated and haunting visual palettes. Jeremiah Johnson has a muted look; even the warm summer scenes have a harshness of color, as if everything is exaggerated. You get the feeling of Johnson stands out against the environment. Only at the very end of the film does he blend in.
Jeremiah Johnson was set pre-civil war in the wilderness of Colorado (filmed in Utah). Johnson abandoned civilization to live off the land. He had to learn to hunt and trap, live in the extreme weather conditions and survive the Native Americans who did not appreciate the White Man’s presence.
Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack joined forces for an unlikely film. This was not The Great Gatsby or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was downbeat, violent and offered very little dialogue and effective, but minimalist music. Redford was with shaggy hair and beard through most of the film, but it was a hit with critics and audiences.
His first experiences show how unprepared he is for life in the wilderness. Early on, Johnson comes across Bear Claw (Will Geer), a grizzled hunter of grizzly bears. Bear Claw schools Johnson in surviving in the wild. Later, Johnson meets Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), who has been buried up to his neck and possessions stolen by the Blackfeet. They get their revenge and steal horses, which they give to a peaceful group of Blackfeet. In return, the chiefs gives Johnson his daughter to become his wife.
In the meantime, Johnson has come across a crazed woman settler whose husband has been killed. She talks him into taking her traumatized son, who Johnson calls Caleb.
Johnson now has a family, something he never envisioned. He builds a cabin and settles into a quieter, and seemingly happy life. One day, the Army shows up needing Johnson’s help. A group of settlers are stranded and in danger of attack, so the Army pressures Johnson into leading them through sacred Crow burial grounds. When Johnson returns to his home, his wife and son have been murdered by the Crow. He burns the cabin and that part of his life.
You feel the loneliness and cold. The attacks on Johnson by the Crow are relentless, he is a marked man. Attacks happen out of nowhere. Instead of living in peace, away from other humans, he is constantly reminded of the worst of man.
Johnson spends the rest of the film hunting down the Crows who killed his family, and surviving the attacks on his life. Johnson has become legend, both to the different tribes and the settlers, the fearless White Man who cannot be killed.
Johnson has a final meetup with Bear Claw, who praises Johnson for how well he’s done. He’s not only adapted to the wilderness, he’s become part of it.
Somewhat based on the real life of mountain man John “liver eating” Johnson, who sought revenge for the Crow Indians killing of his wife. He killed and ate their livers. This small item was skipped in the film, as adapted by Edward Anhalt (Beckett, Panic in the Streets) and John Milius (Red Dawn, The Wind and the Lion).
Pollack and Redford would team up for seven films, including Three Days of the Condor and The Way We Were.