Jeremiah Johnson

A mountain of a man in the mountains
A mountain of a man in the mountains

Loosely based on Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man and on the legend of Liver-Eating Johnson—now there’s a name for a movie!—Jeremiah Johnson (1972) follows its titular Mexican War veteran as he attempts to forge a life for himself as a so-called mountain man in the wilds of the west. He pries a .50 calibre Hawken from the hands of a corpse named Hatchet Jack, gets survivalist lessons from an elder mountain man named Bear Claw and maintains friendly trade with the local Crow. He seems cut out for living off the nascent grid and looks rather dashing in a giant beard. (He’s Robert Redford, sounding only a little awkward speaking the contraction-free dialogue.) But Johnson can’t entirely escape civilization and its trappings. Chance saddles him with a mute kid and a devoted Flathead gift-bride who speaks no English. There’s a lovely montage of the whole family building a log home. Eventually some asshole US Cavalry show up and compromise Johnson’s relations with the Crow and things go way downhill. So this is indeed a western, and like many westerns is a story about a disintegrating way of life, the sort of life that these days is most commonly associated with the Unabomber.

Screening as part of the High Altitude Film Series, a partnership between Metro Cinema and the Art Gallery of Alberta, Jeremiah Johnson reflects a sort of post-hippy, Thoreau-infused, back-to-the-land sensibility, offering a narrative that managed to suit politics as different as those of co-scenarist and self-proclaimed right wing extremist John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now (1979) and director of Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Redford, outspoken liberal, environmentalist, outdoorsman and impresario—he’d mount one of America’s most important film festivals in the very mountains where Johnson seeks solitude and quiet. Directed by Sydney Pollack, the film benefits from an inherently fascinating story. Most characters, the women especially, are crudely drawn, and one might argue this befits a film with one foot in myth, but the fussy score puts more distance between the audience and Johnson’s awe for nature and personal tragedies both. If you’re going to watch Redford alone against the elements you really need to see All is Lost (2013), a more rigorous and austere film, and easily one of Redford’s best performances. But Jeremiah Johnson is an interesting time capsule and fits nicely in with the series’ compelling theme. It also has wolf fights!

Tue, May 27 (7 pm)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1972



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