Jeremiah Johnson



YEARS ago, in the late 70s, weekend tv would feature a slot called Saturday Night at the Movies, featuring classic reels.

There was obviously less of a movie back catalogue back then compared to today, but the slightly over aggrandised showcase would often feature the likes of a John Wayne film – Rio Grande maybe; a disaster movie such as The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, or perhaps something a little more quirky – The Iron Mistress with Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie and his eponymous knife, or even the lesser-spotted Hell in the Pacific; the story of two soldiers, one American, one Japanese, marooned on a desert island, starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.

In those days, viewers had only three channels from which to choose and a certain tripartite televisual snobbery used to prevail (I can still recall a friend of mine saying: ‘We don’t watch ITV, do you….?’).

Jeremiah Johnson, with Robert Redford, and directed by the marvellous Sydney Pollack, even back then, was another one of those movies you might catch once every two years or so, and serendipitously  so. 

I still haven’t seen Hell in the Pacific again since those early days and await its return eagerly, though,  a little like other icons of the 1970s – Kojak, Kung Foo and K-Tel – you do wonder if they were as good as they seemed at the time. 

Set in the American Northwest, at the turn of the century before last, JJ features the story of a soldier (Redford) who, fresh from an American war of uncertain nomenclature, heads into the equally unknown snowy frontierlands to get away from it all.

Struggling to survive at first, (even to light a fire in the icy wilds or even to catch a fish), he finds a pal in Will Geer – an old trapper (named Bear Claw,  - as opposed to Grylls - ) who, with significant avuncular warmth, offers him shelter, food and log cabin.

Geer, in archetypal Walton’s Grandpa-like fashion, chuckles as Redford is chased through the cabin by a bear - and so too as various mishaps befall his young wilderness learner; Redford lacks the ACME All-In-One Frontiersman Kit, and a little Jedi like, must learn the ways of the wild the hard way. And it’s a steep learning curve.

Waving a fond farewell to Geer, who refers to Redford as pilgrim, affectionately, Johnson sets off on his own precarious picaresque adventure, all set against the backdrop of various locations in Utah (ironically the location for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid just a few years earlier. (JJ was shot in the winter of 1971, Butch Cassidy in 1968).

Finding a .50 calibre Hawken rifle in the frozen hands of Hatchet Jack, he learns to fend for himself, though never too far, one feels, from the knowing patrols of Geer.

Part of the dramatic tension of the film lies is wondering what might be around the next tree-lined corner, or over the next pine topped ridge. We, as the audience, are just as much involved in Johnson’s journey of discovery – tenderfoots in the wilderness. That noise behind us could be just the plop of snow from a branch – or the footpad of a Crow.

On his travels, he comes across a small cabin whose inhabitants were apparently attacked by Blackfoot warriors, leaving only a woman and her uncommunicative son as survivors.

The woman, maddened by grief, forces Johnson to adopt her son. He and the boy - whom Johnson dubs "Caleb" - come across the unforgettable Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a fellow mountain man in trouble with several local Indian tribes.

The bald-headed Gue has been robbed by the Blackfeet, and – in a memorable scene - buried up to his neck in the sand with feathers up his nose. Rescued by Johnson, Gue travels with him and Caleb, and they eventually come across a Blackfoot camp.

The two men sneak into the camp in the dead of night to retrieve Gue's possessions, but Gue opens fire and the pair leave the encampment taking several Blackfoot horses and scalps.

Redford, disgusted with the needless killing, goes back for Caleb, but they are later surprised by Christianized Flathead Indians, who take them in as guests of honour for their brave deeds.

Johnson unknowingly insults the chief by giving him the stolen horses and the scalps of the Blackfoot (their mortal enemies); according to Flathead custom, the chief must now give him an even greater gift: his daughter Swan, to be Johnson's bride.

After the wedding ceremony (which seems to be a mixture of traditional American Indian and Catholic rituals), Del Gue goes off on his own way, and Johnson, Caleb and Swan journey on into the wilderness.

Johnson finds a suitable location to build a cabin and, with the help of the boy and his new wife, settles into this new home, amidst delightful pines, birches and a sunlit river. They slowly develop an identity as a family, and Johnson and Swan become genuinely intimate.

But just when his life seems to be turning around, Johnson is pressed into service by the U.S. Army Cavalry, who persuade him to lead a search party to help bring medicines to a stranded party in the next valley.

In a pivotal moment, ignoring Johnson's advice, they take a route through a Crow burial ground; because of this trespass, the Crow tribe sends a raiding party to kill Swan and Caleb.

While returning home through the same burial ground,  - in an especially eerie moment - Johnson senses something amiss when he notices the graves are now adorned with Swan's blue trinkets; he rushes back to the cabin, only to find his family slaughtered.

What then ensues is a personal vendetta between Johnson and Paints-His-Shirt-Red, the chief of the Crow tribe, and various assassins on the look-out for Johnson, over seemingly a period of months.

There’s a certain wistfulness about the film, and a certain intended weariness in Johnson as a man seeking solace in the frosty bosom of nature, only to meet adversaries.

But there’s also an elegaic feel to this film, and perhaps also an allegorical one.

America at the time of making was weary of the costly Vietnam War, and no doubt Pollack’s clever film would have found some resonance with returning veterans, or indeed a general American public tired of war.

Allegories are always perhaps at their most poignant when they draw attention to current events by cleverly referring to a matching series of events in past history – enlightening the viewer - but also giving them (and politcians) a smack in the face at the same time.

Much of the script owes it attraction to the wonderful skills of screen writer John Milius, who would also write (credited and uncredited) Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry  - he wrote the line ‘Go ahead, make my day’;  The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger, and the scene in Jaws when Robert Shaw describes the delivery of the atom bomb and the disaster of the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested waters s to a spellbound Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.  (See endnote).[i]

He also played a major role in the BBC series Rome not long back and is known for being a gun enthusiast and for his outspoken conservative views, if that is not an oxymoron.

In JJ, perhaps he and Pollack saw the irony of the story set against the events of 1970s America (back in vogue again it would seem – see Argo) but also the power of a good back story.

Is it any accident that Johnson’s adopted son is named Caleb? Caleb was one of the twelve spies who travelled with Moses who entered Canaan and told him whether it would be safe to enter. He was the only one of the twelve who said the wilderness could be conquered. Add the twist of irony that the boy has been muted by the savagery of the wild, and it gives you an idea as to how cleverly-scripted films can work on many levels.

On one level, JJ is, according to some reports, based on the story of ‘Liver-Eating’ Johnson, a legendary mountain man of the Old West.

This particular Johnson served aboard a fighting ship, having enlisted under a false age.

After striking an officer, he deserted, changed his name to John Johnston, and travelled west to try his hand at the gold diggings in Alder Gulch, Montana Territory.

He also became a "woodhawk," supplying cord wood to steamboats, but rumours, legends, and campfire tales abound about Johnson.

One such has it that in 1847, his wife, a member of the Flathead American Indian tribe, was killed by a young Crow brave and his fellow hunters, which prompted Johnson to embark on a vendetta against the tribe.

The legend says that he would cut out and eat the liver of each man killed, an insult to Crow because they believed the liver to be vital to the afterlife, hence the moniker.

Johnson was allegedly ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors in the dead of winter on a foray to sell whiskey to his Flathead kin, a trip that would have been over five hundred miles.

Making his escape into the woods, he survived by eating the leg of his Blackfoot guard, until reaching the cabin of Del Que, his trapping partner.

Jeremiah Johnson the film was well received both at the box office in the early 70s and is reportedly one of Redford’s favourite films.

He’d work with Pollack again in Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, and perhaps most notably with Pollack as director of Out of Africa and the less successful Havana.

As America and the West once again looks at its military actions abroad, and ponders how to come home, perhaps Jeremiah Johnson, one of the most gently engaging films of the early 70s, is ripe for a remake. But then again, it’s perhaps best to be left in splendid isolation.



  • For more views, info on JJ, see this link.

[i] Jeremiah Johnson is famous for its general brevity of language and very short sentences. Milius’s scripted scene in Jaws when Quint (Shaw) describes the delivery of the bomb uses language in a similar brief, staccato style. 

Quint: “Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin' back, from the island of Tinian to Laytee, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know... was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Huh huh. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin'. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it's... kinda like ol' squares in battle like a, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he'd start poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got...lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.

Y'know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don't know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don't know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin' chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, boson's mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well... he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He's a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”