Jeremiah Johnson (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Sydney Pollack|
|Produced by||Joe Wizan|
|Screenplay by||Edward Anhalt
|Story by||Raymond W. Thorp
|Based on||Mountain Man
by Vardis Fisher
Crow Killer by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker
|Music by||Tim McIntire
|Edited by||Thomas Stanford|
Sanford Productions (III)
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
116 minutes (w/ Overture & Intermission)
Jeremiah Johnson is a 1972 western film directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford as the title character and Will Geer as "Bear Claw" Chris Lapp. The film has been said to have been based in part on the life of the legendary mountain man Liver-Eating Johnson, based on Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker's book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man.
A jaded veteran of the Mexican War (1846–48), Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) seeks solace and refuge in the West. He aims to take up the life of a mountain man, supporting himself in the Rocky Mountains as a trapper. His first winter in the mountain country is a difficult one; he has a brief run-in with Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez), a chief of the Crow tribe, who observes a starving Johnson futilely fishing by hand.
Initially, Johnson uses a .30 caliber Hawken rifle for hunting and protection, but finds it under-powered for his needs. He stumbles on the frozen body of Hatchet Jack (another mountain man), clutching a .50 caliber Hawken in his dead hands. Jack's legs were broken while fighting a bear, and knowing he was going to die, Jack wrote a will giving his rifle to the first man who came across his corpse. Johnson gladly takes it for his own. He then inadvertently disrupts the grizzly bear hunt of the elderly and eccentric "Bear Claw" Chris Lapp (Will Geer). After meeting at gunpoint ("I know who you are; you're the same dumb pilgrim I've been hearin' for twenty days and smellin' for three!"), Lapp takes him in and mentors him on living in the high country. After a brush with Crow Indians, including Paints-His-Shirt-Red (a friend of Lapp's), and learning the skills required to survive in the mountains, Johnson sets off on his own.
In his travels, he comes across a small cabin whose inhabitants were apparently attacked by Blackfoot warriors, leaving only a woman (Allyn Ann McLerie) 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" (Josh Albee) - come across Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a mountain man in severe disfavor with several local Indian tribes. The bald-headed Gue has been robbed by the Blackfeet, who have buried him up to his neck in the sand and stuffed feathers up his nose, considering Gue's hairless head unfit for scalping. Rescued by Johnson, Gue persuades him to help recover his stolen goods, but Johnson counsels against violence when they find the Blackfoot camp.
The men sneak into the camp in the dead of night to retrieve Gue's possessions, but Gue opens fire with a pistol, and the mountain men kill the Blackfeet in the ensuing confrontation. Johnson and Gue leave the encampment, and Gue takes several Blackfoot horses and scalps. Johnson, disgusted with the needless killing and Gue's actions that put both their lives at risk, returns to Caleb. Soon afterward, they are surprised by Christianized Flathead Indians, who take them in as guests of honor for their brave deeds. Johnson unknowingly places the chief in his debt, potentially dishonoring him, by giving him the stolen horses and the scalps of the Blackfoot (their mortal enemies); according to Flathead custom, the chief must now either kill him for the insult or give him an even greater gift. The chief gives 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. They slowly develop an identity as a family, and Johnson and Swan become both intimate and genuinely mutually affectionate. Johnson is pressed into service by a troop of the U.S. Army Cavalry to lead a search party to help save a stranded wagon train of settlers, described by the preacher riding with the soldiers as "Christian men, women, and children". Ignoring Johnson's advice, they take a route through a sacred 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, Johnson senses something amiss when he notices the graves are now adorned with Swan's blue trinkets; he rushes back to the cabin where he finds his family slaughtered.
Johnson sets off after the warriors who killed his family and attacks them, killing all but one - a heavy-set brave who sings his death song when he realizes he cannot outrun his enemy. Johnson leaves him alive and the survivor escapes to tell of the mountain man's quest for revenge, the tale of which soon spreads throughout the region and traps Johnson in a bloody feud with the Crow nation. The tribe sends its best warriors to kill Johnson as a rite of passage; one at a time, he defeats all of them. His legend grows and the Crow come to respect him for his skill, bravery, tenacity and honor. He meets Del Gue again (now with a full head of hair), who tells Johnson of his growing reputation. Del Gue asks about Caleb and Swan, and Johnson replies, "I never did take him to Hawley," and "she never were no trouble." Johnson returns to the cabin of Caleb's mother, only to find that she has died and a new settler named Qualen (Matt Clark) and his family are living there. Near the cabin, the Crow have built a shrine or monument of sorts to Johnson's bravery and fighting prowess, periodically leaving trinkets and symbolic talismans as tribute.
Johnson and Bear Claw meet for a final time in late winter or early spring - neither man is quite sure what month it is. A weary Johnson shares the rabbit he is roasting, and Lapp observes, "You've come far, pilgrim," and Johnson replies, "Feels like far." Lapp asks Johnson, "Were it worth the trouble?" Johnson's ironic, enigmatic reply, "Eh....what trouble?," serves to define both men's characters, each aware of the struggles and losses of the life he has chosen. Lapp reaffirms his preference for life as a mountain man and congratulates Johnson on keeping his head of hair saying, "you have done well to keep so much hair when so many is after it"; his parting words to Johnson, "I hope you will fare well," are the last of the film.
The final scene is a wordless encounter with Paints-His-Shirt-Red, Johnson's avowed enemy since mid-story and the presumptive force behind the attacks on Johnson. While sitting astride their horses far apart, Johnson reaches for his rifle for what he thinks will be a final duel, but Paints-His-Shirt-Red raises his arm, open-palmed, in a gesture of peace that Johnson slowly returns, closing the film.
- Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson
- Will Geer as Bear Claw Chris Lapp
- Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue
- Delle Bolton as Swan
- Josh Albee as Caleb
- Joaquín Martínez as Paints His Shirt Red
- Allyn Ann McLerie as The Crazy Woman
- Paul Benedict as Reverend Lindquist
- Jack Colvin as Lieutenant Mulvey
- Matt Clark as Qualen
- Richard Angarola as Chief Two-Tongues Lebreaux
- Charles Tyner as Robidoux
In April 1968, producer Sidney Beckerman acquired the film rights to the biographical book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp Jr. and Robert Bunker. By May 1970, the rights were then acquired by Warner Bros., who assigned John Milius to write the screen adaptation. Based roughly on Crow Killer as well as Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West by Vardis Fisher, Milius first scripted what would become known as Jeremiah Johnson for an amount of $5,000; however, he was then hired to rewrite it several times and wound up earning $80,000 overall. According to Milius, Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel were brought in to work on the screenplay only for Milius to be continually rehired because no one else could do the dialogue. Milius says he got the script's idiom and American spirit from Carl Sandburg and was also influenced by Charles Portis's novel True Grit.
The role of Jeremiah Johnson was originally to be played by Lee Marvin and then Clint Eastwood, with Sam Peckinpah attached to direct. However, after Peckinpah and Eastwood did not get along, Peckinpah left the project and Eastwood decided to make Dirty Harry instead. Warner Bros. then stepped in and set up Milius' screenplay as a vehicle for Robert Redford. With still no director attached, Redford talked Sydney Pollack into taking the helm; the two were looking for another film to collaborate on after This Property Is Condemned (1966).
Casting for the role of Swan, Jeremiah's wife, took three months. After auditioning for a role in a separate film, actress Delle Bolton was spotted by the casting director for Jeremiah Johnson. Bolton then interviewed alongside 200 Native American women and eventually won the role.
After Warner Bros. advanced Redford $200,000 to secure the actor for the film, the studio decided that the film had to be shot on its backlot due to cost restraints. Insisting that the film could only be shot on location in Utah, Redford and Pollack convinced the studio that production could all be done in Utah at the same cost as it would have been filming on the backlot. To prepare for production, art director Ted Haworth drove over 26,000 miles to find the film's locations. Ultimately, the film was shot in nearly 100 locations across Utah. These locations included: Mount Timpanogos, Ashley National Forest, Leeds, Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Sundance Resort, Uinta National Forest, Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and Zion National Park.
Principal photography for Jeremiah Johnson began in January 1971, but unexpected changes in weather threatened production. Even after Pollack mortgaged his home to make up for budgetary constraints, production was very limited as threat of going over budget loomed. "The snows of St. George in southern Utah were terrible," said Pollack, "and we were using Cinemobiles as the lifelines. There was no way I was going to let it overrun, and Bob was a superb partner in keeping us tight. In the end it was the greatest way to learn production, because I was playing with my own money." Struggling with weather and budgetary concerns, very rarely was the film crew able to shoot any second takes.
The film took seven and a half months to edit. "It's a picture that was made as much in the editing room as it was in the shooting," said Pollack. "It was a film where you used to watch dailies and everybody would fall asleep, except Bob and I, because all you had were these big shots of a guy walking his horse through the snow. You didn't see strong narrative line. It's a picture made out of rhythms and moods and wonderful performances."
The musical score to Jeremiah Johnson was composed by Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein. Known primarily for their acting work, McIntire and Rubinstein were also musicians. Together, the two made their film composing debuts with Jeremiah Johnson after Rubinstein met with director Sydney Pollack through his acting agent. As Pollack recalls during the film's DVD commentary, McIntire and Rubinstein were "kids that just auditioned with a tape."
Release and reception
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Jeremiah Johnson had its worldwide premiere on May 7 at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, where it was screened in competition. It was the first western film to ever be accepted in the festival. The film then held its American premiere on December 2 in Boise, Idaho, with its theatrical release in the United States beginning on December 21, 1972 in New York City. The film was a box office success, becoming the seventh highest grossing film of 1972 after grossing a domestic total of $44,693,786. The following year, the film went on to earn $8,350,000 in North American rentals.
In addition to being a commercial success, the film also received positive reviews upon its release. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 93% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 14 reviews with a "Certified Fresh" rating, with an average score of 7.1/10.
- Survival film, about the film genre, with a list of related films
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- Jeremiah Johnson at the Internet Movie Database
- Jeremiah Johnson at AllMovie
- Jeremiah Johnson at Box Office Mojo
- Jeremiah Johnson at Rotten Tomatoes