Reflections on "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972)

Directed by Sidney Pollack

Written by John Milius and Edward Anhalt

Starring Robert Redford, Delle Bolton and Will Geer

"Jeremiah Johnson" is a western unlike any other. Filmed entirely on location, we follow the adventures and evolution of the titular character as he heads into the Rocky Mountains to become a mountain man and trapper, encapsulating, at least to some extent, the experience and spirit of the conquest of the American Old West.

Though background details are scant, Johnson is clearly keen to abandon city life and put behind him a stint in the army. Tired, perhaps, of societal constraints, impositions and conflicts, he has decided to return to nature where he can follow a path he considers of value and lead a life of self-sufficiency and independence, or so he hopes.

As Johnson returns to nature, we learn about his nature and character through a series of encounters and events which take place over a period of time and which may even be said to form his own Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

We see that while Johnson seeks independence and his own path, he is generally unwilling to impose his will on others. He accepts the lot fate deals to him by chance, adapts, and tries to make the best of situations in which he finds himself without shirking responsibility and a sense of duty and honour.

The idea that we are not complete masters of our own destinies is also pursued as chance encounters with others have an impact and influence, with control being exercised in how we react and adapt to our changes in circumstance.

Johnson is polite, honest, determined, hard-working and proud, but he realises very quickly, if somewhat reluctantly, that he does not have the knowledge and skills required to be a successful mountain man, or indeed even to survive. Fortunately, he comes across Chris Lapp, known as Bear Claw, a fellow trapper who specialises in hunting Grizzly Bears. Bear Claw is experienced, kindly and willing to share not just accommodation and food, but his knowledge and skills as well.

Bear Claw nurtures Johnson's growth and development but we see that Johnson has more spirit and ambition than his mentor and, while Bear Claw is content with his life of solitude and self-sufficiency, Johnson wishes to move on, explore and test himself.

However, before his departure, he and Bear Claw encounter a Crow chief named Paints His Shirt Red when returning from a hunting trip. We are informed that they are on Crow territory and that essentially, they are trespassing. When Paints His Shirt Red arrives in a mildly threatening way, Bear Claw uneasily prepares to negotiate a mutually acceptable deal to allow safe passage, but Johnson defuses the situation by recognising the chief's position and offering a generous gift or payment from the spoils of their hunt. This respectful and unselfish act impresses Paints His Shirt Red and he clearly regards Johnson with some esteem while we see that Johnson is more concerned with respect and honour than material goods and personal wealth.

Fate intervenes and diverts Johnson from his plans when he comes across a distraught woman whose home has been raided by a party of Blackfeet and whose children have been brutally killed. Johnson reacts with sympathy and compassion as he unhesitatingly volunteers to bury her children and completes a few repairs to her home. He discovers a young lad who has been struck dumb by the horrors he has witnessed and the woman insists on entrusting the boy to Johnson's care before running off, unable to recover from this shattering experience.

Johnson has behaved with kindness and consideration but now shows great benevolence and compassion by accepting a duty of care for and displaying sensitivity and understanding toward the young lad whom he names Caleb. He has placed humanity and the needs of others above his own ambitions.

Johnson and Caleb then run into Del Gue, another mountain man and trapper who has also fallen foul of the Blackfoot raiding party who have stolen his goods and left him buried up to his neck. Johnson further demonstrates compassion by releasing Del and offering to help him recover his stolen goods as Johnson finds that only just, but he makes it clear he has no wish to do the Blackfeet any harm as they have done nothing to him and he may have dealings with them at a later date. This demonstrates an existential awareness and respect for others, yet a willingness to act for what he perceives as a just cause.

However, Del is far less enlightened than Johnson and their joint venture leads to violence and the deaths of the Blackfeet. Del reveals himself to be affable but, in contrast with Johnson, he is self-centred, manipulative and totally untrustworthy.

Fate once again intervenes and when one of Del's schemes for self-preservation amusingly misfires, they find themselves in the good graces of the Flatheads, with whom they are more than willing to trade.

Johnson has no desire to profit from the deaths of the Blackfeet - to do so would infringe his code of honour, self-sufficiency and independence - and he makes a very generous offer of the Blackfoot ponies to the Flathead chief, seeking to be accommodating and respectful. However, it is a gift the chief feels he must match and the only offering he can make of similar value is his daughter, Swan, as Johnson's wife....

Once again, Johnson accepts his new-found responsibility although he is initially understandably less than enthusiastic. He, like his new-found wife and child, is willing to adapt to what life throws at him and make the best of the situation. None of these three people planned to have their lives go in this direction but through compassion, mutual respect and positivity, these three from very diverse backgrounds and cultures go on to build a life together. It is not easy and efforts must be made, but the suggestion appears to be that the route to happiness and fulfilment is to yield and adapt, to work with fate and nature and to make the best of things.

As a family, they choose a suitable place to build a home and work together to create it, constructing a log cabin in the wilderness from the wilderness, using whatever materials are available to them.

If the period in which he grew and developed may be viewed as Johnson's Spring, this time of flourishing and blooming may be considered his Summer.

They appear to have become integrated with nature, down to having to defend themselves in a wolf attack. They are content, self-reliant and are on good terms with their native American neighbours, perhaps because they share similar values in terms of respect for nature and respect and consideration for others.

However, Johnson's fundamental compassion and willingness to help others, whose repercussions he has always accepted and adapted to, will lead to tragic personal consequences when he reluctantly concedes to pressure to lead a contingent of soldiers to a party of settlers stranded in the wilderness. As a result of time pressure, Johnson's own sense of humanity, and disrespect among the soldier contingent for Indian customs, traditions and beliefs regarding the spirits of the dead, against his better judgment Johnson leads the group through a Crow burial ground.

Just as Johnson's respect for nature and his fellow human beings have impressed his Indian neighbours, his apparent disrespect for the spirits of their dead incites fury and a desire for revenge. Swan and Caleb are brutally killed by a Crow raiding party and, overcome by the pain of loss and grief, Johnson is overwhelmed by instinct and rage and sets off to take his revenge. He finds the raiding party and takes them on. He is so engulfed by anger and adrenalin that he reacts to wounds he has received in the course of the action only after he has sated his desire for revenge as he kills all but one of the Crow party. There is a pause in his pursuit of this last member of the raiding party when the man sings a death chant. This lull is enough to break Johnson's almost trance-like focus and he comes to his senses, allowing the man to escape his vengeance.

It appears that, even when apparently living at one with nature and society, conflict is inevitable. Nature consists not just of harmony, but challenge and adversity as well as each participating element defends, protects and upholds its way of life.

And so begins what we may view as Johnson's Autumn period, a time of hostility, difficulty and determination to survive.

Johnson is credited with being a great enemy, undoubtedly because of his considerable skill and courage but perhaps also because of the humanity and compassion he showed in letting one man survive his vengeful attack. In any case, he is pursued by a series of braves who each honour their respected enemy by trying to defeat him. Johnson's status only increases to the level of legend as he displays resolution, determination and strength of spirit in his refusal to concede, qualities required by nature to survive and greatly admired by his enemies who have a profound respect for nature.

It is important to note that Johnson does not carry the fight to his opponents. As already indicated, he accepts, adapts and defends himself. He does not seek to do harm but will fight to survive and to be respected. In a sense, this suggests that life is a battle but remaining true to ourselves and our code means we are worthy of respect.

His deeds are reported, embellished and appreciated but we see the truth as these regular attacks take their toll on his fitness and health.

Just as nature is cyclic, Johnson starts to retrace his steps and he revisits people and places we saw earlier in the film, building our awareness of changes in Johnson and the impact he has had as he transitions into his Winter.

Once again, we meet Del who, after witnessing an attack, advises Johnson to capitulate and take shelter in a town, but Johnson declines and shows his same old spirit and determination while Del reveals his character as he declares he will leave Johnson in the morning.

We return to the cabin where he saved Caleb. Nature and life continue their cycle and although a considerable time has passed, a new owner reveals familiar problems with his neighbours, but he points out a sort of shrine erected by Crow braves in honour of Johnson, their well-respected enemy.

This may suggest that underlying circumstances and issues in life do not change greatly and the most we can aspire to is to deal with our circumstances with honour and dignity, and gain the respect of our peers in so doing.

Johnson continues his return journey and comes across Bear Claw who has heard of his exploits and tells Johnson he has done well, but Bear Claw sees the pain and suffering etched on Johnson's face and present in his body language. Bear Claw has lived in relatively insignificant anonymity while Johnson has made a mark on those whose paths he has crossed, but Bear Claw asks him if it was worth it, a question Johnson answers with bravado, neatly avoiding a genuine response.

Finally, he encounters Paints His Shirt Red at a distance. He is assumed to be behind the ceaseless attacks and Johnson prepares to defend himself, but Paints His Shirt Red raises a hand in friendship, indicating, perhaps, that the feud is over and Johnson painfully reciprocates. Each side has paid a heavy price to achieve this moment of peace, but respect gained over time perhaps outweighs the offence caused by initial disrespect and it may be time to set aside the past in order to focus on the future.

This occasionally melancholic revisionist western paints a relatively realistic picture of life on the Old West Frontier but it goes beyond encapsulating the spirit of the Old West and reinforces the idea that a person's worth should be measured not by wealth, career or social status, but by respect, humanity and spirit.

The script by John Milius has been accused of being ponderous but I felt the story developed at a steady pace and clearly showed the growth and evolution of the characters as well as the consequences of both tolerance and intolerance.

Sydney Pollack's direction is highly assured and even manages to mix regular moments of humour with the drama.

In terms of performance, all involved acquitted themselves admirably and I thought that Robert Redford has rarely been better as he injected moments of light relief amid the intensity of the drama and occasional tragedy.

Special mention should be made of the music by Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein which captures the general feel and atmosphere of the time and place as well as moments of emotional intensity.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)HOME BLOG