Jeremiah Johnson ~
At the beginning of the movie, we hear a narrator explain:
“His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghostly stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.”
In a frontier town on the edge of the Great Western Escarpment, Jeremiah asks an outfitter, “Just where is it I could find bear, beaver, and other critters worth cash money when skinned?”
Jeremiah is directed to simply, “Ride due west as the sun sets. Turn left at the Rocky Mountains.”
And, so starts one of the finest films ever made about the American ideal of rugged individuality.
Director Sidney Pollack called it a “purely visual film” and, indeed, it is a piece of stunning cinematography.
There are long periods of silence in the film – but the breathtaking scenery demands it.
Yet, when the silence is punctuated with sound, some of the best lines ever uttered in the history of film are the result. And, I assure you, they will be found aplenty in Jeremiah Johnson.
Jeremiah Johnson, played by Robert Redford, a neophyte mountain man, asks his mentor, Bear Claw Kris Lapp, a grizzled veteran if he ever gets lonely.
“Y’ ever get lonesome?” asks Johnson. “Fer What?” replies Bear Claw. “Woman?” muttered Johnson, almost under his breath. “Full- time night woman?” countered Bear Claw.
From that short conversation, we sense that Jeremiah is debating if the solitude of being a mountain man may have some unconsidered consequences.
Bear Claw’s tone of astonishment indicates that he has gone down that road before and sees no particular advantage in doing it again.
He adds, “But don’t get me wrong. I loves the womens, I surely do. But, I swear, a woman’s breast is the hardest rock that the almighty ever made on this earth, and I can find no sign on it.”
Author’s note: Was this a mountain man’s version of the more contemporary albeit feeble excuse that men employ for just not listening, “I just don’t understand women?”
If you’re thinking that such conversations are unlikely to have happened, you would be mistaken.
The beauty of this film rests upon the impeccable research into the lives of mountain men, right down to the weapons used and attire worn. It was also one of the first films to respectfully portray Native Americans – one that accurately depicted the various tribes.
The scriptwriters studied the idiom of the day. So what you hear when you watch the movie reflects the vernacular of mountain men in the mid-1800s. This film is generously endowed with memorable lines that make us laugh and feel fear and loss.
Robert Redford has always maintained that Jeremiah Johnson was his favorite movie to make. In part because it demonstrates man’s indomitable spirit to carry on despite great loss.
These were singular men of a certain mindset whose language adapted to a small and isolated population that would be referred to as recluses today.
Few movies inspire people to memorize the dialogue; Jeremiah Johnson is one of them.
Fifty years ago, in 1972, Sidney Pollack directed the intellectual heartthrob Redford in this movie that people enthusiastically rem- inisce about a half-century later.
Several of my friends to this very day bid me adieu by saying, “Watch your topknot.” This prompts the requisite reply of “Watch your’n.” This was a frequent farewell among mountain men, alluding to their livelihood, putting them in great danger of losing their scalps.
The cast of supporting actors included Will Geer as Bear Claw Kris Lapp, also remembered as the grandfather on The Waltons; Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue, and Joaquin Martinez as Paints His Shirt Red.
Delle Bolton also starred as Johnson’s beautiful Flathead wife, Swan.* Oddly, she never appeared again on screen except for an appearance on the TV series Monk. I followed up on most of the actors in Jeremiah Johnson. And although Bolton is 74 and still alive, there was little to no information available on her.
Sadly, Will Geer (Bear Claw) died in 1978, just a handful of years after the movie’s release in 1972.
Paints His Shirt Red actor Joaquin Martinez died in 2012, followed by Stefan Gierasch’s (Del Gue) death just two years later in 2014.
Redford, now 85, still has a hand in running the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute, both of which he founded. But, he left acting behind in 2018 after a career spanning more than six decades and receiving countless awards.
I would hazard a guess that at least three-quarters of the women in North America have had a crush on Robert Redford at any given point in his career. Am I not correct, women?
The much-loved comedy actress Betty White died just a couple of months ago. But in an interview shortly before her death, she was asked if there was anything she would still like to do.
Her lightning-quick response? – “Yes, Robert Redford.”
The movie was a smash box office hit. Those who saw it never forgot the superb writing and awe-inspiring scenery that made Jeremiah Johnson so much more than just an action film.
Shot almost entirely in Utah, observant viewers will recognize the backdrop of Colorado’s Maroon Bells in at least one scene.
Although the film ultimately grossed $44 million (a lot of scratch in 1972), it was only budgeted for $4 million.
To make matters worse, the producers wanted to shoot the entire movie in a film studio in Los Angeles.
Instead, Pollack second-mortgaged his home, while Redford did a lot of his own stunts, but paid the stunt guild from his own pocket so as not to short shrift the stuntmen.
Pollack and Redford both took on the additional responsibilities of scouting for shooting sites; this task amounted to more than 26, 000 miles of driving.
The snow ran deep during much of the shooting, so actors were amazed when Redford was seen on many occasions literally digging snow to accommodate the equipment, actors and crew.
Redford is not your run-of-the-mill movie star. His head was never in the clouds. He is the kind of man you could have a beer with and talk about the time you caught a 12-pound brown trout or the first car you ever owned.
As mentioned earlier, Redford has always expressed a certain fondness for this particular movie. He does so even though it was shot during one of the coldest winters in years.
After the film wrapped up, he commented, “We had seven cases of frostbite, four cases of strep throat, and only three cases of brandy.” His humor extends well beyond the movie screen.
The only characters known to be historical figures of the entire cast were Bear Claw, Del Gue, and the Crazy Woman. Even Jeremiah was based on a mountain man called John “Liver-Eating” Johnston, born in New Jersey.
The people and incidents depicted in the movie are borrowed from two books. The Crow Killer by Thorp and Bunker (two authors who purportedly never met each other), and Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher.
It appears the screenwriters cherry-picked the two sources to make one coherent story. And, it worked.
One of the film’s central themes is Jeremiah’s campaign of revenge on the Crow Indians for killing his wife, Swan, and adopted son, Caleb. The Crow unsuccessfully send one warrior after another to kill Johnson, continuing the feud for years.
At the end of the film, Jeremiah sits astride his horse facing his enemy, Paints His Shirt Red, across a small stream. Out of habit, he starts to draw his Hawken muzzleloader from its scabbard in preparation for yet another fight.
Instead, Paints His Shirt Red raises his right arm high with fingers spread apart, signifying peace. Johnson releases his grip on the gun and raises one arm up in response. And, like that, the feud is over.
The narrator’s voice sums up the final scene, saying, “And some folks say he’s up there still.” The credits follow, and Jeremiah Johnson is forever legend.
One more piece of trivia for you film buffs. In one scene, Jeremiah returns to the massacre site of a family of pioneers, only to find the farm inhabited again. He opens the door to a root cellar to see several children and their frightened mother hiding from marauding Indians.
It turns out that the young blonde girl hiding in the root cellar was none other than Tanya Tucker.
She would become a country music legend when she grew up. It seems the young child pestered her neighbor, Robert Redford, until he finally gave in and put her in the scene.
If you have never seen this classic film or it’s been a few years since you have, I highly recommend you do yourself the favor of watching it. It is as entertaining today as it was fifty years ago.
In next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times, this column will resume the topic of Mountain Men. We will take a deep dive into the real Jeremiah Johnson and his brethren in the mountains.
Be assured though, we are not leaving the women out of this discussion. You will be introduced to some of the toughest women to ever set foot in the mountains.
But, I’m not going to trot out the likes of Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane, as impressive as they may be as Wild West performers. You are going to meet “real deal” frontier women like Stagecoach Mary Fields and Marie Dorion.
Women you’ve likely never heard of – but should know.
Until next week,
*The character Swan was a member of the Flathead Native American Tribe.