Thursday 9 April 2020

Movie Review: Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

A picturesque western, Jeremiah Johnson is ponderous and long, but creates a unique aura through stubborn persistence.

In the mid-1800s, Mexican War veteran Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) heads west and into the mountains, seeking a life of isolation, hunting and fishing. After a quiet run-in with Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martínez) of the Crow tribe, Johnson is befriended by grizzly hunter Bear Claw Chris Lapp (Will Geer) who teaches him hunting and trapping skills.

Johnson then meets a half-crazed widow (Allyn Ann McLerie) whose family was slaughtered by Blackfoot warriors. She thrusts her young son (Josh Albee) into Johnson's care. He next befriends Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a wild man of the west tortured and left for dead by the Blackfeet. Through that strained friendship Johnson ends up with a wife Swan (Delle Bolton), the daughter of a Flathead tribal chief. Now with a woman and child to care for, Jeremiah attempts a life of domesticity, but more difficult trials await.

An episodic and languid western, Jeremiah Johnson stretches close to two hours but feels much longer, complete with an Overture and an unnecessary Intermission. The story is loosely based on an actual John "Liver Eating" Johnson, but given the limited scope of character development offered by the script (co-written by John Milius), it almost does not matter. Director Sydney Pollack is most interested in capturing snow-covered and wide open landscapes, with unspoiled nature and a smattering of Native Americans reluctantly tolerating adventurers like Johnson.

The film unfolds in mostly listless episodes chronicling encounters along the route to loneliness, Johnson a man of few words and fewer emotions but capable of assessing his environment and protecting himself as needed. The portrayal of Native Americans is reasonably nuanced and varies by tribe from naturally aggressive to suspicious but docile. Johnson is portrayed as a pacifist but responsive according to specific survival requirements, from acquiescing to marry Swan to seeking revenge when it's time to spill blood.

Robert Redford peers out from a narrow vantage point located below a thick mop of hair and above a bushy beard, mostly satisfied with staring at the surrounding beauty. The rest of the cast is under-powered. Will Geer and Stefan Gierasch play different versions of essentially the same character, while both the woman and child collected by Johnson are distinctly uncommunicative.

And yet, Jeremiah Johnson almost wills its way to a plateau of significance. The film is slow to cast its spell, but gets there in the end. After the hunting, marrying and killing (plenty of killing), almost all in slow and silent motion, the character leaves a mark of tired triumph, a man determined to absorb all the hostility his chosen environment can throw at him and live to tell the tale.

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