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USA 1972
Directed by
Sydney Pollack
108 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson, the first of seven films directed by Sydney Pollack which starred Robert Redford is an unusual yet also a quite compelling film. It starts off appearing to be comedy Western in the manner of Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) but progressively devolves into tragedy before morphing into the mythic.

Redford plays Jeremiah Johnson, a former foot soldier who heads to the Rockies with the dream of becoming a mountain man. Perserverence pays off and he becomes an adept trapper, finding himself with an Indian wife and a white boy he adopts after an Indian massacre. When however he agrees to help a US Cavalry rescue party and guides them through a sacred Crow burial ground the latter turn against him, killing his family.  Jeremiah takes to the hills and engages in a one-on-one guerilla war with the Crows who as Indians do, regard him with increasing admiration the more of their number he kills.

Although presumably the whole return-to-the-elemental thing spoke to the temper of the times and Redford is a classically romanticised protagonist, Jeremiah Johnson is no pie-in-the-sky depiction of pre-civilized life as Jeremiah’s dreams of living amongst nature are shattered and the best that he can reap from his experiences is to survive as a living legend (the film was based on the life of a real historical figure, John “Liver Eating” Johnson).

What carries the film is Pollack’s commanding direction. Long before Kevin Costner won accolades for Dances with Wolves Jeremiah Johnson in authentically depicting the Native American presence whilst  the outdoors staging, which was done in Redford’s home state of Utah in below-zero winter conditions, is superb.  Indeed overcoming the evident rigours of the production is perhaps the film’s greatest strength as Pollack elevates what might have been in other hands a more conventional action-oriented film (as it might have been if Sam Peckinpah had directed  with Clint Eastwood in the lead as was originally intended) into an epic odyssey, complete with an overture and entr’acte.




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