There is no better American Western than Jeremiah Johnson. Warmer brothers, 1972. A new generation is re-discovering this film.
It was a genre-buster. It did to The American Western what 2001 A Space Odyssey did to Science-Fiction. 2001 was almost in a fly on the wall documentary style. Detached, scientific, existential. No silly torpedo shapes rockets or ridiculous space aliens.
Sydney Pollak’s magnum opus has never been equaled. It is an absolute masterpiece of American film, stripped of the usual sappiness of Westerns and American film in general.
Stephen Gierasch as Del Gué, Delle Bolton as Swan, Will Geer as the old man and Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson are perfectly casted.
Before Johnson, westerns of quality were still sentimental Protestant morality themes about good vs. evil like High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma or Stagecoach, man loves horse, Indians played by white men in red-face, railroads and sheriffs vs. robbers.
Otherwise, they were lighthearted affairs like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, or insufferable Gene Autry singing cowboys. I never liked John Wayne movies, I found them silly and formulaic.
Westerns, being non-controversial during the Red Scare, were mass-produced by all of the major studios each being more inane and irrelevant than the rest.
The Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns were brilliant in their own way, showing the brutality of the Old West through the lens of the anti-Catholic evil Trinity of the Good the Bad and the Ugly set against the good Trinity of the Father Son and Holy Ghost.
Johnson broke all of the formulas. Indians were not bad guys, they were just people trying to cope with an encroaching alien world. The mountain men rejected society, some like Del Gué, had few principles other than survival. The scenes of violence were graphic and ugly, unheard of for Westerns, almost shockingly unsanitized.
The characters are neither good nor evil. They are almost instinctual. Johnson’s streak of morality and justice almost results in his own undoing as he forgets the reason why he came to the mountains and he tries to re-create the normality of life down below with Swan, (his Indian wife) and the mute boy of the Crazy Woman. It all falls apart when he helps the Cavalry and the self-righteous minister to find lost settlers instead of respecting the Crow burial ground. The scene when he realizes his mistake as he rides alone through the Crow burial ground is brilliantly played by Redford.
Instead of filming on tired Hollywood back lots, it is filmed in real Utah Wilderness, making the scenery its own character in the film.
The point of the movie is summed up in the final conversation between Del Gué and Johnson, when Del says, “You should get down to a town, Jeremiah.” and Johnson replies with: “I’ve been to a town, Del Gué.”
The musical score is brilliant, but the theme songs are almost campy and anachronistic.
The film struck a chord because it was really metaphor for Veterans returning from War and rejecting society, as the Vietnam War had ended in late 1972 when the film was released. Johnson starts out in his Mexican War cavalry pants. The pants are allegory as they become more faded and tattered as he puts his old life behind him. Later, he speaks with the cavalry and asks them how the war is going. When they say it’s over, he asks detachedly: ‘who won?’
The scene in the Crow burial ground is one of the most realistically psychologically terrifying in American cinema.
Johnson, like the Indians, realizes that he needs to find more remote places when he meets a man who identifies himself as a settler.
If you haven’t seen this film, I won’t spoil it. You need to see it. If you don’t speak English, get the original version with subtitles in your own language or you will lose the voices. If you don’t like this film, you either have no understanding of American cinema or you are too jaded to appreciate it.