Classic Film Review: Robert Redford IS “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972)

Sorry for the dated movie poster-styled headline. But as the silliest Twitter trend of last week was some youngling’s assertion that “I was this minutes old when I found out Robert Redford was ‘Jeremiah Johnson,'” one does feel the need to state the obvious.

That’s Twitter for you, a regular Algonquin Roundtable of wit and deep cinematic wisdom. And you wonder why I put links in all my reviews, defining this or historically identifying that. It’s ridiculous to expect somebody born any time after say Bill Clinton’s inaugural to automatically have absorbed a century of cinema history.

Although, as Redford was clean shaven for two sequences in this 1972 film, and being the biggest star in Hollywood for a stretch of the ’70s, and a leading man pretty much to this very day, let’s just say our tweeter was either being cute and disingenuous or stupid.

“Jeremiah Johnson” came along after the first Earth Day and the birth of the environmental movement and at the tail end of the hippy “back to the land” ethos that took hold in the late ’60s. It’s a 1970s zeitgeist Western easily conflated with the attitudes and mores and movies and TV shows of its time.

There’s respect for Native American culture and customs of a “Little Big Man” variety, even though casting white actors as Indigenous people was very much prevalent. The title character is a soldier who’s turned pacifist, with a desire to leave all that’s “down there” in the States. It wasn’t the first film to venerate the solitary “Mountain Man,” but it was the best. Its success inspired the less hunting/trapping/killing oriented kids’ TV movie and series “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” a couple of years later.

And despite some seriously dated 1970s touches — a couple of theme-songish tunes (by Tim McIntire) wafting in and out of a few scenes — it holds up pretty well.

Tough guy screenwriter and later “Conan the Barbarian” director John Milius had a hand in the script, which grafts a bloody short story (“Crow Killer”) of revenge onto the basic structure and plot of a novel about a mountain man’s life in the unpacified West.

The time setting is sometime after the War of 1812 and right up to the Mexican War (1840s), which is referenced. Redford’s title character shows up in uniform at an upriver wharf in the Colorado Territory, loads up supplies and heads off, looking for beaver and such to trap.

 “Ride due west as the sun sets,” a storekeeper advises. “Turn left at the Rocky Mountains.”

Those who love this film, and I count myself among them, tend to remember it in episodes which in my case I have to say turn up out of order, something I realize any time I see it anew.

There’s his first encounter with a Native American. Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquín Martínez) is a stern, noble warrior underwhelmed by the white man’s fishing and trapping skills. Jeremiah memorably comes upon the trapper Del Gue (the wonderful character actor Stefan Gierasch, omnipresent in the ’70s), a bald blowhard buried up to his neck in sand by less friendly tribesmen.

That’s the way Pollack, Milius and co-writer Edward Arnholt structure this, with Pollack casting colorful supporting players for Redford to play straight-man to in many of the scenes.

Character actress and TV regular Allyn Ann McLerie plays the saddest of these, a settler who has gone mad because of the slaughter the Crows have visited upon her family. Redford has his first choice close-up here as he sobers her up, if only for a moment.

“Woman…We have graves to dig.”

But the scene stealer among scene stealers in “Jeremiah Johnson” is that long-blacklisted leftist, Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer. As the old timer/mentor figure covered in fur and beard and bear-teeth, he is a “grizz” hunter, a collector of fangs, long in the tooth and loud of the mouth when it comes to dealing with this “pilgrim” on his turf.

 “I am Bear Claw Chris Lapp; bloodkin to the grizzer that bit Jim Bridger’s ass! YOU are molesting my hunt!” And “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for twenty days, and smellin’ for three!”

Geer is the highlight of the movie, although there are other colorful moments and characters, and plenty of blood-sport and action in the vengeance-packed third act.

Pollack had a deft hand with lighter moments, which made Redford his perfect muse. Watch the way the “pilgrim” falls down most every time he has to fire that .50 caliber rifle at something or someone.

Redford had already fallen in love with Utah thanks to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and what’s striking about “Jeremiah” all these years later is the epic feeling that what is essentially an intimate and episodic story gets across. Pollack made a BIG movie with stunning scenery, “Doctor Zhivago” depth snow, Indian fighting and a touch of domesticity that — along with the use of the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” (Redford SINGS!) — feels like a nod to the Western master, John Ford.

All this scenery and sky and seasons and action and reflection, and the the picture still clocks in well under two hours. Suck on that, Marvelettes.

Pollack and Redford would work together often, as you’d expect of a director of romances (“The Way We Were,””Out of Africa”) and a guy he helped make the great matinee idol of his day. They made seven films together, including two that were among Redford’s edgier pictures of his heyday — the spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor” and the even flintier “Jeremiah Johnson.”

For years, Redford was lightly regarded as an actor and you can sense that “lightweight” label, just a tad, and a comfort in sharing scenes with actors given more colorful roles, in this performance. His line readings of the archaic speech may not sound as natural as you’d like. He has “modern Californian” baggage that was hard to shake back then.

But I think it’s among Redford’s most endearing and enduring performances, a sensitive yet heroic figure, a man out of his depth who has to grow and revert to a form of savagery to master it. Who cares if his period-appropriate farewell isn’t the smoothest line reading ever?

“Watch yer topknot,” Bear Claw growls, a hair joke related to avoiding being scalped by the Natives.

“Yep. Watch yourn.”

Rating: GP, the PG of its day — violence.

Cast: Robert Redford, Will Geer, Dell Bolton,
Allyn Ann McLerie, Joaquín Martínez, Josh Albee, Matt Clark and Tanya Tucker.

Credits: Directed by Sydney Pollack, scripted by John Milius and Edward Anhalt, based on a novel by Vardis Fisher and a short story by Raymond W. Thorpe and Robert Bunker. A Warner Brothers release on Amazon, Tubi, Movies! and other streamers.

Running time: 1:48

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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