The Myth of Jeremiah Johnson

In effect of personal transformation, in search of both spiritual and concrete self-actualization, nineteenth-century soldier Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) embarks upon a lonesome venture into the Rocky Mountains. While at first his drive outweighs his ability, his persistence against such archetypal threats (starvation, cold weather, solitude, and an accentuated threat of Native American “savages”) garners his esteemed reputation. Here, wilderness survival gives way to mythmaking. His position between the local Native American tribes and urban pressures gives witness to a series of both horrific and fulfilling incidents. These are the adversities that make JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) a cult classic.

By the time he began production on JEREMIAH JOHNSON, director Sydney Pollack was already familiar with Redford’s powerful affectation. The two made their big-screen acting debuts in the 1962 film, WAR HUNT. While Pollack went on to pursue a directing career, Redford’s acting grew in popularity. They collaborated throughout the 1970s in the filming of four projects: JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE WAY WE WERE (1973), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), and ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979). The films which Pollack and Redford made together are varied in genre and favorability, positioning Redford as the protagonist of a diverse set of romance, drama, and western films. Perhaps the alluring, strawberry-blonde hair, entirely emblematic of Redford, was proven mutable in several of Pollack’s roles.

In the tale of JEREMIAH JOHNSON, maintaining such a full head of hair is a record of survival. The constant threat of Native Americans, decontextualized through the belittling polarization of resident tribes, appears often in violent attacks and gruesome scalping. Staying alive in the remote wilderness structures the challenge of the mountain man. In one of the earliest scenes, Jeremiah Johnson stumbles upon the corpse of a deceased man, later identified as Hatchet Jack. Frozen into the snowy landscape, the body provides an image of dire consequence, of what may be. But Johnson pries the rifle from his hands and considers the chance meeting a moment of luck and resupply.

It is, after all, a desire for solitude that draws Jeremiah Johnson away from the bustling crowds of the town center. Conversations with a fellow mountain man reveal Johnson’s initial apprehension. Because a life alone in the wilderness is both physically and emotionally rigorous, there is something to say for Johnson’s concern. The independent, heroic individual, isolated from everyday amenities and sociality, undergirds the aesthetic and contextual significance of the film. Not only do we find several wide shots that depict Johnson as a singular figure immersed in the landscape, but the film follows a dichotomous pattern of interrelation and individuality.

Slowly, Jeremiah Johnson’s individuality succumbs to the company of others, permanent or otherwise. A man named Del Gue, left buried up to his neck by Native Americans, joins Johnson after regaining composure. His comedic sociability, as well as his knowledge of Native American culture and language, allows Johnson the ability to engage in trade with the local tribe. Yet in misrecognition of the tribe’s customs, Johnson offers too hefty a gift to the chief. As is customary, the chief must return with an even greater gift, which Johnson must accept or risk offending the tribe. Consequently, the chief offers his daughter for marriage and Johnson anxiously accepts. Following the apprehensive adoption of an abandoned young boy, the aggregation of unacquainted members forms an unlikely family.

This is not to say, however, that Johnson’s disinclination for the abrupt formation of his “family” is taken as aversion. In fact, it is a rather slow process of adoration that begins with the formation of a home. Because the Native American woman is a non-English speaker, and because the boy refuses to speak, conversation is limited. This is assuaged through filmic intricacies. There is a series of unspoken dialogues described through careful camera work—the juxtaposition of figures permits the exchange of gazes and incidentally weaves a common bond. In this case, family values relinquish the isolation of an otherwise aimless protagonist.

Any sense of security must be met with suspicion. All is lost in the moment of Johnson’s unsuspecting re-association with society, when he is pressured into the aide of military-driven rescue mission. Like contemporaneous Western films of the post-Vietnam era, JEREMIAH JOHNSON plays an anti-establishment narrative. (Simply retreating into the mountains, however, is not enough.) Similar to LITTLE BIG MAN of two years prior, the film portrays the US American Calvary negatively—a direct nod to the national anti-military sentiment of the 1970s. Johnson is forced to lead the Colorado Calvary through a sacred Crow burial ground. It is a decision he does not take lightly. The effects of their trespassing are rendered violently and personally and all as a result of involuntary conscription.

Jeremiah Johnson’s persistence eventually affords him the respect and distance he desperately seeks. Through his dissociation Johnson imparts a mythic figure whose effect resonates within neighboring tribes and communities of settlers. His departure from town positioned him as a firsthand witness to cultural imposition. It is only in a conscious moment of relation (the raising of a hand as a gesture of peace) that Johnson finds eventual solidarity with the local Native American tribe. A final, northward adventure carries Johnson deeper into the wilderness and into detachment.





Christian Whitworth is an MA Candidate in the Department of Art and Art History at Tufts University.
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