There are lots of movies on my List of Shame. If it was released before the 60s, there’s a solid chance I haven’t seen it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it! So you can come here to read about my first experience with movies I feel like I should have probably watched by now. And this isn’t limited to older classics. If it’s a movie I’m interested in, but just happened to miss, Playing Catch-Up is the series where you can find my thoughts on it!
Over the years, my dad has recommended quite a few movies to me that he enjoyed from when he was younger. The list includes, but is not limited to, Field of Dreams, Rudy, Dances with Wolves, Hoosiers, and Jeremiah Johnson. I’ve knocked a few of these off the list over time, but until the recent emergence of streaming, it wasn’t easy to get a hold of movies you didn’t own, making this a difficult project. But 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford was just added to HBO Max, and I felt like that made it the perfect time to finally check it out.
My journey with Redford has only really started in the last year or so. Other than MCU movies, I’ve watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, All the President’s Men, The Natural, and now Jeremiah Johnson for the first time within the last 12 months, I’ve developed respect for what Redford was able to do when he was at the height of his powers, and I’ll definitely be watching more of his films going forward.
But as for Jeremiah Johnson specifically, this is the kind of movie that I’m usually drawn to. It reminds me of some more recent films such as Into the Wild and the Best Picture winner, Nomadland, as it’s about someone going away from normal society to try to find some sort of meaning, fulfillment, or purpose out on their own in an alternative lifestyle. The difference with Jeremiah Johnson is that it takes place in the mid-1800s.
The film follows Jeremiah Johnson (Redford), a veteran of the Mexican-American War who decides he wants to become a mountain man and goes off to the Rocky Mountains to live the life of a loner. Upon entering the wilderness to begin his new life, he finds a man frozen and dead in the cold Rocky Mountain winter. He has written out a will, which says whoever finds his dead body can have his .50 caliber rifle, which of course, Jeremiah takes. It’s a daunting omen for what a life alone in the wild could look like for Jeremiah if he’s not careful.
He continues his journey, where he meets Bear Claw, a man who lives out in the wild “hunting grizz” (grizzly bears). He gives Jeremiah some pointers about living this kind of life before Jeremiah is off again, looking for something, though it’s not exactly clear what.
Jeremiah subsequently comes across a house with a woman in hysterics because Native Americans (they’re called Indians in the movie, but I’ll stick to calling them Native Americans) have killed almost her whole family, apart from her mute son. Jeremiah tries to help her however he can, but the only thing she really wants him to do is to take her son with him, because she thinks he’ll be better off with Jeremiah. Since the boy can’t talk and the woman doesn’t tell him a name, Jeremiah names him Caleb.
After some more chance encounters, Jeremiah finds himself in an unlikely position where a Native American chief is offering him his daughter, Swan, to be his wife. Like taking on Caleb as his adopted son, marrying a Native America isn’t something Jeremiah was planning on or wanted to do. But it was the situation he found himself in, and one of the main character traits we see in him is that he has a sense of duty, honor, and integrity. So he takes Swan to be his wife and the three of them — Jeremiah, Swan, and Caleb — go off to find a good place to settle.
They find a clearing next to a river and decide to cut down trees, build a cabin, and settle there. And this section is where the movie really started to become meaningful to me. Jeremiah — a man who wishes to be a loner and live a life mostly away from other people — is all of a sudden forced into a situation where he’s around two other people 24/7. And neither of these people is able to talk to him — Caleb is mute and Swan speaks a different language. This section of the movie gets into the importance of human connection. Even though he can’t communicate verbally with his new found family, they’re still there. They play games and work together and develop a good rapport with each other, and we begin to see this is where Jeremiah is really starting to thrive. Their cabin in the Rocky Mountains, living off the land, and being together seems to bring a sense of happiness and fulfillment to Jeremiah that we hadn’t yet seen. Up to this point, there were lots of melancholy (but beautiful) shots of Jeremiah on his horse, traipsing through the unknown of the wilderness, foraging for what food and resources he could find. But he turned a corner once he settled with his new family and overcame the foreboding of the frozen man.
Sadly, this perfect life doesn’t last for very long. Jeremiah is recruited by members of the U.S. Army to help save a stranded wagon train of settlers on the sacred burial ground of a Native American tribe. He reluctantly complies, but upon returning home, he finds his family murdered by the very tribe whose ground they tramped on. This leads to great, subtle acting from Redford. Instead of wailing in grief or destroying things in anger, he sits and stares for what seems like hours.
The rest of the movie returns to the melancholic and uncertain feeling of the beginning of the film. Jeremiah attempts a revenge tour against the Native Americans that killed his family. In response, they send warriors after him and he consistently fights to defend himself. Eventually he returns to the house where he found Caleb. The new residents tell him that the Native Americans have been building a monument to him and when Jeremiah encounters the one of the Native Americans for the last time, there’s finally an understanding of peace between the two.
Ultimately, Jeremiah Johnson is a tragic film that still holds up to this day. It’s about loss, regret, and finding a purpose in life. Sydney Pollack’s direction and the cinematography by Duke Callaghan create an atmosphere of thoughtfulness about what it means to have human connection and the true fulfillment that it brings. Redford’s stoic, yet charismatic performance keeps you invested, even when the story can feel a bit slow. This is one that I’m glad that I finally got around to watching and which I’m sure I’ll be revisiting in the future.