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A PG narrative of "Liver-Eatin' Johnson",
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This review is from: Jeremiah Johnson (DVD)
This movie is one of several fascinating historical threads that I have been following since I first saw it as a 12-year old and loved it. First, it is based on the actual life of a mountain man named John Johnston, later changed to Johnson, and known in the West from the mid-1840s as Liver-Eating Johnson (see the book "Crow Killer" published 1958, R.W. Thorp & R. Bunker). I did not know this until recently and assumed it was all fiction. He was a huge man for his time, 6'2" and 240 pounds in his early 20's, had fists the size of baked hams and was best in hand-to-hand fighting with his 16" Bowie knife. Thorp and Bunker based the book on first-person interviews with several mountain men and others who had known of him, including, surprisingly, the famous photographer of the 1870's West, W.H. Jackson (photographer for the Hayden Expedition and famous for the first photograph of Mount of the Holy Cross near Vail, Colorado), but the real detail being furnished by an old mountain man named White-Eye Anderson, who told the story to R.W.T. in 1941 when he was in his 90's. After Johnson's Flathead wife was murdered on the Musselshell in Montana by a band of young Crow braves, Johnson "took the trail" on the entire Crow nation. His calling card, for over 20 years of butchery on the Crows, was to remove the liver of every Crow he killed and eat it. The Crows called him "Dapiek Absaroka". Vardis Fischer, on whose book this movie is based, "borrowed" as well certain scenes from a book written in the 1840's called "Life in the Far West" by George Ruxton, a first-person account of life in and near the Colorado Rockies. This movie does a fine job with a subset of Johnston's life, leaving out his service in the Civil War, and his later life as a town marshal and finally, his death in an old veterans home in Los Angeles. I got the notion that Fischer's book bordered on plagiarism after reading Ruxton, and after reading Crow Killer it seems all Fischer did was change Johnson's name to Jeremiah and slap on a cover with his name on it. The movie also leaves out that Johnson spies, among the pile of bones that was his wife outside the cabin, a round object about the size of an orange - the skull of his unborn baby. He collects the bones of wife and baby and puts them in an iron pot and inters them behind carefully mortised rocks near the cabin; a shrine, his "kittle 'o bones" those closest to him called it (never in his presence) he visits over the years. Will Geer's character, near as I kin figger, is based on a friend of Johnson's named "Bear Claw" Chris Lapp, a man known to say, when presented with grizzly claws his mountain man friends collected for him to make necklaces of, "Great Jehosophat! Pocahontas and John Smith!" The Crazy Woman, one of the most sympathetic characters I have ever seen in a movie, was in real life the wife of John Morgan, a foolish homesteader on the Oregon Trail who quarreled with the wagon master and took off on his own only to be tomahawked and scalped alive by Crows, his daughter raped and scalped alive, and his two young sons killed. Mrs Morgan, having killed several of the Indians with an axe yet driven insane by the loss, lived on the Musselshell and was cared for by Johnson and his fellow mountain men for years. The movie leaves out the little detail that she and Johnson beheaded the Crow corpses and set them on stakes at each corner of the graveyard where she buried her children, the weathered skulls a powerful medicine for the Crows ever after. It was the Crow's deference to this insane white woman living in their midst that finally convinced Johnson to call off his vendetta against them, after having killed nearly 400 Crow warriors. Liver-Eating Johnson's grave (and here I borrow heavily from "Crow Killer") is in a cemetary off of Sepulveda Boulevard (interesting, that. One of Johnson's comrades was a huge black-bearded Hispanic named "Big Anton Sepulveda") in a section called San Juan Hill, row D, 2nd stone from the road reads "Jno. Johnston, Co. H, 2nd Colo. Cav.". Get the movie and enjoy it; it's a true story. Only took me 30 years to find that out.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 19, 2007 1:12:08 PM PDT
K. A. Handyside says:
Thanks for the fascinating background material! I first saw this movie after my Outward Bound trip in southeastern Utah and loved it.
Posted on Apr 15, 2007 7:21:53 AM PDT
Bec Mac says:
Great review, except for the gravesite. He was moved to Cody, Wyoming. Robert Redford was present at the reburial. I've seen it!
Posted on Dec 6, 2007 6:23:03 AM PST
Charles M. Strnad says:
If you're interested in finding more details on Johnson (actual real name John Garrison), you might want to go beyond Raymond Thorpe's book- I've read it several times, but have since come across numerous other historians and researches who conclude that most of Thorpe's book is fiction.....even to the extent that it is very questionable that Johnson ever made a habit of eating Crow indian livers. As the saying goes, when confronted with fact or legend, print the legend.
It's my understanding that there may be another book published in the near future debunking much of what is in Thorpe's book, but to this day I've seen nothing in print. The movie however, is still one of my all-time favorites (see my recent movie review on this site), and I don't let the fact vs: fiction thing get in the way of that. Truly, Johnson was the most enigmatic of the mountain men, and there appears to be precious little in the way of verifiable fact known about his life.......which, to me, only adds to his spell. Keep on searching, though, maynardg- and if you come up with more, please share it.
Posted on Dec 9, 2007 1:58:42 PM PST
Amazon Customer says:
What a fine review!
Posted on Apr 4, 2008 12:47:38 PM PDT
What a great review-- thanks for all the additional information. I suspected Johnson was a real character and was just about to try and find out, when I came upon your very helpful review.
Posted on May 13, 2008 9:27:01 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 13, 2008 1:40:09 PM PDT
Dusty Roads says:
A fine review Pilgrim!!! A pleasure! "Watch yer top-notch!" ----- (and yer reply - in keeping with the script) ---- "Yup - watch yer'n!" --- Signed: Cactus Jack, living with a female panther - up in the Mussleshell.
Posted on May 27, 2008 8:22:07 PM PDT
Dr. Karl O. Edwards says:
First of all, let me state that "Jeremiah Johnson" the film is five star entertainment, and my comments are concerned with the validity of "fact versus legend" in this review. While Johnson was an actual person, who spent much of his life in Montana--his cabin that he lived in up until a few months before his death, still stands in Red Lodge--the books "Crow Killer" and "Mountain Man" are fictional accounts; hence, much of what is described in this review must be taken as legend, not fact. In fact, there is NO credible evidence that Johnson ever ate human livers or flesh. His so called vendetta against the Apsáalooke (or Absaroka) or Crow Indians was most likely with one of the Apsáalooke clans, not with all Apsáalooke; moreover, in later life he became close friends with a number of Apsáalooke tribal members. Viewers interested in learning about the "real" Johnson are encouraged to pursue primary sources, although the essay, "In League with the Devil: Boone Helm and 'Liver-Eatin' Johnston'," available through Amazon.com in: "Still Speaking Ill of the Dead: More Jerks in Montana History" (January 1, 2005), edited by Jon Axline and Jodie Foley, is a better secondary source of information than the fictional books referenced in this review.
As to the "new" biography, it is available through Amazon.com: The Avenging Fury of the Plains: John "Liver Eating" Johnston (Paperback) (March 1, 2008), by Dr. Dennis J. McLelland. I have not read it yet, but the one review rates it one star.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 14, 2008 11:25:19 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Oct 14, 2009 9:51:04 PM PDT
Richard Byers says:
"top-knot" not "top-notch", Hatchet Jack, not Cactus(!) Jack.
Posted on Nov 1, 2009 9:17:22 PM PST
James L. Dickinson says:
Very cool, thanks for all the cool info. Same for me only took me over 30 years to know...the rest of the story. I have loved this film for years and never knew all of this. I think I will order the book and get the movie (finally) on dvd. WOW if they had made the movie even close to the events in the book then it might have not been watchable for the faint of heart and stomach. Maybe if Sam Peckinpah made this film it could have been closer to the book.
Posted on May 1, 2012 6:35:46 AM PDT
You should edit this and put in some paragraph breaks.