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Robert Redford has one of his best-ever roles as a 19th century mountain man in a wilderness of harsh elements and hostile Indians. Directed by The Firm's Sydney Pollack. Year: 1972 Director: Sydney Pollack Starring: Robert Redford, Will Geer, Stefan Gierasch
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November 3, 2013: I have just finished viewing the Blu-ray version and it is by far the best version I have seen. Hence, I strongly recommend that you purchase the Blu-ray version if you have a player.
Have you ever dreamed of living in the wilderness, on your own, or being a mountain man? If so, "Jeremiah Johnson" is the movie for you; if not, the film just may change your mind. I was going to the University of Utah when "Jeremiah Johnson" was filmed, and was easily lured into reading "Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson" by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker (1958), and "Mountain Man" by Vardis Fisher (1965). Being a history major and researcher by nature, I did not stop there. I read many journal and newspaper articles, and a few rare documents that mentioned the man I learned was born in New Jersey with the name John Garrison. As much as I love Utah, I was dismayed by the fact that the real John Johnston spent most of his life in Montana, and as a resident of Montana (and someone who has lived in places where Johnston lived), I can assure you that the geography is very different. In particular, the Lolo and Flathead Valleys where the Flathead Indians lived are lush, rich, productive lands--not barren rocks and bushes as depicted in the movie. None-the-less, I went to see "Jeremiah Johnson" with an open mind--and loved the movie. Why? Because in the final analysis, "Jeremiah Johnson" has little to nothing to do with the historical figure the movie is allegedly based upon.
With this fact in mind, I suggest that you look at the Wikipedia listing and [...] for more "factual" information about the historical John Johnston. I will address the main character of the film, the fictional Jeremiah Johnson, and the "historical" attributes portrayed in the film. As for the books, I can only say this: "Mountain Man" is a beautifully romantic fictional story, but there are better non-fiction books available. "Crow-Killer" is a comical read for anyone who knows a thing about mountain men, but is otherwise a farce.
In 1979, seven years after "Jeremiah Johnson" was released, I met John Arlee, the Native American technical adviser for the show, and an uncredited actor who played the role of the Flathead Indian that did the translating. When I met John, he was presiding over a ceremony as a Flathead medicine man. Since then, John, who is fluent in the Flathead dialect of the Salish language, has gone on to author several (educational) books and teach Salish at the Salish-Kutenai College in Pablo, Montana. His stories--which are not mine to share--about making the movie are gems, and would make a great read themselves. But John was quite proud of his part in the film, and the accuracy he brought to it concerning Flathead culture (all be it, some 10-12 hours south of where it should have been filmed). Having done little study of the Flathead or any Salish speaking group prior to working with John, I was very pleased to learn that Flathead Indian scenes of the "Jeremiah Johnson" were done as well as can be expected for a big budget film.
As time has passed, and I have learned more, I have come to appreciate the realities of the 20 year vendetta with the "Crow" Indians portrayed in "Jeremiah Johnson." [Please note that I am using the more familiar term used to refer to this nation of people, rather than their own word, "Apsáalooke"]. First and foremost, one must understand that the Crows have a matriarchal clan family social structure. As with many societies that have clan structures, offenses and accolades towards any clan member are made to the clan head. While I have found no definitive evidence that Johnston or any of the Crow clans had a vendetta with each other, there are "stories" (with limited depth) that there was some sort of "disagreement" between Johnston and one of the (Mountain) Crow clans. If such were the case, it would have played out as depicted in "Jeremiah Johnson," with individual Crow members seeking retribution for Johnson's act of killing the "war" party that killed his wife. For the Crow, there would be no logical connection between their having killed Johnson's wife (and the fictitious boy in the movie) and Johnson's killing of those men. When the Crows killed Johnson's wife, they were killing an enemy--an act of "war"; when Johnson kills the Crows--from the Crow perspective--Johnson is committing murder, not war. Thus Johnson started a "feud" with the clan(s) of those he killed.
While the language in the film may be objectionable to some, I feel that it is used sparingly and is appropriate to the attitude of the film; just as the jargon of the mountain men is used minimally, but effectively. And while I have had no experience with re-inactors of mountain men, my sense is that what little information is shown in the film (e.g., using coals to keep warm at night) are well, if not accurately, portrayed. One must remember that mountain men were for the most part people that did not give two hoots about anybody--including themselves--and lived life as they saw fit. Their customs and mannerisms were their own; everyone else be damned. And, most mountain men, contrary to what many may be believe, shared little with the "fur trappers" and explorers of the times; let alone the "settlers." Most mountain men, in fact, preferred Native Americans and their way of life, which lead to their inclusion of being labeled with the pejorative, demeaning, and insulting phrase "squaw men." ["Squaw" has a very poor etiology, with most non-Native Americans believing that it is a prototype word that was "common" to most Indian tribes for woman, while many others use the Iroquois definition: vagina (or, more correctly, an obscene reference to vagina). Hence, "squaw man" would really mean "a man who likes vagina."]
In the movie, Jeremiah Johnson is clearly a loner--and he likes it that way. Yes, he spends time trading with various Indians, but he has learned a lesson the hard way: when he helped the "low landers" find the missing wagons (I could never figure out why they knew where they were but could not get back there) his actions led him to commit fatal mistakes. First he left his wife (and the boy) alone, then he led the "search party" through sacred ground, which he himself believed was VERY wrong, and then he vented his self anger at the closest group of people he could find. Please note that the movie never makes it clear that the party of Crows he kills are the same people that killed his wife! All of these actions were contrary to those of a typical mountain man; of course building the cabin was too.
But in the final analysis, "Jeremiah Johnson" is just too good of a movie to really complain about--especially if one gets over the fact that it really has nothing to do with the historical figure, John Johnston, other than the film makers make reference to the two books as "source material." I would argue that the fact that in the end the movie was called "Jeremiah Johnson" and not "Liver-Eaten Johnson" is evidence that the film makers wanted to make a romantic film about mountain men, not a story of one man. If you have not seen "Jeremiah Johnson" you are missing one of the greatest movies ever made. It is tremendously engrossing and entertaining; but I would not recommend it for children. If you like the outdoors, "Jeremiah Johnson" will have you dreaming of your next outing.
For those of you wanting the "real" dirt--what is the difference between this version and the "cheaper" version--it is the casing that the DVD comes in! The cheap one is in the older cardboard type box, this one is in a hard plastic box. Unfortunately, the disc is still double sided (full and wide screen versions), and the "bonus" features are the same. (Yes, I have both versions.) More important to me is that any hopes of a "directors" cut seem to have been lost, since Sydney Pollack has recently passed away. The fake intro and intermission--that were not part of any of the theatrical showings I attended--had given me some hope that there might be some additional scenes, but that was not the case. I am not even sure that I can truly tell the difference between the DVD and VHS versions I have, other than the tape is getting old.
Please Note: If this review was not helpful to you, I would appreciate learning the reason(s) so I can improve my reviews. My goal is to provide help to potential buyers, not get into any arguments. So, if you only disagree with my opinion, could you please say so in the comments and not indicate that the review was not helpful. Thanks.
The first thing that hits you is they do not make them like this any more - an alternative Western with a realism that for the time would have probably defeated most audiences given other Westerns of that era would have been Clint Eastwood or Sam Peckinpah outings. A film divided into two halves and with long music openings at start and beginning of second half is an indulgence not seen now from epic films of old!
Redford is really the only well known star on show playing a man who wants to go into the mountain wilderness to hunt and makea living after an inferred Civil War history. All the other actors are well cast and give great performances all around. The rugged harsh landscape location settings are well filmed and Milius's story style of "loner doing his thing" are the key differentiators from making this a normal cowboy tale, with a more sympathetic reading of Indian culture than many contemporary films (e.g. "Soldier Blue").
So a very different style, much slower paced Western and a lot better than I expected but I can understand why it was not a great success on original release and in part maybe why it rarely shows up on TV (in Europe/UK anyway).
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to purchase it on line for him for Christmas.