powered by AFI
DVDs from TCM Shop
The working titles for the film were Crow Killer, The Mountain Man, The Saga of Jeremiah Johnson and The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson. The closing credits acknowledge the governor of Utah, the United States Department of the Interior, The National Park Service and The Bureau of Land Management for granting the filmmakers access to the Uinta National Forest, Wasatch National Forest, Ashley National Forest, Zion National Park and Snow Canyon State Park. Mike Moder's credit reads: "Asst. director & 2nd unit director." The film begins with a voice-over narrator describing "Jeremiah Johnson" as a young, adventurous mountain man.
The character of Jeremiah Johnson was based largely on the man born John Garrison, who later changed his named John Johnston. Garrison (1824-1900) lived in the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Wyoming after deserting from the Navy. During the Civil War, he joined the Army but then returned to the West, working as a trader and trapper and finally attempting to start a Wild West show with Calamity Jane. After some months in the Old Soldiers Home in Sawtelle, now part of Los Angeles, he died penniless. Johnston spawned and perpetuated myriad myths about his life. Although he later denied it, historical sources state that he married a Flathead Indian woman, and after her murder at the hands of Crow Indians, spent years fighting and killing more than three hundred Crow warriors before eventually reconciling with the tribe. Accounts of his murderous ways and propensity for eating his victims' livers abound and earned him the nicknames "Crow Killer" and "Liver-Eatin' Johnston."
Jeremiah Johnson combines many details of Johnston's legend with general facts about the life of mountain men in the early 19th century. The filmmakers gleaned information from two sources: Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker's biographical book Crow Killer; The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, and Vardis Fisher's novel Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West, which relates the fictional story of fur trapper Sam Minard, who marries an Indian woman, and Kate Bowden, who is driven insane after witnessing Indians murdering her husband and children.
In April 1968, Daily Variety announced that producer Sidney Beckerman had acquired the film rights to Thorp and Bunker's book. By May 1970, as noted in Hollywood Reporter, the book was acquired by Warner Bros., where John Milius was assigned to write the screen adaptation. At that time, Daily Variety noted that Francis Ford Coppola was set to direct the film.
The following information was taken from modern sources: Redford first became interested in the project and, along with Sydney Pollack, bought Milius' script. Pollack and Redford had met when both acted in the 1962 film War Hunt, Redford's feature film debut (see below), and Pollack previously had directed Redford in This Property Is Condemned (1966, see below). Redford later went on to star in several more Pollack films, including 1973's The Way We Were (see below) and 1985's Out of Africa. Both men lived in Utah and were attracted to the mountain man mythology as well as the story's Utah location. Concerned about the expense of shooting on location, however, Warner Bros. restricted the film's budget to the cost of shooting on the studio lot, forcing Pollack to put up his own money to finance the production in Utah. The director stated in a June 1979 letter to the editor of Los Angeles Times that the film cost $3.1 million. In addition to problems caused by inclement weather, Pollack and Redford struggled with the story and began filming with an unfinished script. Although legend stated that the Indian attack on Johnston's family was arbitrary, Pollack and co-writer Edward Anhalt posed the attack in the film as revenge for Johnson desecrating the Crow burial ground, hence providing Johnson with a motivation for becoming the "Crow killer."
In August 1970, as noted in Daily Variety, the American Indian Movement charged that the film, then in pre-production, possibly was exploiting Indians and withdrew its cooperation in helping to find an actress to play "Swan." That article named Otoe Indian Francine Scott as a technical advisor, but she is not listed in any other source. The technical advisor listed onscreen, John Arlee, was a Flathead Indian from Montana. The film marked the first motion picture score for actor-composer John Rubinstein, son of the famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Modern sources state that future country music singer Tanya Tucker made her debut in Jeremiah Johnson playing "Qualen's daughter."
Filmfacts stated that, despite the fact that Jeremiah Johnson was shot before Redford's 1972 film The Candidate, Warner Bros. distributed The Candidate first to coincide with the 1972 elections. As noted in an April 1972 Daily Variety article, before its release, Jeremiah Johnson was labeled unacceptable by the American Humane Society because three animals were killed during production. When the film was shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on May 7, 1972, Pollack was nominated for a Golden Palm award. The American premiere in Boise, ID on December 2, 1972 benefited the Vardis Fisher Memorial Fund, which presented young authors with cash awards and scholarships.
The financially successful film received mostly positive reviews. However, as part of a scathing critique, New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael stated that at the end of the film Redford's character greeted the character of "Paints His Shirt Red" with an obscene gesture with his middle finger. No such gesture was seen in the print viewed. Redford remarked in a modern source that the gesture was completely misinterpreted and that Kael's comments seemed to him to be "farfetched and personal beyond the limits of responsible criticism." Redford has described Jeremiah Johnson as his favorite of his own films.
As noted in an August 2005 Los Angeles Times feature, in 1974 Johnston's remains were moved from Los Angeles to Cody, WY at the behest of a class of seventh-grade students in Lancaster, CA, who petitioned legislators and Veterans Affairs Administration officials for permission. Contemporary sources reported that Redford and Pollack attended the reburial ceremony.