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With a story that both mythologized man-in-nature and shed a somewhat harsh light on the "Manifest Destiny" that drove white people across the continent taking land from the Indians, Jeremiah Johnson (1972) was perfectly in sync with the prevailing counter-cultural attitudes of the time. The film's environmental themes (close to the heart of star Robert Redford) and its anti-establishment, Thoreau-like message struck a chord with audiences and made this a hit, another worthy entry in the Vietnam-era cycle of Westerns - among them Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) - that were critical of civilization's negative effect on the wilderness.
Redford and Sydney Pollack became close friends when they appeared together in War Hunt (1962). Pollack first directed Redford in This Property Is Condemned (1966), and since that time the two had been looking for another property on which to collaborate. Pollack wanted Redford for his film Castle Keep (1969), but the actor passed on it. Redford, in turn, hoped Pollack would direct him in The Candidate (1972), but the director wasn't very interested in the project. Finally they settled on this script, purportedly based on the life of a real trapper known as "Liver-Eatin' Johnson," so called because of the way he disposed of his victims. The screenplay, based on both a novel and a story, was adapted by Edward Anhalt and John Milius, who later wrote Apocalypse Now (1979) and directed Conan the Barbarian (1982).
In this adaptation, Johnson moves into the Rocky Mountains in 1830 to escape civilization. After learning survival techniques from a grizzled old trapper, he heads deeper into the wilderness, encountering a settlement that has been wiped out by marauding Indians, leaving only a deranged woman and her son alive. Johnson takes the boy under his wing, and the two rescue another trapper, who slips some Indian scalps into Johnson's saddlebag when he sees Indians approaching. The friendly tribe, however, hails Johnson as a hero for having taken the scalps of their enemies and presents him with a bride. For a time it seems as if Johnson will settle into some semblance of a home life with his adopted son and wife, but when he is forced to escort a cavalry unit across sacred Crow burial grounds, the Crow take their revenge by killing the woman and boy. Consumed by hatred for the tribe, Johnson becomes a vengeful killer, picking off the Crow one by one. Finally weary of years of killing, he rides off farther into the Canadian wilderness after a last encounter that demonstrates a grudging respect the Crow have gained for their mountain-man enemy.
After advancing Redford $200,000 for the picture, Warner Bros. panicked over the cost and informed Pollack he would have to shoot it all on the back lot. But the director and star insisted it could only be shot on location in Zion National Park, Utah (near Redford's Sundance home). The studio finally agreed when Pollack guaranteed to shoot it in Utah for the same cost as a backlot production. That put severe budget constraints on the project, leaving them no amenities (such as dressing rooms, wardrobe, or even a bathroom for much of the shoot). Pollack finally had to mortgage his home to complete the picture.
Money wasn't the only problem, however. The harsh mountain conditions and uncooperative weather nearly brought them to disaster time after time. Heavy snows prevented riding horses, so they improvised by laying a thousand yards of chain link fence on top of the snow and covering it with white material so the horses wouldn't sink into the heavy drifts. Even worse, the director and star felt their script still needed work and weren't sure how to pull all the narrative threads together. The biggest problem was that in the original story, the Crow attack against Johnson's family was unmotivated. True to the spirit of the times and their own consciences, Redford and Pollack agonized over how to motivate Johnson's killing spree without having it seem as if the Indians were merely savages who asked for it. Finally, Anhalt came up with the idea of having Johnson unwillingly violate the burial ground.
Redford had at least one moment of fear for his life while filming. Near the end of production, with only Redford, Pollack and a helicopter pilot remaining of the 70-person crew, the director decided he needed one last shot of Johnson, photographed from high above, as a tiny figure disappearing across a field of snow. They dropped Redford off high in the mountains and while he was walking, the copter disappeared (having to return to base for more film). Redford had no idea what happened. Turning his fear into a spiritual experience, he lay down in the snow and waited, savoring "the soundlessness of every moment - nothing but an occasional echo over the tip of a glacier."
The film was made before The Candidate but held up until the second picture could be released to take advantage of election-year publicity. Upon Jeremiah Johnson's release, Warner Bros. did little to promote it, but Redford broke his own rule and traveled extensively to generate interest in what he considered one of his favorite projects. The tactic paid off; the film got mostly rave reviews and earned more than $22 million in the U.S. and Canada alone. Redford and Pollack went on to make five more pictures together.
Director: Sydney Pollack
Producer: Joe Wizan
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt, John Milius, based on a novel by Vardis Fisher and a story by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker
Cinematography: Duke Callaghan
Editing: Thomas Stanford
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Original Music: Tim McIntire, John Rubinstein
Cast: Robert Redford (Jeremiah Johnson), Will Geer (Bear Claw Chris Rapp), Delle Bolton (Swan), Josh Albee (Caleb), Allyn Ann McLerie (Deranged Woman).
C-116m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon