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Sydney Pollack Blogathon-Jeremiah Johnson

July 9, 2013

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Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.-John Lubbock.

So many times, we have felt the urge to break free, break away from the world, escape into the wild. We have yearned to escape a harsh world, and just retreat into the lap of nature, into the hills, the forests, cut away from what we call “civilization”.  But beyond it’s beauty, nature is harsh and unforgiving, it is a world, where you have to fight  to survive to live another day.  A world, bereft of the trappings of civilization, where you live a basic existence, fighting just to survive. Beyond it’s magnificent grandeur, nature is also harsh and brutal.  Sydney  Pollack’s 1972 Western,  Jeremiah Johnson, could be taken as the predecessor of  Kevin Costner’s Oscar winning epic, Dances with Wolves. Both the movies revolve around war weary protagonists, who seek to get away from it all.  People who seek to escape “civilization” as we know it, into the comforting arms of  nature.  And in both the cases, they end up engaging with the natives though in different ways, where Costner’s character, befriends the natives, and becomes one of them,  Robert Redford’s  titular  character, remains an outsider till the end, never actually becoming one of them.

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Not really is known much about  Jeremiah Johnson,  just that he “wanted to be a mountain man”  and was of proper wit and adventurous spirit, as the narrator puts it.  The opening shot of the movie, puts everything into context well, a panoramic view of the Missouri, a river boat paddling up stream and a tiny settlement by the river.  In fact throughout the movie, Pollack, emphasizes the supremacy of nature, against man, the towering mountains, the vast snow swept hills,  the dense woods, making Johnson just a player in the whole background, seeking to make his living as a trapper.  The opening credits set to the tune of the song “Ballad of  Liver Eatin Johnson” just show Johnson and his pack mule, as mere silhouettes dwarfed by the vast mountains and plains, as they set out on a journey into the unknown. And for the first 10 minutes or so, the movie  sets up  Johnson’s struggles in the wilderness, as he tries to catch trout, beaver, even a grizzly, more often than not in vain.  There are no other characters in the frame, except Johnson himself, as he is exposed to the brutal reality of the wilderness.  The change is evident in his persona, the clean shaven,  youthful looking soldier at the start has now given way to a haggard, hungry looking, weary man, fighting just to live. Unlike in the war, here though, Johnson’s battle is against a much more tougher and harder adversary, Nature herself, an enemy that could break the spirit of even the toughest of men and women.

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I, Hatchet Jack, being of sound mind and broke legs, do leaveth my rifle to the next thing who finds it, Lord hope he be a white man. It is a good rifle, and kilt the bear that kilt me. Anyway, I am dead. Sincerely, Hatchet Jack.

One of the best shots very early in the movie come, when Johnson is unsuccessfully trying to catch some trout, there is a moment, when a native Indian warrior watches him. There is no dialog there, just the two men, look at each other for a brief moment. To the Indian, Johnson will always the quintessential outsider, who can never really be a part of the land, and his struggle at catching fish, prove that.  One more well shot scene, is when Johnson discovers the frozen corpse of Hatchet Jack, with the note, where he indicates, the first person who finds him, gets to take his rifle. And then one of the movie’s best scenes, where he meets  “Bear Claw” aka Chris Lapp(Will Greer), a grizzled old hunter, who makes his living by “hunting grizz” .  As Johnson mentions “I haven’t seen a live human man for more than 2 months”, while Bear Claw  wonders how the “same old dumb pilgrim, whom he had been smelling for three days, was not yet scalped”.  Johnson had disturbed Bear Claw’s hunt, though  the latter feels sorry for him, and takes him under his wings. The scene where Bear Claw pursues the grizzly bear straight into the log cabin, and shoots him, is pretty well shot. In effect it also marks  Johnson’s  transition into a full fledged hunter.

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Pollack’s strength always has been the way he depicts relations between the characters, and it is the same  in  Jeremiah Johnson too. The bonding between Johnson and Bear Claw is pretty well etched out, the latter turns out to be a mentor to him, tutoring him in the ways of the wild, and how to deal with the “Injuns”. One interesting part is when Bear Claw mentions that the White man needs to be twice as meaner and tougher, if he has to survive in the wilderness. Unlike the Injuns, for him the woods and mountains are their natural home, for the white man, an outsider, it will always be a harsh, unforgiving environment. The scene where Bear Claw and Johnson meet for the last time, is shot well too, in swirling snow, some great camera work there. Johnson has now become a part of the wilderness, and Bear Claw leaves him, on his own. The harsh  beauty of the woods is well captured on camera, as also the series of shots, that depict Johnson’s  transformation into a full fledged hunter.

Mad Wolf figures like every other Injun I know. Says this scalp isn’t fit for no decent man’s lodgepole. Ain’t the first time I’ve protected my head in such a way. Name’s Del Gue, with an “e”.

It is not however all bliss in Paradise for Johnson though, as he soon comes across a lonely cabin, that has been attacked by native Indians. One of the  major strengths of  Jeremiah Johnson, is the way Pollack,  uses silences, and visuals to depict the intensity of feelings.  Johnson discovers  the  cabin attacked and burnt out, a lone White woman, totally distraught, who has lost her mental balance. There is not much dialog in the scene,  but you can sense the fear, and horror of  what had happened earlier. As in when Johnson enters the cabin, and finds a young boy, totally stricken with fear, cowering for protection, not able to even speak. For a major part of the scene, there is not much to be spoken, and it’s only the woman’s wailing, near her murdered daughter’s grave, that breaks the silence. She asks him to take her son along with him, adopt him.  The kid  who really does not speak much, is dubbed “Caleb” by Johnson, and he takes him along.  On the way Johnson comes across another  of his kind, Del Gue, who has been robbed by the Blackfoot tribes, and was covered up to his neck in the sand. One interesting insight  Del Gue  gives is of him shaving his head bald, to prevent being scalped.

Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. “Make your life go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.” “Mother Gue”, I says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,” and by God, I was right. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.

I would not classify Jeremiah Johnson as a revisionist Western  exactly, but more in line with a lot of 70’s Westerns, that looked at  native Indians in a more sympathetic light.  While it would be tempting to  compare this with Kevin Costner’s  Dances With Wolves, the difference here though is that Johnson is not overtly interested in the Indian way of  life nor their living.  He has been drawn into the wilderness, just to escape the horrors of  the conflict, a war weary veteran, seeking to get away from it all. In that sense this is more  like an anti war allegory, which was in keeping with the mood of the nation around that time.  Johnson’s  conflicts with the native Indians though are more personal in nature,  the first, when he  attacks a Blackfoot camp, and kills some of the braves there. He is however not interested in the conflict, as can be seen by his disgust when he witnesses Del Gue, collecting scalps proudly, for selling.  Clearly Johnson did not want to escape the horrors of conflict, only to be embroiled in another one.  In fact  the only peaceful encounter he has it with a tribe of Flathead  Indians, who are somewhat  Christianized, and  takes him as a guest of honor, for he had killed their rivals, the Blackfoot and he also gets to marry the Chief’s daughter, Swan.

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However, when a Crow tribe attacks his home, and kills  his wife and Caleb, Johnson again must fight back, to avenge the deaths. The supreme sense of irony, here is that Johnson, who had gone into the mountains, to escape the madness of war, finds himself drawn into another conflict.  It looks like eternal conflict is destined to be a part of Johnson’s  life, something he could never escape. Apart from the brilliant camera work, that captures the rugged wilderness of  Utah, what gives the strength to the movie is the characterization and the relationship between them.  Pollack has always been excellent at  depicting  relationships, in fact his major strength too. And here he does it very well, be it the bonding between Johnson and  Bear Claw, Johnson and Del Gue or  the intimate family scenes between Johnson, Swan and Caleb.  The Crow tribe that attacks Johnson, did more so, because in an earlier search by the Cavalry, they had violated their native graves. And when Johnson goes on a revenge spree against the tribe, they begin to respect their enemy, fear him. And yes the last scene speaks for it all, no dialogues, but just the gestures, that say it all.

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Jeremiah Johnson is the kind of old fashioned, adventure, morality tale, that Hollywood seems to have forgotten, in it’s rush for superhero sequels.  It is a movie that speaks through it’s silences, the characters, the relationships and the atmosphere. Robert Redford does well, in the lead role,  as the war weary veteran, who seeks to get away from it all, only to find himself unwillingly  involved in another conflict. The matinee idol Redford, giving way to a war weary grizzled veteran of the mountains, who finds himself becoming an unwilling legend.

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  1. Sydney Pollack Blogathon-Jeremiah Johnson – Dem Bones

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