Jeremiah Needs His Space

“Jeremiah Johnson” tells the story of a Mexican War veteran who’s left civilization to live as a mountain man in frontier

By Rob Breeding

I went looking for a hunting movie to write about this week. And by “went looking,” I mean I googled it. That’s about as far as searches go these days.

While I didn’t immediately come across any appealing titles, my efforts did turn up a reference to an old favorite, a film that’s not quite a hunting movie, but certainly includes plenty of hunting scenes — “Jeremiah Johnson.”

Released in 1972 and starring Robert Redford at the height of his leading-man powers, “Johnson” tells the story of a Mexican War veteran who’s left civilization to live as a mountain man in frontier Colorado. The movie was loosely based on an actual mountain man, Liver-Eating Johnson, who doubtful legend suggests came to his nickname by eating the livers of the more than 300 Crow Indians he killed avenging the murder of his wife, a member of the Flathead American Indian tribe.

Johnson hunts in the film. Deer, elk, bison and grouse are all dispatched, as are beaver and trout, though his fish-by-hand method leaves much to be desired. But that’s not the film’s focus. Instead, it examines a subject on which we’ve all recently become experts: social isolation.

I enjoyed “Jeremiah Johnson,” both when I saw it in the theater on its initial release, and again over the years as I’ve rewatched snippets while channel surfing. And I enjoyed it again this week, though there are a handful of incongruous details I found.

The first is Redford himself. Both his classic good looks and iconic voice can be simultaneously familiar and distracting. His narration of “A River Runs Through It,” always seemed to me slightly off key; neither as young as the Norman of the main story, nor old enough for the elderly character we see fishing the Big Blackfoot in its final scene.

In “Johnson,” it’s hard to imagine someone that good looking turning away from civilization toward isolation, though I suppose even the beautiful are allowed their existential torment.

The other is a matter of geography. The movie is set in Colorado, but filmed in Utah. And if you’ve been to Utah you can tell. There are also repeated references to Montana. Johnson watches a hawk flying over a ridge, and tells his silent, adopted son the bird is “goin’ for the Musselshell … hell, he’s there already.”

Colorado to Montana. That’s one fast bird.

There are also references to ferry boats on the Judith, another Montana river, as well as an army patrol that tells Johnson they’ve been followed since they left the Gila River, by what they suspect are Flathead Indians. To the best of my knowledge, the Flathead never shared the highlands of Arizona with the Apache. Filmgoers wouldn’t tolerate this kind of sloppiness today.

“Johnson” is considered a Revisionist Western, or Anti-Western, a sub-genre that also includes an earlier Redford film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” These Anti-Westerns became popular in the counter-culture of the 1970s. The tradition continued with masterpieces such as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” 20 years later. There are no good nor bad guys in a Revisionist Western. Everyone’s a little of both.

I watched the film with my 20-something daughter, who burst out laughing mid-movie when Johnson pulled a beaver trap heavy with its intended target, then looked over his shoulder with a silly grin at his wife, Swan. Redford’s expression is now a popular meme.

“Jeremiah Johnson” is good, albeit uneven. Redford is as usual great, and actor Will Geer has a brief but essential turn as Bear Claw, Johnson’s wilderness mentor. They bond over their mutual desire to run away to the mountains, searching for something.

What that something is, however, neither seems to know.

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