Jeremiah Johnson review by Matt FuerstBeing a young nerd, of course I'm into video games. Just lately I've been on a Role Playing Game kick - an RPG is where you assume the role of a character and then go on a grand quest involving mystery and intrigue. Having beaten Fable on the XBox (great game) I just purchased another XBox game called Morrowind. Morrowind opens with you being onboard a ship sailing to a new land. You don't know who you are or where you have been. You have been pardoned from prison for a crime you don't remember and can start fresh in a completely new land. This is a pretty timeless narrative that can spin off into any direction. I use this as an introduction because it's nearly the exact same introduction that Jeremiah Johnson tells. Jeremiah lands in a new land on a boat. He has shed his past life like a snake sheds its skin and is ready to start anew in the untamed West of the United States in the late 19th century. So, does Jeremiah Johnson succeed as well as Morrowind?
Jeremiah (Robert Redford) gathers his supplies and sets off west to be a fur trapper. Being green and not much of a trapper, Johnson soon finds himself in the Rocky mountains with no foods and deep snow as far as the eye can see. Hunger sets in and Johnson finds himself a desperate pilgrim without any help, it is truly a do or die situation. The writing is on the wall when Johnson runs across a fellow trapper frozen to the ground, dead. Johnson inherits his 50 caliber rifle, but wonders how much longer he'll be upright to use it. Luckily, Johnson comes across a fellow white man, a Grizzly Bear hunter who is willing to show Jeremiah the ropes of trapping and surviving in the wilderness. Now better equipped for the wild, Johnson sets off and finds himself able to sustain himself in the wilderness.
In his travels amongst the mountains Jeremiah comes across the first face he's seen in many moons, unfortunately it's the face of a widow who just had her entire family murdered before her eyes by Indians. Jeremiah helps her bury her kin and offers to take her into a town but she refuses, distraught over her loss. About to leave, Jeremiah notices that one of her children survived the Indian attack, the widow forces Jeremiah to take the son, who refuses to talk so Jeremiah names him Caleb (Josh Albee). Jeremiah happens across another Indian victim, a man named Del (Stefan Gierasch), buried up to his neck in the sand. Jeremiah agrees to dig Del out and help him get his horse back from his Indian attackers. Of course the Indian ambush goes bad and Jeremiah and Del end up killing all the Indians, Del scalping the Indians to sell to the English. On their way into town then happen across a rival band on Indians, who are so excited over their kills that they give Jeremiah a bride, Swan (Delle Bolton). Jeremiah has become a Salvation Army on a horse, with a mute son that isn't his and an Indian wife that doesn't speak English. Still, Jeremiah makes the best of the situation and finds himself comfortable enough to settle down in a valley and build himself a home for his makeshift family. Jeremiah lives there happily and quietly, content with his life.
Of course, it's time for the event to occur that will disrupt Jeremiah's life. A band of settlers are stranded in the mountain and the rescuers need Jeremiah to help them navigate the pass. Jeremiah is hesitant to leave his family but knows full well they will die at the hands on Indians before they can starve. Jeremiah leads the rescue party through Indian lands but knows there is likely an unforeseen tax on his transaction. Jeremiah's decision leads to some consequences that change his life forever...
Ahhh the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The setting of Jeremiah Johnson is more of a player in the film than the characters, and that includes Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah is a quiet, solitary man in a quiet, solitary setting - he says less than 100 words in the whole film and his son and wife are equally quiet. So this leads to the scenery definitely taking over the film and it stands up to the task. Jeremiah Johnson was released in 1972, so the colors are not as eye popping as they would be if they were filmed today (Open Range is equally grand in it's scale but is more vivid) but I cannot take anything away from Johnson for this. The picture quality is still high and enjoyable.
Released in 1972, I doubt the same film would be made today. While it's a short movie, the pacing is deliberate and not the modern 'style'. In fact the film begins with a 3 or so minute introductory song over a still picture of the Rockies, and there's a 3 minute intermission in the middle of the film (and it's not due to the length of the film per se, as it's less than 2 hours long total). Jeremiah roams about the landscape for the first half hour, then learns about survival for a half hour. Intermission, followed by Jeremiah collecting his family and settling down and the final act. Today we'd see far more action in the first half of the movie and far more drama in the second half, but I really enjoyed the understated nature of Jeremiah Johnson. It's a far truer tale as it's told, being in the middle of nowhere with no people for miles results in much isolation and loneliness.
Jeremiah is a good character and we feel for him right away. The story doesn't deviate from the beaten path much, Jeremiah starts exploring, starves, then gets taught some lessons, then succeeds. Jeremiah has some adventures and ends up in some awkward situations and makes the best of it. Still we root for Jeremiah to eat when he's starving and are relieved when he finds happiness with his unconventional family.
Jeremiah Johnson works well. It's a tale of isolation and survival. It's a story similar to those told today, but told in a manner very different than today. I found it a refreshing change but can see it being a tough sell to the MTV crowd.
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