Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Jeremiah Johnson – Only an Actor of Redford’s Caliber Could Carry This Film

Written by Vardis Fisher, Raymond W. Thorp, and Robert Bunker
Directed by Sydney Pollack

This is a film in the true classic style if only for the fact that it has an overture!  Gearing up to watch it for the first time in years, it set the tone quite nicely for a film that is quite simply a visual masterpiece. The story is told primarily through the visual medium as there is little dialogue throughout yet I can almost guarantee it will keep you riveted.

Robert Redford is Jeremiah Johnson.  When first introduced to him, he is still wearing the colors of the Army he is seeking to escape.  Johnson has no wish to fight in the Mexican War and seeks the isolation life as a mountain man will give him.  The film gives the impression that whatever he saw during his time in the Army affected him to the degree that he wants to be away from all people.

This was not to be an easy life, as he learns early on.  In addition to the problems gathering any type of food and battling the elements, he encounters those native to the area as well as a man who broke both his legs and froze to death.  It is from that man, though, that he gets the 50 caliber bear rifle he wanted before he set out on this life.

It is when he meets Bear Claw (portrayed by Will Geer) that his fortune changes a bit.  Bear Claw teaches Johnson much of what he needs to know to survive, and he begins to carve out a life for himself.  Eventually, he takes a Native Squaw, Swan (portrayed by Delle Bolton) as his wife, and an orphaned mute boy Caleb (portrayed by Josh Albee) blends into the unconventional family. Happiness is short-lived when Johnson encounters a detachment from the Army that asks for his help and leads him straight to disaster.

Redford convinced Director Sydney Pollack to film the movie in Utah, which accounts for the incredible scenery throughout the film.  Redford carries the film quite well with his nearly silent performance and it’s roles like this show the true talent an actor of his caliber has. In the hands of a lesser actor, it would fail miserably and I’m thinking of Darryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear which had a similar angle of being a visual film but failed largely due to her being cast for the fact that she looked right for the role more than the fact that she could actually carry a film like this. In the hands of an actor like Redford, I felt like I knew Jeremiah Johnson without him having to give me pages of dialogue detailing his background or talking about his feelings.

The supporting cast also does quite well, in particular, Josh Albee as the young mute boy.  There is a good variation in the characters in that they have distinct personalities and don’t blend together.  Geer does a great job providing some needed comic relief in a film that is quite dramatic and tragic.

Most of the special features are just a slideshow-type with information about various subjects with the exception of the featurette.  This hasn’t been remastered and the quality isn’t all that good.  Overall, the print looks pretty good, although there are sections where I notice that it’s dirty.  If this wasn’t completely restored, it definitely deserves the treatment.  On Blu-ray, it should be gorgeous when they finally get around to putting this together.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the western genre in general, I think Jeremiah Johnson is worth checking out. It’s not the usual cowboys and Indians narrative and is actually based on the real story of a mountain man in the 1850s, something that took me by surprise when I researched it.  Between Redford’s performance, the beautiful scenery, and an emotional soundtrack, the film is dazzling. I just hope they remaster it and give it the attention it deserves for a Blu-ray release.


• Cast & Crew Biographies
• For Real Mountain Men
• The Perfect Swan
• Destination Utah
• Redford in Action
• The Makings of a Mountain Man
• Theatrical Trailer
• Featurette “The Saga of Jeremiah Johnson”

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