Friday, April 20, 2012

Movie Review: Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Directed by Syndey Pollack
Starring Robert Redford, Will Geer, Stefan Gierasch, Delle Bolton, Josh Albee

Jeremiah Johnson is one of my favorite movies.  It's one of the few movies in the "Western" genre that I really like, although it isn't a typical example of that genre.  There are no cowboys, no gunfights, no stagecoaches.  The story is set about 20 years earlier than most Westerns, which most often take place in the 1870s.  The titular protagonist isn't a veteran of the Civil War, but of the Mexican War.  

In some respects Jeremiah Johnson has a similar theme to the much better known Dances With Wolves.  When I first saw Dances With Wolves, I liked it, but since I've come to find it rather disappointing.  It's pretentious and overlong.  I find it particularly annoying that the love interest for Kevin Costner's character isn't a Native American woman, but a white woman who has been raised as a Sioux, as if Kevin Costner couldn't fall in love with someone who wasn't white.  The movie has to have some backstory about the protagonist, as if to convince us we must be interested in him.  The Indians are noble and the whites are venal.  

What I like about Jeremiah Johnson is that it doesn't do any of those things.  We know he was a soldier, but we don't know anything that happened to him during the war.  He doesn't have nightmares or flashbacks.  We don't know where he came from or anything about his childhood or family background.  

Some of the people he meets are decent, some are horrid.  It doesn't matter whether they are Indians or whites.  The Indians do what they do not because they are evil or noble, but because that's what their culture tells them to do, as do the whites.  Jeremiah isn't heroically trying to save the Indians from oppression.  He's just trying to live the life he wants to live.  He marries a woman he doesn't know and falls in love with her afterward.  They don't even speak the same language.  This movie tells so much more about the experience of the West than the romanticized vision of Dances With Wolves does.

I love that this movie doesn't talk too much.  Jeremiah doesn't have a lot to say.  The wordiest character is the motormouth Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), whose appearance just highlights how quiet Jeremiah is.  Most of Robert Redford's performance as Jeremiah involves using expressions and body language to convey thoughts and emotions, with as little dialogue as possible.  The movie gives me, as the audience, room to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of Utah and think about the themes and plot elements of the story without constantly being distracted by some character prattling.  

It's also funny.  There's a lot of gentle humor.  When Jeremiah, new to the life of a trapper and hunter, worries that his legs will give him away when hiding behind his horse during an elk hunt, his mentor Bear Claw (Will Geer) laughs, "Elk don't know how many legs a horse has got!"  Jeremiah first meets Del Gue buried up to his neck by Indians who are thwarted from taking Gue's scalp by the fact that Gue shaves his head.  Though the movie has a lot of serious and painful moments, they are offset by the funny ones.

There's romance, too.  As I mentioned above, Jeremiah is forced into a marriage he doesn't want.  But he comes to love his bride, even though they don't speak the same language.  He also develops affection for his adopted son.  The whole story is told with great simplicity, which makes it both charming and satisfying.

This movie also makes me cry.  I cry at the end, every time.  I'm not quite sure what I'm crying for.  But I'm glad the movie ends as abruptly as it does.  I don't want to be told what happens next.  I can imagine this film being made now would include an annoying voiceover epilogue by Del Gue telling us what happened to Jeremiah.  Instead, we are simply told that as far as the singer knows, Jeremiah Johnson is out there still.

I hope he is.

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