Starring Robert Redford’s burly mane, Jeremiah Johnson is the story of an absolutely incredible beard and the mountain man who carries it around on his face. The beard just wants to live a quiet life, moving gently in the Rocky Mountain breeze and catching a few snowflakes, but other forces dwelling in the range cause trouble for the beard. As seasons pass in the valleys below, the beard wisens to the truths of the world and becomes a broader, more understanding beard.
Sydney Pollack directed five or six films – five including 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and six if you count 1968’s The Swimmer, which Pollack eventually took over without an actual directing credit – and plenty of TV before he got to Jeremiah Johnson in 1972. Not long before production began, it was Clint Eastwood in Johnson’s role and Sam Peckinpah set to direct him, but the pair clashed and Eastwood said “Dirty Harry sounds a lot less dangerous” (paraphrased) and Redford was cast in his place. Having worked together on This Property Is Condemned in 1966, it was Redford who secured Pollack as Peckinpah’s replacement. Contrary to what one may think when watching Redford ride around on horseback for two hours Jeremiah Johnson actually cost quite a bit of money, and it was money that the studio wasn’t prepared to give out after advancing Redford a hefty salary. Pollack mortgaged his house and financed parts of the film himself, all the while strictly adhering to the budgetary and time constraints the studio laid down.
In short, you wouldn’t blame Pollack for being a bit sour after such a stressful production. But the director cited it as a great trial-by-fire learning experience, essentially because the money he was risking was his own. It probably helped that Johnson did well and remains a bit of a mountain-man classic today.
The kernel of the film, at least for me, comes when Jeremiah sits by a freshly-killed dinner with his de facto family – a wife he was all but forced to marry and a son he was all but forced to adopt. First, the irony of a man sojourning to the Rockies to live a life of quiet solitude and ending up married with a kid is a rich one. As they sit around munching rabbit or whatever Jeremiah teaches his non-English speaking wife a new word: “Yes”. He then asks her some questions about himself, the last of which is “I am a fine figure of a man, yes?” Now, this lady has no idea what in the hell this guy is talking about. She’s goaded into answering all the same, showing off her new word “yes”. Jeremiah sits back satisfied.
A definition of manhood in any form, validity apparently notwithstanding, keeps cropping up in Jeremiah Johnson. He achieves legendary status among some of the puny town-dwellers, achieves something of a nemesis status among a tribe of Crow Indians, and achieves something that begins as pity but matures into respect with two like-minded mountain men. What of himself? Does “being a man” equal “living a full life”, or is there a gap there somewhere that leaves this manly man’s man ultimately unfulfilled?
Pollack and Redford manage to pull an extremely strong narrative out of what could easily have been a semblance of shots of Jeremiah riding a horse. The beard helps. Tragically, the beard’s career went sharply downhill following Jeremiah Johnson and was hardly ever seen in Hollywood again, sinking into a drunken oblivion and leading a shattered existence that would one day serve as the basis for Leaving Las Vegas.