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Was there a point? If so, I missed it.
Jun 11, 2012 (Updated Jun 11, 2012)
Review by Stephen Murray
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:locations, cinematography, Redford, Geer
Cons:music, plot/rationale, pacing, question-begging (about stand-firm rights)
The Bottom Line: Great Utah snow travelogue, but that's not enough to compensate for pointless movie that sort of prints the legend minus the cannibalistic extravaganzas.
My Sydney Pollack (midcareer) mini-retrospective (Absence of Malice, The Yakuza) turned to the 1972 Robert Redford mountain-man/survivalist “Jeremiah Johnson”, based on legends of “Liver-eating” Johnston whose slaughtering of the indigenous inhabitants of the Rocky Mountains was celebrated in a 1940 book by Raymond W. Thorp, Robert Bunker, Crow Killer, one of the two bases for the movie, the other being Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man.
Recommend this product?
The movie much tones down the genocide-celebrating racism of Crow Killer, but cannot get around the fact that even when played by the genial Robert Redford, this loner is killing animals that would otherwise be able to support the life and lifeways of the indigenous inhabitants (Flathead and Crow). The first attack on and scalping of sleeping Crow warriors is not Johnson’s idea (the raucous Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) is the responsible party. The attack on a group of six (that I find unbelievable, Ramboesque) is all Johnson. (The real Johnson employed poison for his big kills of Crows.)
The movie’s Johnson seeks peaceful coexistence and is aware that his presence is considered trespass by the natives. I don’t think he had any right to be there, and that the Crow had the right fo stand fast and defend their hunting territory from poachers.
Leaving the rights and wronts of defending territory aside, the movie (script) failed to indicate what Johnson was fleeing (there are hints that he has deserted from the US army invading Mexico, though the real Johnson went into the Rockies after the War Against Secession). He tells Del Gue he has tried town, but nothing of what soured him on it.
The old man who saves him from starvation his first winter, played by Grandpa Walton (Will Geer) points out that the pickings for trappers are mostly exhausted (the real “mountain men” were decades earlier). And there is no indication of Johnson every selling anything (but having an infinite reservoir of bullets).
The movie (which includes a musical overture and intermission, though running less than two hours) has a lot of striking Utah mountain scenery (mostly in the Uinta National Forest, but also in Zion National Park and other places), fetchingly shot by Duke Callaghan (who mostly worked on tv dramas, most colorfully, fifteen episodes of “Miami Vice” but had shot Pollack’s earlier more comic western “The Scalphunters” in 1968). The topography/background is not right for the Crow or Flathead (Utah's indigenous peoples were Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute; The Flathead and Crow were not in Colorado, either.)
Redford had some scenes involving real discomfort (notably, trying to catch a fish by hand in a winter stream), as the vintage “making of” featurette makes clear. And he plays the laconic western hero in the Gary Cooper mould well, reluctant to be burdened with a child and a wife (in that order), though developing affection for them.
Johnson survives multiple attacks by Crow wanting to prove themselves (by taking the scalp of a worthy opponent) and a harrowing one by wolves, who like the bad guys in samurai movies attack one at a time rather than from all sides at the same time like wolves. Though the sequence has multiple, multiple cuts, it is still harrowing (as well as unbelievable).
Geer and Gierasch provided some welcome comic relief, and Jack Colvin made an impression as the cavalry lieutenant doing his duty with regret about his need for Johnson’s help.
The movie opens and closes with ballads, for me the curse of 1950s and later westerns, and more annoying still since the start of the action has already been delayed for three minutes of instrumental music overture. An intermission with only 36 minutes left is also puzzling, though not a major hurdle for watching JJ on DVD.
For snowy westerns, I prefer “Will Penny” and “McCabe and Mrs.Miller” (the title character of the former is as antisocial as JJ). For Pollack westerns, I prefer “The Scalphunters,” which directly addressed racism (with the aid of a splendid performance by Ossie Davis) and poaching on Indian (Apache) territory.
The DVD includes some text notes, a trailer, and the aforementioned “making of” promotion (more an extended trailer than a documentary) — not enough to lift an intermediate rating upward. I wish the DVD included a commentary track. I’m sure there were interesting stories (beyond mortgaging his house to pay for location shooting that Warner Brothers refused to pay for). I gather that the Blu-Ray does have a commentary track with Pollack, John Milius (coauthor with Edward Anhalt of the script) and Redford, so unheard I allocate an additional star for the Blu-ray!
I did not see the point of the movie or of Johnson’s sufferings and was bored between action scenes even with the spectacular scenery. The pace is generally slow, yet the story is disjointed. I guess I’ll blame the editor, Thomas Stanford (who won an Oscar for his work on “West Side Story”).
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
My other Pollack movie epinions:
The Scalphuners (1968)
The Yakuza (1974)
Absence of Malice (1981)
The Interpreter (2005)
Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)
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