Jeremiah Johnson Review and Blu-ray Features
10 Sep. 1972
Behind the Scene and other Major Plot Points
What is ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ about?
Disillusioned Mexican War veteran Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) decides to leave civilization and become a mountain man in the Rocky Mountains. Taught to live on the mountain by veteran mountain man Bear Claw (Will Geer), Jeremiah encounters grizzlies, hostile and friendly Indians, fights wolves, takes a squaw (Delle Bolton), adopts a son (Josh Albee), and becomes a legend.
Is “Jeremiah Johnson” based on a book?
Two books, actually. The character, Jeremiah Johnson, is said to have been based on a legendary mountain man, John “Liver-Eating” Johnson [c.1824-1900], as presented in the 1958 biography Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker. Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (1965) was also adapted for the movie by screenwriters John Milius and Edward Anhalt
In what year or years is the movie set?
No particular year is pin-pointed in the movie. It might be assumed that the story begins in the late 1840s, since the narrator explains that Jeremiah fought in the Mexican War [1846-1848], and he was still wearing his cavalry pants when he went into the mountains. This interpretation is further borne out when the cavalry comes to ask for Jeremiah’s help leading them through the passageway to the stranded settlers. Jeremiah asks Lieutenant Mulvey (Jack Colvin) how the war against Mexico is going, and he is told that it is over. If Jeremiah had gone into the mountains any time after 1848, he would already have known that. It’s been pointed out by some viewers, however, that the song being sung by the crazy woman wasn’t written until 1864, fully 14 years later. Most likely, the use of this song is a film-related anachronism.
Why did Jeremiah give his skins to Paints His Shirt Red?
Bear Claw had explained that they were on Crow land and that the Crow would consider them trespassers and take their horses and guns unless they were offered a bribe. Bear Claw offered him some bear claws, but Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquín Martínez) said he had enough of them, so Jeremiah offered his pelts.
Who killed the crazy woman’s children and buried Del Gue up to his neck in sand?
Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) says that it was the Blackfoot Indians.
Did Jeremiah get a premonition about Swan and Caleb when he was returning through the Crow burial ground?
It’s possible, but it’s even more likely that he recognized the blue tassels and material just added to the skeletons on the raised graves. They were taken from Swan’s backpack, which you can see dumped on the ground as Jeremiah rushes into his cabin. You can also see, just before Jeremiah realizes what the blue grave decorations mean, his eyes suddenly flashing a brilliant blue reflection to hint at what he is seeing and realizing. The backpack can be seen in several scenes prior to Jeremiah’s trek through the burial ground. It’s there at the feet of Swan’s bridesmaids at her wedding to Jeremiah, and the blue tassels can be seen decorating her leggings as they leave the Flathead Village just after the wedding. The backpack is there in the scene when Jeremiah dumps the scrawny rabbit into the pot (he sits by the backpack), and it’s there again when he and Swan are eating lunch during the building of the cabin.
Was Paints His Shirt Red one of the Indians who slaughtered Swan and Caleb?
It looks that way. When Jeremiah enters his cabin after the massacre, one of Paints His Shirt Red’s arrows can be seen stuck in the door frame (look for the red band around the shaft of the arrow). Earlier in the movie, in the scene where Jeremiah gives Paints His Shirt Red a couple of hides for passage through Crow land, Bear Claw stated that the arrow with the red band belongs to Paint His Shirt Red (when an arrow strikes the tree trunk). This implies that Paints His Shirt Red was one of the Crow that killed Swan and Caleb.
Why did Jeremiah not kill the Crow after he sang his death song?
Three possible reasons have been suggested: 1) because the Indian ran, and there can be no worse shame for a Crow who would abandon his party when they are under attack, 2) because Jeremiah wanted him to return to his tribe and tell them what happened, i.e., that Jeremiah Johnson slaughtered the entire raiding party, and 3) the Indian brave reminded him of Swan.
How does the movie end?
After being hunted by the Crow, who come for him one at a time, he runs into Del Gue. Del has grown his hair back, having made the decision that he wants to leave something behind when he departs from this world — even if it’s just on someone’s lodgepole. Del suggests that Jeremiah go down into the town, but Jeremiah says that he’s already done that. After being wounded in his side by another Crow’s lance, he moves on, ending up at the Crazy Woman’s house. She is dead, and the house is now being lived in by a settler and his family. In the yard, Jeremiah sees what looks like his grave, but the settler says that it’s more like a monument to him. Indians come during the night, never being seen, but he knows they’ve been there by the new items like feathers or bits of bone that weren’t there the day before. Jeremiah warns the settler that hiding his wife and kids in the corn crib won’t stop the Indians. Then he moves on again. He meets up with Bear Claw who tells him that an avalanche took his cabin, so he has moved higher in the mountains in order to hunt for griz. Bear Claw congratulates Jeremiah for keeping his hair when so many are after it. In the final scene, Jeremiah is riding his horse through a snowstorm. He comes upon yet another lone Crow. As he reaches for his gun, he sees that it is Paints His Shirt Red. Instead of pulling out his gun, Paints His Shirt Red holds out his arm, his palm turned to face Jeremiah. Jeremiah does the same. They both ride on.
What did Paints His Shirt Red mean by his final gesture?
Holding up your strong arm with the palm facing the person you are meeting is a form of greeting. It shows that you are not hiding anything in your hand. It signifies peace, which is how most viewers interpret that scene. Paints His Shirt Red seemed to be telling Jeremiah that his fight with the Crows was over. The fact that he is not wearing war paint is another indication that his intentions are not hostile. When Jeremiah returned the gesture, he was doing the same.
RT/Meta Critic Review
Pollack does right to put his faith in one man and a whole lot of mountains. The result is impressive. (Click here to see)
Don’t mistake the softness that comes to bear on Jeremiah Johnson as the product of egregious noise reduction. Pollack’s 1972 Western has never been as sharp as a well-kept Bowie knife, and Warner’s 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer stays true to Duke Callaghan’s original photography. There are minor edge halos, a few instances of soupy grain, and some murky moonlit shots to endure, but, for the most part, the image is quite pleasing. Colors are warm and earthy, blood-red wounds and brilliant blue skies pop, black levels are deep and cavernous, and only a handful of faces appear slightly over-saturated. Otherwise, skintones are lovely (in that early ’70s Technicolor sort of way) and contrast, though a touch dark, rarely falters. The film’s grainfield is intact too, as are its fine details. Textures aren’t always as crisp as they are during closeups, but hair, furs, trapper stitches and the like fare well, edges are nicely defined, and any softness is inherited from the source. Thankfully, the print is pristine, with no serious damage to report. And the same can be said of the encode itself, which doesn’t exhibit any significant artifacting, banding, aliasing or other troubling issues. All in all, Jeremiah Johnson‘s presentation isn’t as stunning as Warner’s most thorough remasters or ground-up restorations, but there isn’t a lot of room for improvement either.
Jeremiah Johnson‘s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track wisely sticks to its mono roots, retaining the tone and tenor of its ’70s sound design, tinny rifle fire, stagy punches, canned horse whinnies and all. The rear speakers are used to enhance the lifeblood of the wilderness and mountains, but only insofar as rusting trees, quiet breezes, cracking twigs, and chirping birds are concerned. The mix remains a front-heavy affair on the whole, and only a few effects — generally those that occur when Jeremiah and those he meets aren’t speaking — warrant much attention. The same could be said of the LFE channel; it handles its wares well enough, yet only occasionally injects a sense of legitimate weight or power into the experience. Even so, dialogue is clean, clear and intelligible throughout, and only a bit of glaring ADR spoils the goods. Ultimately, I would have preferred a lossless mono track (including both would have been even better), but I doubt anyone will be terribly disappointed with the 5.1 remix as is.
- Audio Commentary: Recorded separately, director Sydney Pollack, writer John Milius and actor Robert Redford stride through Jeremiah Johnson with purpose and precision, detailing the development and production of the film, dissecting the genesis of the story and the final script, touching on everything from its working titles to the original idea for its ending, and spend a great deal of time discussing the manner in which the performances, cinematography, music, first-take shooting, and simplicity of the story come together to create a ballad of sorts, which was Pollack’s intention from the outset. There are a few pauses in the track but none of real note. All things considered, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable commentary, enough so that I didn’t mind the lack of additional extras all that much.
- The Saga of Jeremiah Johnson (SD, 11 minutes): A vintage behind-the-scenes featurette that unfortunately provides more in the way of plot synopsis than insight into the production.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes)