By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Man in the wilderness.
Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) is a man who wishes to live life alone in the snowy mountains. His peaceful existence comes to an end when after riding through a sacred burial ground of the Crow Indian he becomes the target of young male warriors who attack him one-by-one when he is not expecting it to avenge his ‘desecration’. Jeremiah manages to defeat every warrior that challenges him turning him into a legend among the native tribes.
The film’s on-location shooting is outstanding and one of the chief assets in watching the movie. It was shot entirely in the state of Utah and there are many majestic long-shots where all you hear is the wind blowing and makes you feel like you are outdoors yourself alongside the character. The barren, empty winter landscape is well captured and while watching Jeremiah trudge all alone through the snow it was hard for me to imagine that there was actually a film crew present. The ambience of the natural surroundings is breathtaking and grabbed me immediately. I enjoyed the slow, quiet pace at the beginning and wished there had been more of it. One of the most enjoyable scenes is watching Jeremiah trying to catch fish with his hands out of a river, which could have been more entertaining had it been extended.
The story is loosely based on the real life exploits of fur trapper John Johnston who was known to cut out and eat the liver of every crow warrior that he defeated. There is nothing like that here and in some ways that is part of the problem. The ruggedness and reality seem to have been compromised by 70’s sensibilities with too many quirky scenarios and characters thrown in making the film’s structure reminiscent to Little Big Man, which was released just a few years earlier. That film seemed refreshingly cerebral, but here it becomes imitative and derivative.
Robert Redford is high in the looks department, but so-so in acting. He has always had too much of a detached presence and his range of emotions is limited. In some films this may work, but here the part needed more charisma and flair. The character was more like a modern day, touchy-feely male transplanted from Hollywood and into the wild than an actual 18th century hermit. For a man living off the land far from civilization he has to have the whitest most straightest teeth I have ever seen.
The supporting cast fares better. I loved Will Geer as the aging fur trapper Bear Claw. This guy has all the panache that Redford lacked and the movie would have been better had it made him the focus. Allyn Ann McLerie has a small, but riveting role as ‘the crazy woman’ who is unable to cope, or accept the fact that her family has been slaughtered by an Indian attack. Stefan Gierasch has his finest hour as Del Gue a fur trapper that Jeremiah comes upon. During the first half you see him as bald only to have him return in the second half with a full head of hair. The scene where he is shown buried in sand up to his head is amusing and disconcerting at the same time.
My biggest issue with the film is when Jeremiah starts to fight off all the Indian warriors who attack him. I just could not believe that one man would be able to defeat and kill so many of them. I could understand maybe a few, but eventually odds would have to catch up with him. There is never any special skill shown for why Jeremiah seems to always get the upper hand during these battles. The fights themselves are not exciting as they are much too brief and edited in a way that it is hard to follow the action. It seems like it takes only a few seconds from when the Indian jumps him to when Jeremiah already has him on the ground dead. Jeremiah is also the only person I know of who can have a large spear pierce his body and all he does is pull it out and go on living without any noticeable injury.
The first half is more compelling than the second, which had me feeling bored. The side-story of having him take on an Indian bride as well as a young boy who does not speak has potential, but doesn’t go far enough with it. For an adventure story there is very little action outside of the Indian battles that to me seemed phony. The best sequence is a wolf attack that is nicely edited and graphic. The Crow Indian burial scene is effectively moody and starkly photographed.
The screenplay by John Milius and Edward Anhalt was written using material from two different novels and the lack of cohesion shows. Part of it wants to be a gritty nature drama while the other half plays like a mystical fantasy, but this uneasy mixture never gels, or works.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: December 21, 1972
Runtime: 1Hour 56Minutes
Director: Sydney Pollack
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video