Another of my favourites although not included in my Top Ten. With a minimum of action, scenery and people, it is nonetheless an engaging and thought provoking movie, made the more interesting by being based on fact. Every scene is memorable. Images, issues and messages from the movie linger in the mind. I have not seen it on DVD although it is available. Try renting it at your local video store. (Notice how they’re still called video stores even though most of them now carry only DVD’s).
Made in 1972, the movie stars Robert Redford in a somewhat different role to those he usually plays. Redford portrays Jeremiah Johnson, in turn based in part on the life of John Johnston, aka “Crow Killer” and Liver-Eatin’ Johnston”. After Crow Indians murdered his wife. Johnston swore vengeance against the entire tribe, eating the livers of the Crow he killed. Will Geer plays Chris Lapp, also known as “Bear Claws” by reason of his hunting “grizz” and keeping their claws in a necklace around his neck.
Film clips (click on the links to view the clips):
There are some great clips from the movie:
“Skin that one, Pilgrim, and I’ll getcha another.” (Low sound quality but still worth a look).
The Ballad of Jeremiah Johnson
Jeremiah Johnson has had enough of war and people. Jaded and disillusioned from the Mexican War (1846-1848), he decides to become a mountain man and trapper in the Rocky Mountains but his plans go sadly awry. With no knowledge or experience he barely survives the winter. A Crow chief, Paints His Shirt Red, sees him struggle to fish by hand. Eventually Johnson is befriended by the crusty grizzly bear hunter “Bear Claws” Chris Lapp, who takes him in for the winter and mentors him on trapping and survival. He then sets out on his own.
Time passes. In his travels he comes across a woman whose family has been killed by the Indians. She has become deranged and Johnson tells her that the Indians will leave her alone because of that. She forces her mute young boy onto him for care. He names him “Caleb”.
Not long after, Johnson makes a gift to a Flathead chief, only to find that he is now to be married to the chief’s daughter, Swan.
Johnson builds a cabin and they begin life together as a family. In time fondness and affection build and he and Swan become lovers.
Pressed into service by the US Army to help rescue a stranded wagon train, Johnson is forced to take a shortcut through a Crow burial ground, which is sacrilege to the Crows. When Johnson returns from saving the group he finds that the Crow have murdered Caleb and Swan in retaliation.
Johnson tracks down the Crow who carried out the killings and kills them all except one. The Crow send warriors to kill him but he defeats them all, causing his honour and power to grow, the Crow believing that their own honour is enhanced by the strength of their enemies. As he meets up with people he knows from earlier days, including Bear Claws, he fends off surprise attacks by Crow warriors. “You’ve come far, pilgrim” Bear Claws observes. He also comments "You have done well...to keep so much hair....when so many's after it.” Bear Claws parting words - “I hope you will fare well” - are the last spoken words in the film.
In the final scene, Johnson and Paints His Shirt Red confront each other. It appears from the scene that Paints His Shirt Red is the person who has been sending the warriors to attack Johnson. Johnson moves his hand towards his rifle but Paints His Shirt Red raises his arm and opens his hand in a gesture of peace. Johnson does likewise and the movie ends.
The Real Jeremiah Johnson:
- As noted above, the story of Jeremiah Johnson is based in part on the life of Liver-Eatin’ Johnson (1824-1900). Although his real name was Johnson, he changed it to Johnston after striking an officer and deserting. He then became commonly known as Liver-Eatin’ Johnson, his biography being documented in Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson.
- Liver Eatin' Johnson's Indian wife (who was pregnant at the time) was killed by a random raiding party of Blackfeet, not in revenge for a violation of their burial grounds as in the movie. He found her body several months later after returning from a trapping expedition. Hunting down the Indians who killed her, he was able to identify them by a Tennessee rifle that one had, this having been given to his wife by him. The part in the movie about the warriors sent to kill him and told not to return without his scalp was true, but Liver-Eatin Johnson also recruited whites and Flathead Indians to hunt down Blackfeet and Crow.
- Johnson ate the livers of the Crow and Blackfeet he killed to scare the living ones. They believed that their soul would wander the earth forever if the body was not intact at burial. Johnson also ate the leg of a Blackfoot but this was for survival. He had been captured by the Blackfeet who were going to sell him to the Crow. He escaped, killed his guard and cut off his leg, which he took with him for food, there being little to eat in the snow country.
- According to the book 'Crow Killer', the Crazy Woman was a real person. She and her family had settled in the Wolf Tail Valley but, after her children were killed and her husband taken captive, she went insane and remained in her cabin. Liver Eatin' Johnson, Del Gue, and Anton Sepulveda were some of the mountain men who 'avenged' her.
- One popular story was that the mountain man known as 'Hatchet Jack', whose rifle Jeremiah acquires in the movie when he finds Hatchet Jack frozen in the high country, was actually the husband of the Crazy Woman. That story holds that he went insane after being scalped and tortured by the Blackfeet when they took him away. It was known that Hatchet Jack had been scalped at some point in his life and that he was mentally unbalanced. Johnson refers to this when he tells the Crazy Woman that he cannot find any sign of her husband, but that he might return if he escaped from the Indians.
- After 25 years of killing Crow, Johnston made peace with them and became “brothers” with them.
- Johnston was reburied in Old Town in Cody, Wyoming, on June 8, 1974, that grave site being pioctured below. Redford also served as one of the pallbearers.