JEREMIAH JOHNSON (Sydney Pollack, 1972)

Robert Redford is deft and appealing, although largely inscrutable, as Jeremiah Johnson, a former soldier in, possibly a deserter from, the Mexican-American War, who now aims to lose himself in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, living an isolated, peaceable existence, but who finds he cannot leave behind the savagery of his recent past. Based on both Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man and the short story “Crow Killer,” by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker, Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, in the context of its own time 130 years later, refers to Vietnam. The script is by John Milius, who would co-write Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and doubly Oscared Edward Anhalt. To continue and complete shooting on-location (in Utah), Pollack mortgaged his own house.
     According to the film, Johnson—an actual person— became something of a legend in his own time. (This the film conveys coyly and laboriously.) Yet Pollack has adopted for the most part a naturalistic style as Johnson encounters one strange “character” after another; his sociability in these interactions of his strains credibility that he would embrace such a life as he does here. (Indeed, the real Johnson behaved far more problematically.) Along the way, Johnson acquires a young surrogate son and a Native American wife, both of whom are massacred by Crows after he has trespassed on ground that they regard as sacred. This echoes and extends the consequential nature of his Mexican war experience.
     A good deal of the failure of Pollack’s film is due to how poorly it reflects any degree of humanity. None of the deaths—and there are more than I have noted—impresses deeply, partly the result of the shallowness of the characterizations, and partly the result, also, of Pollack’s arty, “discreet” depiction of these deaths. Nor does the insanity of the boy’s mother following an Indian raid register any more deeply.
     Despite the film’s dominant naturalism, the loveliest aspect of the film is its ghostly shafts of expressionistic poetry, rendered hauntingly by Duke Callaghan’s color cinematography. Generally, though, the film is (like Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 Broken Lance, about which I recently wrote) more scenic than visually expressive.
     As far as I know, Pollack never made a good film, and that includes Out of Africa (1985), for which he won producing and directorial Oscars. But a good many of them, like Jeremiah Johnson and Out of Africa, are pretty to look at. And, of course, his scenarists and he were right to predict, by way of analogy, the flypaper nature of the Vietnam experience for U.S. soldiers and their haunted nation.

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