America has always sought refuge in the West. From the early years of our country, Americans have pushed ever more in that direction in their exploration and settlement of this continent. The West represents something important and pure for our civilization; there is a reason Starfleet is based out of San Francisco, that Led Zeppelin sing about that cardinal direction, and that Gandalf, the elves and Bilbo all retire to the West at the end of Lord of the Rings. What that means, and the escape from other people, is the driving point of Jeremiah Johnson, a movie released in 1972 that was directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford. Jeremiah is a jaded and world weary war vet who seeks to escape the rest of humanity by becoming a trapper in the Rocky Mountains, which is still largely unsettled by white people, but is home to various Indian tribes and other men like himself. Over the course of at least several years, Jeremiah becomes a skilled and self-reliant mountain man, thanks to the early tutelage of a man named Chris Lapp (Will Greer). He eventually builds a family with a young boy and Indian woman, only for that all to be taken away by a misunderstanding and frontier violence. The movie ends peacefully and quietly, with Jeremiah doing the only thing he can; keep on living the life he has chosen.
If you asked me to describe the tone of this movie, I would have to say “stoic” or “quiet” because those best describe the main character and Jeremiah is the movie. He’s in basically ever scene, the story is fully his and he is the one constant throughout. And for all that happens to him, most of which is hard, sad and unrelenting, he just keeps going. I think that in a lesser movie, or a with an actor not up to Robert Redford’s ability, this would have come off robotic or unemotional, but you can see the emotion lighting up under his skin and behind his eyes. The things he has done and the people he has lost move him and resonate with him, he just keeps a calm exterior. There is a scene near the very end of the movie where another mountain man asks him about his adopted son and wife and even though his responses are quick and disconnected on the surface, you can feel the emotion swell in the very fiber of his being. It really is a remarkable performance to watch. I haven’t actually seen much of young Robert Redford but he is wondrous to watch in this movie. He grounds ever scene with his physical presence and conveys so much about the Jeremiah character before he ever says a word. Which is rare because this film has much less talking than most movies. After watching this movie I realized that most movies could do with a bit less talking if only they were capable of half the nonverbal storytelling of this movie. I’m not one to do it, but somebody should make a version of this movie that removes all the talking and see what kind of experience that yields. I bet it works better than you would think.
The other reason you could watch this movie on silent is because the scenery is simply gorgeous. Shot across Utah, the ruggedness of the mountains Jeremiah calls home amplify everything about him and the life he has chosen. Watching a man and his horse walk through a mountain pass all alone, with nobody for miles and miles and miles is a powerful thing to behold. Scenes like that one are littered across the film and they have a way of unhitching any kind of strong sense of narrative. The movie is actually a lot like Frances Ha in that it’s just the story of a life lived. Jeremiah has one goal and that is to be a mountain man, which he becomes. After that he just accepts what is given to him without much effort on his own. He just wants to be alone, or he does for a while. Once he is handed a family by happenchance and miscommunication, he is just as accepting of his new situation in life. I think that desire to be alone makes most people view the movie as being sad or depressing but I don’t think so. People are naturally social creatures, on average, but most does not mean all, and some like Jeremiah seem to really be at peace when they are alone. To a certain extent, I am one of those people. I have friends and family that I cherish, but I’ve always enjoyed being alone as well. Being at peace with just yourself is a trait that would benefit most people, and I think that this movie captures that; to often traits like that are portrayed as weird or unhealthy. Characters like that are to often recluses or socially awkward misanthropes who, by the end of the movie, have corrected their ways. But not in this movie. Jeremiah enjoys his own company and gladly goes months without talking to another soul. That’s okay for him because he doesn’t need more than that. He will gladly take more than that when given, but he doesn’t need it. And there lies the difference.
Did you like Cast Away? Do you enjoy watching actors practice their art at the highest level almost completely by themselves? Then you will like Jeremiah Johnson. Of all the movies I have watched so far it’s been the most surprising. I expected a pretty standard Western but what I got was a really interesting meditation on a man and the life he has chosen. I’ve read quite a few books on Stoic philosophy, and I couldn’t help but notice how much of that sits at the core of this movie. His stoic behavior is admirable and intriguing if you recognize it, but regardless it’s a really great movie.
Next Movie: Run All Night
Next Book: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline