Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Some years ago, I met a man named Chip. Normally you would envision that name belonging to a preppie type. Well-groomed, khaki pants and Gap shirts.

This Chip however, was quite different. Unkempt, hairy, and messy. I imagine if you handed him a bar of soap, he would look at it quizzically and ask, “What’s that?’

He would brag that sometimes he would walk out into the woods and live for days off the land. “I once ate the still beating heart of a rattle-snake!” he proudly announced. How proud his parents must be. Assuming they’re humans, of course. Most non-human parents would be embarrassed.

Chip was obviously born in the wrong period of time. He would have felt much more comfortable in the 1800’s, living as  a mountain man.

Which brings me to Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Based on the life of a real life mountain man named John Johnson, the movie tells the story of Jeremiah (Robert Redford, in his prime) leaving the life of civilization to live in the mountains to trap animals and live a life of solitude.

After being tutored in the art of living off the land by Bear Claw (Will Geer, better known as Grandpa on the TV series The Waltons), and through a series of unintentional events, he becomes burdened with an Indian wife, Swan (Delle Bolton) and an abandoned young boy. Ultimately, these become his true family.

Tragedy strikes through a well-intentioned but serious mistake by Jeremiah, and the movie takes a very somber tone. Very rarely does a movie manage to be heartwarming, heart-breaking, and suspenseful, while at the same time being totally believable.

The dialogue feels true to the time period. Such as when Bear Claw comes upon Jeremiah cooking over a fire after not seeing him for a long time. He asks, “What’s on the spit?”, to which Jeremiah responds, “Grown particular?” Or later, when Bear Claw says: “You’ve come far, pilgrim”, Jeremiah responds: “Feels like far.”

The song “The Ballad of Jeremiah Johnson”, is sung at various times through the movie and adds a wonderful musical tapestry to the story. You’ll find yourself singing it days after viewing. You’ll also find yourself wishing to live in the cabin he builds for himself, as well as wanting to have majestic views of the mountains of Utah outside your door.

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