Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

 

 

Director:   Sydney Pollack.

Starring:  Robert Redford (Jeremiah Johnson), Will Geer (Bear Claw), Stefan Gierasch (Del Gue), Allyn Ann McLerie (crazy woman), Charles Tyner, Josh Albee (Caleb), Delle Bolton (Swan)

 

Jeremiah Johnson was a mountain man who married a Flat Head Indian wife. She was killed by the Crow. In revenge he killed a lot of Crow braves. It was reported that he ate the livers of the braves.

Johnson escaped as prisoner of the Blackfeet and served with the Colorado cavalry unit during the Civil War.

Set in the 1830s, the film is not a biography of the mountain man, but it gives some ideas of the difficulties facing many of the mountain men and other early explorers of the west.  The mountain men were very important for after the fur trade collapsed, they became guides for explorers of the western areas and then guides for the army and settlers.

Filmed in Utah.

For a biography of Jeremiah Johnson: "Crow Killer" by Raymond W. Thorp  and Robert Bunker.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Jeremiah Johnson gets off a boat and heads for the Trading Goods store.  He buys a Hawkins gun (there's no better he says), traps, supplies, a horse and a mule.  Setting out he really looks impressive.  But he's a real tenderfoot.  So much of a tenderfoot, that he gets his horse killed through inexperience.  Wandering through the snow covered mountains of the Rockies, he finds a mountain man frozen to death.  He is holding a .50 caliber Hawkin gun in his frozen hands.  Around his neck is a message saying that he is Hatchett Jack and he was killed by a bear who broke both his legs.  He says the finder, hopefully a white man, is welcome to the rifle. 

Johnson now has an extra wonderful rifle, but he is still in deep trouble because of his inexperience.  Lucky for him the mountain man known as Bear Claw spots him and brings him to his cabin.  He teaches Johnson a great deal about survival in the mountains.  He tells him to watch out for the Indians: the Flatheads are peaceful, but the Crows are tough.

Out hunting they run into a Crow party.  Bear Claws tells Johnson that they may have to bribe them with a nice gift not to steal their horses .  Johnson gives the top warrior a nice fur. 

Johnson goes out on his own and runs into a crazy white woman  She has lost her husband (it's not clear how or where) and two of her daughters were killed by the Indians.  A surviving son is also with her, but he has been so frightened that he does not speak.  Johnson helps her bury her daughters and fixes some of the problems with the cabin.  The crazy woman insists that Johnson take her son with him, because she is in no shape to care for him.  Johnson sets out with the boy (who he names Caleb) in tow. 

The two run into a white man buried up to his neck in sand.  His name is Del Gue and Chief Mad Wolf of the Blackfeet Indians had this done to him.  They rescue the man and then they seek out the three Blackfeet responsible for burying him and stealing his horse and equipment.  Johnson just wants to get what belongs to Del Gue and get out of there without the Blackfeet knowing.   But Del Gue has a different agenda for he starts shooting the Blackfeet and they end up killing all three of the Blackfeet. 

A little farther along and Johnson and company meet the Flatheads.  They are very happy to see the Blackfeet scalps taken from the three Blackfeet earlier.  Johnson gives the excess horses and equipment to the Flatheads.  This makes Del Gue very nervous.  He tells Johnson he may have just insulted the Flatheads because now they must give him a gift of equal or higher value than the one he gave them.  But the Flatheads come up with a good gift: one of the daughters, Swan, of a head man of the tribe.  Johnson does not want her, but Del Gue insists that he marry her or they all would be in trouble.  Following the marriage ceremony, Del Gue takes off by himself. 

Johnson, Caleb and Swan leave the village.  They eventually build a cabin by a river in the mountains.  During the winter, Johnson hunts buffalo and is badly bitten by wolves trying to attack his horse and mule. 

A group of soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry arrive at his door-step.  They are from the Department of Colorado and are on their way to rescue settlers in three broken down wagons in the mountains.  Johnson does not want to leave his cabin to lead the soldiers to their destination, but they shame him into it.  At one critical juncture he tells them that they cannot travel through an Indian graveyard because the Crows would take it as a violation of their rules.  Thee army refuses to go around considering the necessity of getting quickly to the settlers.  Once the men arrive at the place with the stranded settlers, Johnson quickly turns around and heads back to his family. 

On his return journey to his cabin, he has a foreboding of something bad having happened to his family.  When he rushes to the cabin he finds Swan and Caleb dead, killed by the Crows.  Johnson burns the cabin with the two bodies inside and sets out for revenge.  He finds the Crow party and kills all of them except for one, who he decided to spare for some unknown reason.

The Crow respond by sending one Crow warrior after another to kill Johnson.  Johnson ends up killing a lot of Crows.  One day he runs into Del Gue again and they catch up on the gossip before parting. 

Johnson continues killing Crows one after the other.  But one day, a Crow does something different.  He shoots at Johnson from ambush.  Johnson falls off his horse and plays dead until the Crow gets very close.  He then jumps up and shoots the Crow dead, but not before the Indian spears him.  Johnson survives.

Arriving back at the cabin of the crazy woman, Johnson finds the Qualen family settling in it.  They tell him that the crazy woman died and is buried by her two daughters.  Qualen realizes that Johnson is the man of near legendary status with the Crows, who have built up somewhat of a monument to his exploits over time with each Crow death bringing a new addition to the moument. 

Johnson meets Bear Claw again and they briefly talk.  Johnson gives him a piece of rabbit to eat.  They part. 

 

Very enjoyable movie.  It kept my wife's and my attention throughout because there was always that element of danger facing him at every turn.  I enjoyed the accidental construction of a family for the loner Johnson and his reaction to it.  The action sequences with the wolves and the Crow were also good.  Robert Redford and Will Geer, as Johnson and Bear Claw respectively, were terrific in their roles.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.   


Historical Background:

 

c. 1824  --  Johnson born in New Jersey.  His real name was John Garrison. 

1846  --  he did not fight in the Mexican-American War, he was too young.  He was six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds.

He went out west to be a mountain man in Wyoming.  He also made money at times by being a "woodhawk," that is, he supplied cord wood to steamboats.  He came to have an Indian wife. 

1847  --  his wife was killed by the Sioux.  He then set out on a 20 year war against the Sioux.  (A legend developed that he would eat the liver of each Indian he killed.  This gave him the nick-name Liver-Eating Johnson or Johnston.)

Blackfeet captured him and thought about selling him to his enemy: the Sioux.  But he was able to escape.  (The details are so amazing that they are probably made-up.)

1864  --   Johnson joined the union Army in St Louis.  He served in Company H, 2nd Colorado Cavalry. 

1865  --  Johnson was honorably discharged from the army.  

c. 1872  --  Johnson and the Sioux made peace.

But this did not stop Johnson from killing other Native Americans, among them the Blackfeet.

1880s   --  Johnson was appointed deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana. 

1884  --  was in a wild west show along with Crow Indians, Calamity Jane, Curley, Hardwick, LeForge, etc.

1888  --  Johnson became the first marshal of Red Lodge, Montana.

1899 (December)  --  he was admitted to a Los Angeles veteran's hospital.

1900 (January 21)  -- he died at the age of 76. 

 

 

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