In the 1840s, Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) is a veteran of the Mexican War who wants to get away from civilization. He sets up an isolated life for himself in the Rocky Mountains and looks to support himself by working as a trapper. At first, he struggles but eventually he gets some much-needed help from a veteran trapped named Chris Lapp (Will Geer). Along the way, Johnson discovers that life in the mountains can be harsh and violent. He adopts a mute boy named Caleb, whose family has been killed by Blackfoot warriors. Later, the chief of the local Flathead tribe “gives” Jeremiah his daughter. Despite the language barrier between him and his new wife, Jeremiah is soon the head of a happy family.
One day, when the U.S. Calvary shows up and requests that Jeremiah guide them through the mountains so that they can rescue some starving missionaries, Jeremiah reluctantly leaves behind his family and helps them. However, Lt. Mulvey (Jack Colvin) insists that Jeremiah lead them through a sacred Crow burial ground. The Crow retaliate by killing Jeremiah’s family. Driven mad by grief, Jeremiah sets out to kill every Crow that he can find.
Jeremiah Johnson is really two movies in one. The story starts out with Jeremiah as a proto-hippie who wants to get away from the hypocrisy and violence of modern society. Jeremiah takes care of the land, makes friends with other outcasts, and makes a good life for himself. After Jeremiah’s family is killed, the movie turns into a Death Wish-style revenge thriller, with Jeremiah losing himself in his rage and killing almost everyone that he sees. Redford is surprisingly convincing as the insane, murderous Jeremiah and the sudden outbursts of violence provide a strong contrast to the relatively peaceful first half of the film.
Jeremiah is a like a lot of the early American settlers. He wants to get away from the world and start an entirely new life for himself. He’s seen what the civilization has to offer and he would rather just build a cabin in the mountains and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. If Jeremiah had been born earlier, he probably could have pulled it off. But, by the time Jeremiah tries to go off the grid, it’s already too late. Society is growing too fast for him to escape from it. Jeremiah discovers that it’s impossible to truly cut yourself off from humanity. In the end, he’s much like the Crow Indians that he’s declared war upon. His way of life is ending, whether he’s ready for it or not. When he and the Crow chief greet each other with a raised open hand (meaning that they come in peace), they are both acknowledging that they are bonded as men whose time is coming to an end.
Jeremiah Johnson was the second of Robert Redford’s many collaborations with director Sydney Pollack and it’s one of their best. This may be an epic film but it never loses its humanity and, for once, Redford plays someone who isn’t a cut-and-dried hero. Jeremiah Johnson has recently been rediscovered because of a popular meme of a bearded Redford looking at the camera and nodding but people should know that it’s also a damn fine film on its own.