Jeremiah Johnson (1972): Sydney Pollack’s Back to Nature Saga, Starring Robert Redford

The contradictory values of nostalgia and cynicism are well captured in Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, a film that became a blockbuster due to Robert Redford’s stardom and congruency with the zeitgeist–despite risky subject matter.

Disillusioned with society, the movie’s eponymous hero turns his back on civilization and goes back to Nature, as if he were following Thoreau’s scriptures in Walden.

A narrator sets the film’s mythic tone, informing that “nobody knows where he comes from,” and that Jeremiah “said goodbye to whatever life was there below.” The word “below” signifies both locations, below the mountains, and values, inferior life. Pollack (with cinematographer Andrew Callaghan) frames Utah’s vast lands in a way that dwarfs Jeremiah against the forceful magnitude of Nature.

Jeremiah is a dropout, a retreatist (to use Robert Merton’s typology of forms of anomie) a man who rejects society’s goals as well as the prescribed means to achieve them. Withdrawing into the past of the Western frontier, the film chronicles in detail his initial inexperience in fighting nature and the Indians. Jeremiah’s first winter is near fatal, until he meets another “professional” mountaineer who provides him with the basic tools for survival. “Keep your nose to the wind and your eye to the skyline,” advises Bear Clau, who also instructs him how to skin a bear, sleep on coals, hunt, trap, and deal–or avoid–the Indians. His solitude is interrupted by an Indian massacre of a settler’s family, leaving a crazed wife and a mute boy as survivors.

The film seizes the tension between Jeremiah’s need for complete solitude and for human relationship. Indeed, he becomes the surrogate father of the boy (after his mother kills herself) and, with his new Indian wife, establishes some sort of family life.

Along with disenchantment with society, the other motif is revenge. When the Crows slaughter his wife and boy, as a result of invading their sacred burial ground, Jeremiah goes on a revenge rampage. The film suggests that even a peaceful man could be forced to become a killer, and that one can never escape completely “Civilization’s” contamination. Unlike most Westerns, it does not present the Indians as an undistinguished mass, acknowledging Indian feuds and differentiating the Flatheads from the Crows.

However, the ending, in which Jeremiah encounters an Indian on a white horse, is ambiguous. They exchange looks that convey the complex relationship between the white man and the Indian: love-hate, respect-contempt. Initially, Pollack envisioned an ending in which Jeremiah freezes to death, a more logical resolution. But Redford opted for a more ambivalent ending, claiming that the viewers should make up their own minds.

Jeremiah Johnson contains elements of the myth that is described by the literary scholar Leslie Fiedler as “Good Companions in the Wilderness,” the meeting between the white fur trapper in the Wilderness and the Indian warrior. The power of this myth derives from its ability to contain the misogyny of the American male, hopes of reconciliation with the Indians, and retreat from the pressures of civilization itself. Jeremiah is a mysterious figure when the narrative begins and he remains an enigma at its end. An abstract type, a symbol of wild life, he must have struck chords with younger audiences.

The film Jeremiah Johnson demonstrated the problem of casting a movie star in such role. Clearly, this film could not have been made without Redford’s bankable stature, but his handsome looks and established screen image, as an urban and suave man, worked against the credibility of the simplicity and primitiveness of the character he had to play.

Jeremiah Johnson also sends contradictory messages of both right wing and left-wing. It imparts disgust with the white establishment and desire for peaceful life in Nature but also shows that savagery and violence are universal elements in the City as well as in Nature.