Jeremiah Johnson – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched 1972’s The Candidate, and it failed to get my vote.

The Choice

It was Tim’s choice this week, and he was pretty clear about his intention to stick with Redford. His shortlist was narrowed down to 1966 film The Chase starring Redford as a convict captured by Marlon Brando’s sheriff, Downhill Racer from 1969 which is about skiing, and Jeremiah Johnson, a Western from 1972.

We’ve recently watched a couple of 1972 Westerns – Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Neither were particularly good. So bearing in mind the law of averages, Tim went ahead and picked Jeremiah Johnson. And that’s why I’ve had Chandler Bing singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…” stuck in my head for a week.

Jeremiah 01

The Link

It’s Redford again. See the last few posts for more on him. Here’s a couple of related facts though… Apparently he owned 600 acres of land in Utah where much of this was filmed. And at one time or another he has declared it to be his favourite of his own films.

Jeremiah Johnson and me

This is another I hadn’t heard of before scouring his filmography for this very blog. The poster made me think it was going to be a very slow affair with lots of handsome cinematography.

Jeremiah 03

Spoiler: I was right about the handsome cinematography

IMDb says

Jeremiah Johnson (1972): A mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians, and proves to be a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat on the early frontier. 7.6 stars.

I says

Let’s just take a moment to break that IMDb blurb (which I read before watching the film) down.

‘A mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit’ – this is set up in the first couple of minutes.

‘becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians, and proves to be a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat on the early frontier.’ – this is the last twenty minutes of the film. Thanks IMDb.

Jeremiah 02

Impressive crags

So as Redford’s Johnson (snigger) bumbled through his first weeks in the mountains, then became adept, then saved a young boy who became a surrogate son, then was gifted a wife by a tribe of native Americans who he at first struggled to communicate with then finally they fell for each other, all I was doing was waiting for him to become ‘the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians etc etc etc’.

I mean it wasn’t necessarily unpredictable, but they could have give me a chance. Hey ho.

So spoilers aside, what did I think? The Westerns of the 70s that we’ve watched (the two from 1972 mentioned above plus The Ballad of Cable Hogue) all have a very broad sense of humour. Jeremiah Johnson doesn’t feature the sped-up-Benny-Hill style bits of Cable Hogue or Roy Bean, but there are a some quasi-slapstick moments. That’s juxtaposed next to some really bleak stuff about a woman driven mad by her family’s slaughter and other such sobering stuff. The trouble is, when the vendetta begins and solo assassins come for him, it’s faintly comical. One hides in a snow covered bush and bursts forth, only to be clobbered by Redford’s Johnson (double snigger). Perhaps that’s the aim and I just don’t get the 70s style/sense of humour. But my impression going in was that it would be slow and handsome; to its credit it was indeed the latter, but not the former.

Moving on, it’s always tricky to know whether to judge some aspects of films by the standards of today or not, so I’m just going to ponder a casting decision quickly as I don’t think it’s something to ignore. Not all the Native Americans are played by Native Americans. This isn’t particularly surprising I suppose. I’ve started working for a union and have been thinking more about this (being white, male and cis casting opportunities is not something I’ve had to contend with much in my own life).

The union I work for deals with the entertainment industry in the UK, and our casting policy is that, where there are groups that are in need of equality (such as minority ethnic, disabled, LGBT+) and a particular characteristic of that minority is integral to a role, people who have that characteristic should be seen. So a recent example (not within our jurisdiction) is the casting of Bryan Cranston as a wheelchair user. There was a fair bit of press and some terribly dull thinkpieces were published. The union’s position is not to comment on the ultimate casting decision (the creative process has many pressures, after all), but to comment on the casting process. Were disabled actors seen for the role? If not, if there wasn’t any opportunity for disabled actors to get the role (when they are almost never considered for non-specifically disabled roles) then there’s a problem.

Jeremiah 04

Jeremiah Jonson and his… Native American… spouse

So bearing all of that in mind, I read that for the role of Johnson’s wife, a Native American girl who has something approaching a character arc, 200 Native American women were seen (yay). And yet they cast someone of completely different heritage. And the actress went on to do precisely one more bit of acting, in an episode of Two and a Half Men some 30 something years later. I’m sure none of the Native American actresses were right for the part…

Oh, also worth mentioning is that the film is based on a couple of books, one of them a biography of Liver-Eating Johnson, the Crow Killer. So, uh, there’s that.

The Verdict

I’ve now seen Robert Redford’s Johnson; I’ve seen better.

Coming Attractions

I’m up next. I’m giving serious thought to finishing our Redford season by picking The Sting and getting back to Newman. But I’ve not seen Sneakers in a long time, Brubaker is tempting and so is All Is Lost.

We shall see…

@BornToPootle

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1 thought on “Jeremiah Johnson – The Chain Reaction Film Club

  1. Pingback: The Chase – The Chain Reaction Film Club | Born To Pootle

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