In the 1850s, Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) headed for Utah to escape the war with Mexico, wanting no part of it and planning to become one of the hardiest of breeds, a mountain man. This turned out to be easier said than done as his attempts to survive the harsh winter in that territory were difficult to say the least, and his tries at fishing, building fires and hunting the wildlife were less than successful. However, the longer he persevered, the further he improved, and the finding of another mountain man frozen to death offered him the chance of owning a powerful rifle...
Based loosely on fact, Jeremiah Johnson was director Sydney Pollack's tribute to the Western, and the kind of loner hero that populated them. It was unusual for being one of the few snowbound Westerns, of which there are not a huge amount, but Pollack's ingenuity paid off with a film that was strikingly shot - the whole look of it is what you're likely to take away, more than the acting or the plot. Of course, that landscape informed the characters and their direction, making clear how one's environment is as much responsible for your personality as the people you have been around.
Especially in Johnson's case, as he spends quite a bit of the film alone, although there always seems to be someone interrupting his solitude, both in a humorous manner, as Will Geer's veteran trapper Bear Claw does, becoming a mentor to the novice, or more seriously, the Indians do, some of whom tolerate him, but then through little fault of his own turn against him in the last half. The earlier parts are perhaps the most quirky, as Pollack and his scriptwriters Edward Anhalt and John Milius, himself no stranger to self-sufficient leading characters in his movies, come up with a host of bizarre occurences for Jeremiah to encounter, offering what could have been bleak a note of idiosyncrasy.
And a welcome note at that, as all this goes towards making memorable imagery, vital when so many Westerns before it had traded on similar looks and devices as their stock. So not only do we get Redford wrenching the rifle out of the hands of the frozen trapper, but also he is chased by a bear set on him by Bear Claw, or in one of the summer sequences meets another hunter, Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), buried up to his neck in the sand by the Indians who stole his horse. It is this fellow who sets in motion the second part of the story, as he recruits Johnson to take his revenge and they end up winning him a native bride (Delle Bolton) thanks to the reverence shown him for helping out a settler woman sent insane by her family's slaughter by other Indians.
That escapade also gains Jeremiah an adopted son, who he names Caleb (Josh Albee) as the boy never speaks a word so will not name himself, and before long the man who was feeling his way around this whole mountain business has his own family to look after. But the outside world will not leave him be, and a fateful agreement to allow U.S. troops to assist a party stranded in the snow winds up in tragedy as the Crow Indians don't take kindly to the soldiers riding through their sacred burial ground, just as Johnson had warned. From now on he turns into a killing machine, wiping out all who are sent to destroy him, and what has been almost warm and friendly, a handful of starker sequences aside, grows more desolate for we know that Johnson will not be allowed to rest. Redford does very well handling these shifting tones, and sports an impressive beard too, but while everyone involved was patently aiming for greatness, the film doesn't quite make it, being too episodic and needing stronger bearings - but don't let that put you off. Music by Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.