Western Watchins #65
If you don’t already have the perfect Sunday morning eating bacon and flapjacks while hungover movie then might I suggest to you one that will fill the void admirably: Jeremiah Johnson. Robert Redford takes on Nature with nothing but his determination and about one page of dialogue. A man grunting, huffing, yelling, screaming, staring and beard growing his way through an entire film may not sound like it’s amazing.
But it’s fucking amazing.
The whole thing starts with our hero arriving on the shores of some rustic outpost before gearing up and heading out into the unknown. And that opening scene is backed by about the most nut twistin’ get on off your ass and go have, for good or bad, one hell of an adventure folk song you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing as your head aches, your eyes tear up and bacon falls out of your mouth because your nuts just done got twisted! It’s a descriptive yet mesmerizingly mysterious ballad not unlike R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet save for the fact that when Jeremiah Johnson was done I thought “what an inspirational story” while as soon as Trapped in a Closet finished all I could think was “stereotypes exist for a reason!”
Jeremiah’s pretty stereotypical too for a disgruntled Civil War vet out to leave the calamities of life behind. Or maybe he was just sick of working on the Nautilus.
Either way he quickly secures some supplies and rolls out into the coming winter. Before long he finds out that the Great Outdoors is a harsh mistress. She’s wearing a strap-on named “cold and hungry” which Jeremiah services until he’s near death at one point going so far as to try and become Jesus just to save himself.
Eventually another more experienced man of the mountains comes to his aid and like a beaver-clad Ben Kenobi takes the unseasoned soul before him and fashions him into one fine frontier fella. From almost freezing to death while he starves all the way to this:
Redford disappears into Jeremiah so when you see that “I’m eating something off a stick I killed earlier while wearing this bad-ass bear hat” look in his eye you believe every second of it. The source material is well deserving of this attention to detail though and doesn’t come across as over the top. Jeremiah Johnson is a fictional accounting of the life and legend surrounding one “Liver Eating” Johnson. Depending on who you ask or what you read Johnson was a hard drinking and harder fighting barrel chested bastard who once cut the leg off from one of his captors as he escaped an encampment and survived on that flesh as he traversed nearly two hundred miles of wilderness to make it back to his camp. He also supposedly had a blood feud with the Crow Indians. He killed a lot of Crow. According to the research I just made up he killed them all. Now whether any or all of this is bullshit we may never know for sure but gaze upon the face of old L.E.J here and realize why the line to call old Johnson a liar is rather goddamn short.
He has a kind look in his eyes and it’s a look I recognize. I’ve seen it often in my own face and feel, although I’ve never shot any critter, wouldn’t even know where to start on skinning one or lived for longer than a week at a time in the woods, I feel like we’re kindred spirits. Those eyes, my eyes, filled with a healthy tenderness and beneficent respect in them say joyfully “we can all get along just fine until you try to hurt me or any of mine at which point I will hunt you down and pull your head out of your asshole so you can choke on all the shit I am kicking out of you.” All of that said without uttering a word. It’s beautiful.
Jeremiah Johnson is a beautiful and almost mute masterpiece. Between Redford’s quietly strong performance and director Sydney Pollack’s choices behind the camera too many words would have only gotten in the way. It’s a movie about a man finding his own way and when there’s not one to be found he damn well makes one. The grand locations you’ll come across in this film would swallow lesser characters but Jeremiah and those select few in his close orbit measure up well against it all.
You can smell the snow, the dirt, the adventure. And you’ll feel bones break and taste blood in your mouth too, some of it’s even yours. The calm moments soothe you just as the violent ones beat you upside the head unapologetically. The dustups you’re privy to during Jeremiah’s vengeance ride don’t seem choreographed and come off unpolished by today’s perfectly executed Hollywood fisticuffs. But they look outstanding, fresh and bitterly genuine. When Jason Bourne and James Bond look beauteous, Jeremiah just looks brutal. Every fight has the frankness of two angry hobos rabidly clashing over who get the last sip from a shared bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. Jeremiah could be hip deep in a bone chilling brook struggling to catch a fish or panting for breath as he strangles the last one from a foe, either way, you…are…there.
Jeremiah Johnson is moving and majestic. It’s simple, hand in hand with the sublime. 5 homemade rounds in the cylinder this week for another personal favorite of mine. I love this movie even while confessing that it unsettles me. Admitting that it stoked a fire deep down in my heart, admitting that it began a thirst in me, admitting that it called out and challenged me, all of this, is really harrowing. My eyes looked out the window of my cubicle at work just now to see what the weather was like for running later. My soul looked out to see what was beyond this cubicle. And typing that line just now has tears coming into my eyes and my heart beating fast because I know my own adventure is coming and for once in my life, I am ready to embrace it.
I saw Jeremiah Johnson right when I needed to. Am I glad it worked out this way? And for whatever tomorrow brings?