[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
It is not my wont to criticize a film by comparing it unfavorably with the novel, short story, or play from whence it came. If the source material suffers a directorial sea-change and becomes something rich and different, a viable entity in itself, so much the better. But it is most disheartening to happen upon a novel which fairly begs to be filmed, to wait impatiently for its announced appearance on the screen, and then to be confronted with a film which does irreparable violence to those very qualities, scenes, characters, that made the source ripe for cinematic treatment. Guy Green’s adaptation of John Fowles’s metaphysical mystery The Magus was such a disappointment, and so is Sydney Pollack’s screen version of Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (with additional material from two short stories whose titles and authors I lack), Jeremiah Johnson.
Fisher’s novel moves in channels of quiet mysticism born of his characters’ utter at-homeness in and unabashed love for the Rocky Mountain wilderness through which they wander, hunting and trapping at will. Sam Minard (renamed Jeremiah Johnson in the film) wends his way into legend without much selfconsciousness or unnecessary ostentation: he is what he is, a spiritually and physically sensitive man who like Cooper’s Natty Bumppo shuns the encroachment of civilization without becoming any the less civilized. Perhaps partially because Robert Redford portrays Jeremiah Johnson in the film, the mountain man’s character has been hokily updated into a kind of existential surrogate for all those who currently hanker after a return to nature, an escape hatch from the trap of modern existence.
Thus while Fisher’s veteran mountain man retains fond if distant memories of his past life in more cultured climes (he hymns Beethoven and Mozart into the great mountain wastes that move him to Thoreauvian worship), Redford has to be shown arriving freshly disillusioned from the presumably already worn-out and effete East, wearing a pair of faded Army trousers which imply war-weariness to an audience primed for such signals. As an amateur, he must be initiated into mountain lore—and this is mostly undertaken by Will Geer, as a grizzly hunter costumed to the teeth in furs and bear claws. Johnson’s frontier guru and the bald mountain man he finds buried up to his neck in sand (unthinkable for them to simply meet at a trading post or on the trail) are “characters,” lacking fully developed personalities, existing simply as local color. As the partially matured progeny of a shallowly modern imagination, they bear little resemblance to what one suspects such men were actually like or to Fisher’s taciturn, more subtly eccentric, wilderness heroes.
Even Johnson’s marriage to an Indian girl has to be contemporarily contrived, turned into a joke in the film, whereas Sam Minard’s deliberate choice and courtship of his lovely Indian wife provides a poignant prelude to her loss. Minard returns to his cabin after a season of trapping to find Crow spoor and scattered bones—including those of an unborn child. Though is grief is such that he swears a mighty vendetta against the entire Crow nation, the massacre, the fact of death by Indian raid, is felt to be part of the primitive world in which this man exists. It is spring, though the fragile bones still lie in deep snow, and one senses how potent are the realities of life and death in Minard’s experience. Compare the visual and emotional potential of such a scene with its jazzed-up counterpart in Jeremiah Johnson. Redford is coerced into guiding a rescue party by a repulsively selfrighteous cleric and a more subtly persuasive Army officer (characters meant no doubt to evidence those qualities which have so disillusioned Johnson with civilized circles). On the way, he unwittingly profanes a sacred Crow burial ground, and naturally when he returns home he finds his wife (and adopted son) a bloody mess, scalped and otherwise mutilated. Whereas Fisher’s version is completely in keeping with the natural rhythms of wilderness life, the film cannot leave a good thing alone and must fabricate melodramatic occasions and motivations for every event.
One more such revision should be mentioned: in the novel, Sam Minard finds a pioneer woman whose husband and children have just been brutally murdered by Indians. She herself in mother-rage has axed several of the savages to death. Though Sam makes her his special charge, offering her cabin, clothes, and food, she is oblivious to creature comforts and all her will is narrowed down and focused upon the site of her children’s graves. Fisher limns an eerie scene of moonlit snow, trees cracking in the unimaginable cold, and this mountain Niobe sitting frozen vigil beside her graves, singing half-remembered hymns to the beatific wraiths of her children while Sam, unseen, unacknowledged, accompanies her with his harmonica. Appropriately, he carries the bones of his own dead to her lonely cairn (Redford, addicted to “larger” gestures, builds a funeral pyre of his lost family and their cabin).
These scenes ring mythically and visually true, but apparently the creators of Jeremiah Johnson suffer from tone deafness, for the whole story of Kate Bowdon, whose destiny is so strangely linked with that of Minard/Johnson in the novel, is compressed into one brief sequence, utilized only to supply Redford with a mutely worshipful adopted son. Kate’s character is reduced to that of a mundanely bereaved and hysterical woman and her tigerish revenge on her children’s slayers is carefully excised from the filmscript. She inexplicably offers Redford her one remaining child and is never seen again; though director Pollack seems to be trying to make some half-baked point about either the indomitability or the stupidity of the pioneer spirit when he later shows us Kate’s cabin inhabited by yet another, nearly identical, family.
Many more such examples could be introduced as evidence of what almost appears to be the deliberately wanton waste of obviously cinematic potential, but why bother? Fisher’s Mountain Man , like The Magus, has already been ground up and gummed to death by an unimaginative director and those novels will most likely never reach the screen again, which is a loss only to those who cherish the after vision of a movie made in their own minds. Oh well, Jeremiah Johnson is highly scenic (though without resonance) and Robert Redford does the best he can in yet another downhill race to consumer-packaged existential cipherdom.
Direction: Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: Edward Anhalt and John Milius, after the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. Cinematography: Duke Callaghan.
The Players: Robert Redford, Will Geer, Joaquin Martinez.
Copyright © 1973 Kathleen Murphy