Thursday, 19 April 2012

Good Movie: Jeremiah Johnson

I've seen this movie so many times I could play all the parts, in French, English, Crow, and Flathead. The first time, we both had recently been released. That was the early Seventies, during the golden age of the New Western, when the likes of Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wrenched the franchise from the dime-store patriots. In its place we got a precarious, three-dimensional American West, where skin and hat colour meant nothing and no destiny was manifest. It's an evocative genre, and Jeremiah Johnson is one of its masterpieces. Today you can see it on barebones DVD, without any subtitles or supporting features, but the print isn't bad.

The title character, a traumatised war veteran, flees to a far corner of the Missouri Territory with the quaint notion that no white people means no people. A folk-style ballad, served up in bites, informs us that he was "bettin' on forgettin' all the troubles that he knew". As a Western kid, I've seen the type.

But the West was never free for the taking, and Johnson quickly learns its Three Noble Truths: outbacking is a lifetime apprenticeship; human problems exist wherever humans are; and the West is full of humans.

Specifically, it's full of its owners, the serious citizens of serious nations, complete with their own laws, languages, and lives. Such is director Sydney Pollack's grasp of this fact that not a single aboriginal is shown speaking English. (One Apsáalooke [Crow] chief apparently understands English, but refuses to speak it, according to Johnson's mentor Bear Claw, "just to aggravate me.") Instead, wonder of Hollywood wonders, you'll hear Apsáalooke, Séliš (Flathead), and Sao-kitapiiksi (Blackfoot) speaking their own tongues. The exception is one devoutly Christian Séliš chief, who speaks flawless French to a white man who can hardly mangle "bonjour".

None of this is subtitled, underscoring Johnson's status as a foreigner in a foreign land. Alienated from his own culture, he is immersed in several others he knows nothing about. And in this he is surprisingly successful, because despite his antisocial bent, he's truly not looking for trouble. But suffering is all around him, and as a decent man he quickly acquires all the attachments, and even the authority, he wants so desperately to escape.

True to his genre, Pollack tomahawks clichés right and left. A US cavalry officer, assigned a necessary, dangerous duty, seeks the path of least harm; one imagines Johnson was that kind of soldier. The aboriginals are sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and shrewd. And all the mountain men are crazy. Some criminally, some culturally, but all of them, down to our shell-shocked hero, have completely stripped their gears. Pollack really gets hermits. You don't choose this lifestyle. It's chosen for you.

The casting is a constant revelation. Robert Redford's circumspect, fight-or-flight silence is the spirit and image of Johnson. Will Geer's Depression-honed Bear Claw is utterly credible, while ebullient sociopath Del Gue ("with an E!") gives Stefan Gierasch a rare chance to flaunt his own under-appreciated gift. Most enigmatic is Delle Bolton. As the Séliš woman Swan, she incarnates her character's name, anchoring all her scenes despite the fact that she has no English lines. (And damn few Séliš).

The plot is only loosely based on actual events, but Pollack's obsession with historical accuracy gives it a ring of truth. The lore is authentic, as are the mishaps. Del tells Jeremiah the Séliš were converted by "the French", yet the chief's French is pointedly Canadian. Exact on both counts. And I don't want to spoil anything for first-time viewers, but there's an FAA navigational beacon on a Wyoming mountain called Crazy Woman. Details like these make Jeremiah Johnson one of the great movies.

In the end Johnson winds up in a place he never wanted to be, and I don't mean the Big Horn Mountains. He's no longer really white; he does what he does for aboriginal reasons, under aboriginal law. But he's not one of them, either. Perhaps he's a nation of one. Perhaps he's a deputy of Karma. Or maybe, as his enemies come to believe, he transcends humanity altogether.

Whatever the case, it's clear that the old saw is wrong. You can run from your problems. It's just that you'll be issued new ones when you get there.

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