‘Jeremiah Johnson’ and the American Errand into the Wilderness Myth

Plotting a scene: Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack wait for the cameras and lights to be set up for filming Warner Bros.’ Jeremiah Johnson on location in the mountains of Utah. Joe Wizan produced from John Milius and Edward Anhalt’s screenplay. Getty Images © Warner Bros.

By Sven Mikulec

One of the founding myths of the American cultural identity, crafted soon after the ‘City upon a Hill’ manifesto, is the widely popular ‘errand into the wilderness.’ As the first English colonies in America were built on the east coast, when the settlers turned to the west, all they could see was the wilderness: forests, mountains, rivers… unexplored territory that glowed intriguingly on maps, capturing the attention and fuelling the imagination of the brave, the curious and the desperate, kindling the restless, adventurous spirit of the pioneers. The myth of the West, of the frontier, of the endless wilderness that needed to be explored, tamed and accommodated to the needs of the pilgrims, found a way to survive and live long enough to be found even in the late 20th century. Just look at the story of Chris McCandless, the Thoreau-inspired protagonist of Into the Wild (based on Jon Krakauer’s novel of the same name), a boy who burnt all of his money, threw away maps and ventured into the snow-covered mysteries of Alaska. But the harshness, the unforgiving character and utter lack of sympathy of nature, all proved in McCandless’ case, is a theme that’s very rewarding to explore in cinema. Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, the first western ever accepted in Cannes, is a moving portrayal of exactly that, a touching, beautifully filmed demonstration of the power and horrific beauty of the uncharted territories, with all their challenges, dangers and rewards.

We know very little about the main character. We slowly learn he was in the Mexican war, that he deliberately left civilization behind to create a new life for himself in the mountains. This mountain man then collides with the cold, the wildlife, with the Indians. Disillusioned with society, even in the harshest of conditions he doesn’t consider returning to the safe society ‘down below’ the mountains. Robert Redford, in one of his most impressive performances, carries this film just as he carries every single tragedy, every hint of past sorrow and defeat in his eyes and face. He continues the struggle, treading on the extremely challenging path of his own choosing, exhibiting the power of the human spirit but also portraying the West and the wilderness realistically, with respect and awe it deserves. Any illusions people had about the West, any illusions and naive misconceptions they might have had in the 19th century, would have evaporated like a snowdrop on a campfire had they seen Jeremiah Johnson.

The screenplay is based partly on the life of a legendary man called Liver-Eating Jonston, inspired by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s book ‘Crow Killer’ and Vardis Fisher’s ‘Mountain Man.’ A good deal of the film’s power lies in its script, written by two writers of clearly different sensibilities. The great John Milius penned the original script that was then handed over to Edward Anhalt. This merge of the writers’ visions—a stoic, macho hero doing what needs to be done to survive, embellished by Anhalt’s tendency to create nuanced, psychologically expansive, more philosophical narrative—contributed to the creation of a rather unique film, an unorthodoxly shaped story that explores the world of the titular character with devotion to detail and atmosphere, unafraid to stray from the expected narrative paths. As we witness how the life and legend of the mountain man Johnson develop into a myth, we’re simultaneously painfully aware of the deconstruction of the ‘errand into the wilderness’ myth ingrained deep in the American culture.

Heavy budgetary constraints and unpredictable, harsh weather conditions severely burdened Pollack and his crew during production, and they often couldn’t afford the time or money to do second takes. Believing they had something special in their hands, just like the hero of their story, they persevered, ultimately rewarded by the critics and the public. A big box office success, the film inspired close friends Pollack and Redford to continue working together. Altogether they would make seven films, but none of the other projects had the amazingly haunting, poetic beauty and horror of Jeremiah Johnson. Shot by Duke Callaghan, with the original music of Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein, Jeremiah Johnson is one of the most authentic depictions of life on the frontier, a supremely acted western and a myth-shattering visceral experience.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: John Milius’ (draft) screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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In an exceptionally frank interview for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, John Milius talks about Hollywood, his experiences as a writer, and his dislike of books which teach screenwriting.

In those initial scripts, were you developing your perspective, your voice as a writer?
The real breaking point where I knew—and it was almost overnight—that I had become a good writer with a voice was Jeremiah Johnson. When I started working on that, it was called The Crow Killer and I knew that material. I’d lived in the mountains, I had a trapline, I hunted, and I had a lot of experiences with characters up there. So, it was real easy to write that and there was a humor to it, a kind of bigger-than-life attitude. I was inspired by Carl Sandberg. I read a lot of his poetry and it’s this kind of abrupt description—“a train is coming, thundering steel, where are you going? Wichita.” That great kind of feeling that he had, that’s what I was trying to do there. I remember there was a great poem about American braggarts. You know, American liars—“I am the ring-tailed cousin to the such and such that ate so and so and I can do this and I can do that better than Mike Fink the river man…” I just realized that this was the voice that the script had to have. It was as clear as a bell. I knew that writing was particular to me.

Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford didn’t trust me very much at first, though. I wasn’t really housebroken in those days. I was a wild surfer kid, you know, and they preferred their writers to be more intellectual. And so they would get the intellectual writers to try and rewrite it and they’d have to hire me back because none of those guys could write that dialogue. None of those guys understood that stuff. They didn’t understand the mountains. They didn’t understand what a mountain man was. I love mountain men. I’d love to write a mountain man story today.

Was that based on an historical figure?
Yeah. Though it changed a great deal. That was when I really realized I had the voice. And I think what gave me something there that I didn’t have before is that I allowed a sense of humor to take over, a sense of absurdity—that was the spirit of the thing. “I, Hatchet Jack, do leaveth my Barr rifle to whatever finds it. Lord hope it be a white man.”

So you wrote Jeremiah Johnson, but then you weren’t able to sell it.
No, I wrote it for nothing. I wrote it for $5,000. And then I was offered a deal to rewrite a Western script (Skin Game) for $17,000. But Francis (Ford Coppola) had this Zoetrope deal at Warner Bros. and asked me, “How much do you need to live on?” I said, “$15,000.” He said, “Well, I’ll get you $15,000 to do your Vietnam thing. You and George (Lucas),” because George was going to direct it. He offered that wonderful fork in the road where I could go do my own thing rather than just rewrite some piece of crap that would probably be rewritten by somebody else. That was the most important decision I made in my life as a writer. That sort of steered me onto the path of doing my own work and being a little more like a novelist. Today I see writers making the exact opposite decision, taking the $17,000 again and again. My films have a strict code of morality, as strict as the Code of the Samurai. There are extreme consequences for action in my films. I mean, my characters pay terrible consequences for doing certain things. For example, Jeremiah Johnson goes through the Indian graveyard and he loses his family, he’s cast into the winds for the rest of his life. He may be a legend but he has no place to sleep. And, you know, there’s a tremendous consequence for violence. —John Milius, ‘I was never conscious of my screenplays having any acts. It’s all bullshit’



Producers Mark Cowan and Paul Hall persuaded Redford to sit down for several wide-ranging interview sessions. The main topic was Redford’s long-standing professional relationship with Pollack, but it also included personal background. “It seemed to me a legitimately interesting idea might be a 15 or 20-minute little documentary on just the work (Pollack) and I have done, because now it’s amounted through the years to a body of work, seven films,” Redford said. The program shows scenes from all of the films Redford and Pollack have worked on together: This Property is Condemned (1965), Jeremiah Johnson (1970), The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Electric Horseman (1978), Out of Africa (1985) and Havana (1990).

“That’s a pretty good body of work,” Redford said. “I mean, whatever you think about it critically, it’s a decent body of work.” “And I thought what would be interesting would be if they ran some clips from those films (including his first film, War Hunt, in 1962, where Redford and Pollack first met as actors), and then he and I talk about them in between. And show some gag reels. I always try to do a gag reel with every film I do because I think it’s fun to see the outtakes.” “And the next thing I knew, I had created a monster.” The little 15-20 minute documentary was suddenly up to an hour, and NBC was interested—and talking about making it a star-studded extravaganza complete with celebrity hosts. “And I said, ‘Like who? Orson Welles is dead,’” Redford said. “And they said, ‘We want Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand’—and I said, ‘No! Please don’t do this. This is not ‘Night of 1,000 Stars.’ This is not the Life Achievement Award, please. This is just a simple body of work that we’ve done.”

The program finally settled on six segments: a look at Redford both on and off-camera; his theatrical love stories, including The Way We Were; His adventure films, like Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor. Those outtakes and bloopers, including Redford having a lot of trouble with the props in Electric Horseman and an Out of Africa screen test—with Jane Seymour; Redford’s environmental activism; and a promotional piece on the upcoming Havana. But even when the program was completed, there was trouble with the title. “The studio said, ‘OK, now we’ve got to run these titles by you.’ One title they came up with was ‘Robert Redford: The Man, the Myth and His Movies.’ And I said, ‘Don’t even finish the sentence. You guys just never get it.’” “I said, ‘No, no, no, a thousand times no. It’s not about me.’ First of all, I hate the title anyway, I don’t like the word ‘myth.’ I’ve got enough problems as it is—‘icon.’ Just, please, ‘A Film Portrait,’ period. ‘Redford, Pollack, a Film Portrait,’ ‘25 Years in Film,’ whatever.”

Redford was satisfied with the documentary itself, but became incensed when NBC began publicizing the ‘Myth’ title after he had said they couldn’t use it. Since Redford and Pollack had some contractual control over the title, they threatened to pull the show. As you might expect, NBC relented, changed the title to Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: The Men and Their Movies. —Publicity-shy star agrees to TV documentary

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson © Warner Bros. Courtesy of mptv; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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