‘Jeremiah Johnson:’ The Best Hunting Movie Ever?

‘Jeremiah Johnson:’ The Best Hunting Movie Ever?

Ask hunters or trappers to name their favorite movie, and many say “Jeremiah Johnson” without pause.

No other movie makes them fantasize quite as much about the Old West and mountain men, and wonder if they could have cut it in the early to mid-1800s. This 1972 classic stars Robert Redford as an ex-soldier who forsakes civilization for a new life in cold, indifferent lands already home to Indian tribes.

The timeless movie glorifies fate, challenge, and self-reliance with wit and poignant realism. Its director, Sydney Pollack, considered “Jeremiah Johnson” a poetic work and one of his more visual movies. In fact, the dialogue is so sparse that Pollack later said it was “almost a silent picture.” The movie runs 1 hour, 55 minutes, but its script contains only about 3,600 words. For perspective, a transcript from an average 18-minute segment of the 60 Minutes news program contains 2,000 words, roughly 3.3 times more dialogue.

Steven Rinella admires the movie’s tight, powerful writing. “I like how its dialogue is so loaded,” he said. “It captures how difficult life had to have been for these damaged, colorful people. It has elements of mystery around its characters that make it real and so authentic. It also includes some great humor, but it’s really a somber, melancholic movie. All those elements make the movie infinitely quotable, especially for hunters, trappers, and fishermen.”

Quoting the Script
Like many fans, Rinella watched “Jeremiah Johnson” incessantly after first seeing it on TV in his mother’s living room. He can quote dialogue verbatim from any scene requested, correcting those who lazily paraphrase or use a wrong word. For example, if you mention the scene where Johnson hears vultures squawking, and spots mountain man Del Gue buried in sand up to his ears, Rinella quickly recites:

“The Injuns put you here?”

“Tweren’t Mormons!”

For Rinella, that’s an easy one, of course. Serious “Jeremiah Johnson” fans like him pluck quotes to match nearly any situation in life. Who hasn’t returned from a successful hunt, thumped their chest for their spouse, and said proudly, “Great hunter! Yes?”

And who hasn’t stood before their kids or significant other and asked, “Fine figure of a man. Yes?”

In fact, a working knowledge of the film is nearly a prerequisite for many hunters and trappers. Scott Peckham, a big game ecologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon, figures he’s watched “Jeremiah Johnson” at least 100 times since his mom brought it home 25 years ago when he was sick. He’s on his third DVD copy of it, which he feels might explain why he doesn’t mesh with some folks.

“If I throw a ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ line at someone and they don’t know what I’m talking about, I grow suspicious and unsure if we can be friends,” Peckham said with a laugh. “If I want to give a good friend a hard time when he’s getting skunked on a trout stream, I’ll quote Paints His Shirt Red: ‘You fish poorly.’ But I’ve introduced a lot of friends to the movie. We’ll have a ‘man day’ where we go out on a snowy day, shoot guns, cook bratwurst, and go inside to watch the movie.”

Devoted Fans
Speaking of being judgmental, Karl Malcolm, a frequent MeatEater Podcast guest and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, quotes Del Gue when bowhunting buddies commit blunders, such as passing up a 30-yard shot at a cow elk.

“Mother Gue never raised such a foolish child!”

Malcolm estimates he’s watched the entire movie at least 50 times, and its first half-hour hundreds of times. Why so heavy on the first 30 minutes? While in college doing research at a facility without cable, cellular or satellite signals, Malcolm kept a tape of “Jeremiah Johnson” plugged into a tiny TV with a built-in VHS player. “That VHS tape lived in that player,” Malcolm said. “I went to sleep every night watching and listening to that movie.”

Few, however, can match Will Primos’ fascination with “Jeremiah Johnson.” Primos, founder of Primos Hunting, estimates he’s watched the movie at least 5,000 times. He has quoted its lines for decades when making his Truth TV shows and hunting videos, frequently including dead-on impressions of Johnson, Robidoux, Del Gue, Rev. Lindquist, or Bear Claw Chris Lapp in his productions.

Primos said he currently has three DVD copies of “Jeremiah Johnson” at home, and keeps the movie on his iPad and iPhone. He also has a large collection of paraphernalia from the movie, including original 10-foot-tall theater posters, the movie’s original synopsis, and framed black-and-white photos of its filming.

Primos also studies the books that helped craft the” Jeremiah Johnson” script and its characters (“Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson,” by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker; and the novel “Mountain Man,” by Vardis Fisher). Primos has also traveled to Cody, Wyoming, to visit the gravesite of John Liver Eating Johnson at Old Trail Town, and admired Johnson’s original .50-caliber Hawken with its octagonal barrel at the Smithsonian Institution’s gun museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Creative Artists
Primos credits Redford and Pollack for taking the movie beyond those books. They adapted the script so the movie could tap into America’s conservation values, show respect for the diverse Indian tribes, and provide perspectives that help people see and respect the characters’ complex conflicts and frustrations.

“As a bowhunter, I really relate to the scenery and solitude,” Primos said. “Bowhunting is a loner sport, and people who bowhunt elk are hardcore. We like being alone and watching nature. But the movie’s story is so great. Jeremiah Johnson ends up with a wife and kid he didn’t want, but duty turns into love and he’s finally living a life he wanted to live.

“There’s real beauty in that,” Primos continued. “But then the U.S. cavalry shows up with a preacher, and his world falls apart when he helps them. He’s caught between two worlds, and the Crows and Paints His Shirt Red feel he betrayed them. I’m a strong believer in Christianity. I love the Lord and Jesus Christ, but that part of the movie makes you hate the preacher and his religion. I get that conflict. It’s great acting, great editing, great writing. It’s true and authentic.”

Primos and Rinella, independently of each other, also expressed respect for the scene near the movie’s end where Bear Claw Chris Lapp visits Johnson’s campsite and eats a rabbit he’s cooking on a spit.

“That entire last conversation is one of the best scenes you’ll ever see in a movie,” Rinella said. “It’s richly symbolic. You sense their loneliness when he asks what month it is. They talk about whether it’s March, or maybe April, but their meaning is something else, and you understand what they’re feeling. Before that, Bear Claw asked him if it was worth the trouble, and he says, ‘What trouble?’ Does he mean the trouble he brought by avenging his family, or the trouble of going up there in the first place? It’s metaphorical. They’re wondering if life itself is worth the trouble. Damn, that’s good stuff.”

Primos said an earlier scene where Del Gue and Johnson reunite is equally stout: “Del Gue suggests he get out of the mountains and go back down to town to save himself,” Primos said. “But Jeremiah can’t do that. You realize he’s run away from something even more dreadful down below, but all he says is, ‘I’ve been to a town, Del.’ And they leave it there. It’s a sad, endless journey with no return.”

Staying Honest, Relevant
Pollack said the movie’s scenes and overall story were largely products of the editing room, where he and Redford took 7 ½ months to edit “scenes of a guy leading horses through snow” into a masterful tale. It worked because both men were fascinated by mountain men and the West. It also likely helped that Redford had a hunting background. In a December 1974 interview in Playboy Magazine, Redford said he dropped out of college at the University of Colorado after 13 months majoring in “mountain climbing, hunting, and skiing.”

Rinella said the movie’s honesty and authenticity keep it relevant nearly 50 years later. Those values resonate in subtle ways throughout the movie, such as hearing a hawk cry and then seeing an actual red-tailed hawk—not an eagle or some other large bird—flying overhead.

The movie also shows glimpses of an elk and a bison hitting the ground after getting shot. In fact, a June 1975 New York Times article reported that Redford wrote a “furious two-page reply” to justify killing the animals for the movie. Redford said the elk and bison were “diseased and earmarked for an early death” anyway.

That wasn’t the only controversy the movie sparked in the mid-1970s. Pauline Kael, a movie critic for The New Yorker Magazine from 1968 to 1991, panned “Jeremiah Johnson” based on her misinterpretation of its ending, where Redford dramatically returns an arm-up, palm-out salute to Paints His Shirt Red, whose warriors had repeatedly failed to kill Johnson. Kael falsely accused Redford of giving Indians the finger. She later recanted the charge, claiming she hadn’t seen the gesture clearly because she wasn’t wearing her glasses when watching the movie. One assumes Kael also overlooked that the Crow chief’s character lacked warpaint in that scene.

In that December 1974 Playboy interview, Redford said Kael’s gaffe was the most grievous error a critic ever made of his movies. “That was absolutely mind-boggling,” he said. “The gesture was an ad-lib response to the frustration of the pain and confusion the character was experiencing in just continuing. It indicated a respect for the enemy—what Rommel and Patton might have done if they’d met. It was a salute of respect, but also of frustration in the knowledge that the hunt would never end. The criticism was especially painful to me because of my feelings and concern for the American Indian. The remark seemed so farfetched and personal beyond the limits of responsible criticism.

“She (was) a very good writer (but) an irresponsible critic. I met her once, and she made very little sense. It was like meeting Captain Queeg (The Caine Mutiny,” 1951); she had everything but steel balls in her hand. She was rattling on about how she was the only one who could influence film, and how I had let her down.”

In fact, Pollack and Redford hired tribal experts as technical and historical advisers for “Jeremiah Johnson.” In the memorable scene where Johnson is first targeted by a lone Crow warrior, the warrior arrives on a horse with two red handprints on its chest. Red symbolizes war, blood, strength, and energy; and red handprints would carry word of the warrior’s death when the horse returned to camp. Further, as Johnson and the warrior advance on each other to fight, bull elk are bugling in the background, as if underscoring the pending death battle.

Inspiring its Audience
Even if “Jeremiah Johnson” fans overlook such details, many of them have been so taken by the movie that they moved out West, moved to the country, or took off for the wilderness. Stu Pechek, for example, grew up in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, but moved to Alaska’s Arctic region and trapped there throughout the 1980s. He told James Campbell, author of “The Final Frontiersman,” that he often discussed the movie with others who shared his love of wilderness.

“That flick captured the essence of mountain men in the wilderness at a time bygone, and of course, we fantasized that we could have been part of it back then,” Pechek said in a recent email. “But the Indian altercations were another matter.”

Many others showed their love for the movie by naming sons after the character, which likely explains why “Jeremiah” made the Top 100 baby names in the U.S. from 1976 to 1983. The name “Jeremiah” never made the top 100 from 1967 through 1975, and fell from the list from 1984 through 2000, but returned to stay in 2001, peaking at No. 51 in 2010 and ranking 81st in 2018.

MeatEater fan Jeremiah Riedler, born in 1988, credits the movie for his name. His father, who loves fishing, hoped the name would help Jeremiah “take to the outdoors.” The plan worked.

“’Jeremiah Johnson’ is one of my favorite movies,” Riedler said. “I always enjoyed thinking that was me. Part of my master’s degree dealt with the history of the Old West and the mountain man era. It was because of that movie that I became enthralled with tales of the mountain men.”

Riedler is not alone, of course. It’s fair to assume many hunters and trappers picture themselves riding into the mountains—wind in their face and eyes on the skyline—watching their top-knot while shouting Del Gue’s parting lines: “I are a mountain man! And I’ll live until an arrow or bullet finds me. And then I’ll leave my bones on this great map of the magnificent.”

After all, they believe what some folks say: He’s up there still.

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