Starring: Robert Redford, Will Geer, Allyn Ann McLerie
Director: Sydney Pollack
Running Time: 116 mins
Jeremiah Johnson is an American film about a man wishing to live his life as a hermit in the wilderness who finds himself a part of the conflict between a local tribe and frontiersmen, taking him on a journey with a number of individuals he meets on the frontier.
The western genre has been through as many guises as you can imagine over the years, whether it be the triumphant spectacle of the John Wayne-era cowboy epics, or the irresistibly smooth class of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Jeremiah Johnson, however, takes a more elegant and down-to-earth approach to the genre, coming more in the vein of what can only be described as a folk western, caught up in the majesty of frontier mythology, all the while telling the story with more real-world grit than many of the genre’s more spectacular guises.
Now, if you like a good spaghetti western or a classic John Wayne-era cowboy movie, then Jeremiah Johnson is going to be a little bit of a shock to the system for you. That’s not to say it’s the only western to use this more folkloric style, with the likes of Deliverance and The Wild Bunch having portrayed a grittier side to the genre in the first years of post-Hayes Code Hollywood, but there’s something even more down-to-earth and reserved about Jeremiah Johnson that both works to its advantage, and also hurts it to an extent.
On the plus side, the film really feels like a good, elegant story. Cowboy movies and the western genre can have their fair share of action and high drama, but Jeremiah Johnson is a much calmer affair, with the main entertainment coming from the graceful development of its folk tale-like story, and the gradual changes of an embittered Robert Redford to accepting that his life may not be entirely under his control, and that the life he sees as perfect may not be so wonderful after all.
In that, the film has a very kind-hearted and graceful core that makes it a thoroughly likable and pleasant watch. Again, it’s not a western that’ll provide blockbuster action entertainment in the vein of The Magnificent Seven or high drama like The Revenant, but it does tell a wonderful and engaging story that shows an often unseen side to the genre.
However, as graceful, calming and even immersive a folk tale as this film is, I can’t avoid the fact that it isn’t always the most enthralling watch. It’s slow from the start – which doesn’t do it any favours – and although that more patient pacing works wonders in its most emotionally tender moments, it makes for often frustrating and rather dull watching at times when things really should be moving at a faster pace.
That’s not to say the movie has to be filled with action and explosions right the way through, but there are periods where the key character and dramatic development is achieved in the early stages of a certain part of the film, and little else really changes until the next big development in the story.
As a result, the film can prove frustrating and often boring, failing to really hit home with its calming folkloric atmosphere, and struggling to engage you right the way through, with Jeremiah Johnson’s changing attitudes and lifestyle coming about in bursts, rather than in line with the graceful stream of storytelling that most of the film is.
Overall, then, I wasn’t entirely enamoured by Jeremiah Johnson. It’s a delightfully graceful and elegant piece, giving a reserved, down-to-earth and often impressively gritty portrayal of the American frontier, providing a different side to the western genre that we all know. Unfortunately, its story isn’t always on that same level, struggling to engage you entirely with uneven dramatic development and often frustratingly slow pacing, which is why I’m giving the film a 7.2.