Tag Archives: Robert Redford

The Horse Whisperer

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 8, 2014

The Horse Whisperer—Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Cooper, Sam Neill, Diane Wiest, Ty Hillman (1998; Dir: Robert Redford)

HorseWhispPosterHorseWhispPoster2

In broad outline, this is a slow-moving easterner-goes-west, collision-of-values story set in modern Montana.  It is also a sort of romance based on a best-selling novel by Englishman Nicholas Evans.

The story is set up in New York.  Two well-to-do thirteen-year-old girls go riding, and there is an accident on an icy road with a truck.  One girl and horse are killed; Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson), the survivor, loses her lower right leg and her horse Pilgrim is badly hurt.  Both horse and rider are gravely injured in spirit as well as body, and Grace becomes more alienated from her high-powered parents Robert MacLean (Sam Neill), a lawyer, and English-born Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a magazine editor.  Distance seems to be developing between the parents as well.

As Annie researches healing for the horse (as a way of healing her own relationship with Grace), she runs across references to “horse whisperer” Tom Booker of Montana, who has miraculous results with injured animals.  Booker declines to come to New York for consultation, and on an impulse Annie decides to haul Pilgrim and Grace west to Montana, somewhat against Grace’s wishes.

HorseWhispWhispering

Tom Booker (Robert Redford) gets to know Pilgrim (Hightower).

Annie:  “I’ve heard you help people with horse problems.”
Tom Booker:  “Truth is, I help horses with people problems.”

The bulk of the story develops as Annie, Grace and Pilgrim spend time at the Booker ranch, which Tom (Robert Redford) runs with his brother Frank (Chris Cooper) and Frank’s family.  Tom is divorced, having once married a cello player he met while studying engineering in Chicago but who found there was “too much space” in Montana.  Results come slowly, both with Pilgrim and with Grace.  As they are exposed to ranch life and Booker family relationships, both Annie and Grace also start to come out of their shells.  Frank’s wife Diane (Diane Wiest) is a practical, earthy type, who helps hold the emotional life of the extended family together.  Annie loses her editor’s job in New York, and finds herself being drawn to the taciturn Booker in his own world.  She also finds different rhythms in ranch life than she has been used to in New York.

Annie:  “I haven’t ridden Western before.”
Tom Booker:  “Yeah, but he doesn’t know that.  Just sit on the horse.”

HorseWhispRiding

Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Tom Booker (Robert Redford) go riding.

As Annie and Tom draw closer, time passes, and eventually Robert comes from New York to see what’s going on and if he can reclaim his family.  Pilgrim is doing better, but it’s very slow going.  Finally, Grace does ride Pilgrim as a kind of healing milestone for both of them.  She flies back to New York with her father, while Annie wrestles with when, and whether, to go back.  Of course, Booker being the kind of man he is, she has to go back.

One could say that there are pacing problems with this movie.  After all, the unrushed set-up takes 45 minutes to tell what could have been done in fifteen or fewer, and the entire film is almost three hours long (170 minutes).  But that’s part of the point of the whole enterprise:  healing and finding yourself take time, patience and honesty, which are all in short supply in the modern world.  In the end, you have to approach this willing to go with its flow, but it works well on that basis.  Time, as well as the land itself, seems to be different in western Montana.

HorseWhispGathering

Robert MacLean (Sam Neill, center) comes west to see about getting his family back.

The depiction of ranch family life through Frank’s family and partnership with his brother Tom are very successful.  The casting is excellent.  Chris Cooper is perfect as Frank Booker, and Diane Wiest, who seems a very New Yorky sort of actor from her other roles, is also very good as Frank’s wife.  Young Ty Hillman as Frank’s son Joe is very good, too, although he hasn’t been seen much since this film.  Sam Neill does well in the thankless role of the underappreciated good husband, and Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Grace is mostly persuasive and helped propel her toward her current success in movies.  This was Kate Bosworth’s first movie; she plays Grace’s friend who doesn’t survive the accident.  Jeanette Nolan (often a mother-figure, as in Hangman’s Knot, 7th Cavalry, Saddle Tramp, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) plays the mother of the Booker brothers; it was her final film appearance.

Redford as Booker is the spiritual center of the movie, and this casting is perfect.  He bought the movie rights to the book before it was published, so he cast himself.  Despite the fact that he was then 62 and Scott Thomas was 24 years younger, Redford looks great and the relationship is believable.  Scott Thomas does well, although she doesn’t seem as unique in this role as the weathered Redford does in his.  It’s hard to see this without wanting more of Redford in westerns, but he shows up mostly in them when he was much younger:  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson are the most notable, of course, and then there’s The Electric Horseman with Jane Fonda, another modern western.  Most similar in spirit to this is another beautiful Redford-directed film set in western Montana of the 1920s and 1930s:  A River Runs Through It, with Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt (1992).

HorseWhispDirecting

Redford directing Scott Thomas.

Overall, this is primarily a romance, but it has a very western spirit and look about it.  The romanticized landscape is very Redfordian.  Part of the leisurely pacing is given to spectacular cinematography by Robert Richardson (a number of well-integrated aerial shots), with a good, but spare, screenplay by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese.  Shot on location in western Montana, near Livingston and Big Timber.

The credits list as an “equine technical adviser” Buck Brannaman.  An actual horse whisperer in real life, Brannaman is also the subject of a 2011 documentary entitled simply Buck.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Great Performances in Westerns, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 4, 2013

John Wayne as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Tom Dunson in Red River, Hondo Lane in Hondo, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

stagecoachRingoRingo stops the stage and the movie.

WayneTrueGrit2 Rooster Cogburn.

Wayne is the most memorable and enduring western star that the movies have seen, appearing over a long career that began in silent movies and lasted until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.  Unlike some other great western stars, he was always the protagonist, although a couple of his characters (Tom Dunson, Ethan Edwards) had some near-psychotic edges to them.  He seemed larger-than-life in the Wayne persona that was always part of his character in a film.  These listed here are his greatest performances, but there are others that could make the list, such as Wil Andersen in The Cowboys and J.B. Books in The Shootist.

  • In the role that made him a star, Wayne captures the screen instantly in the shot in which he flags down the coach in 1939’s Stagecoach.  As the Ringo Kid, his mission for revenge and his relationship with bad girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) dominate the movie when the titular coach isn’t being chased by Indians.  The camera loves him, and director John Ford knew how to use him well, even here in their first work together. 
  • It wasn’t just Ford; Wayne’s work with other directors could be excellent as well.  For example, as the obsessive Tom Dunson, his relationship with foster son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first and one of his best roles) is the backbone of Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.  He’s John Wayne clear through, but his behavior is edgy and uncertain enough that we’re not quite sure how the conflict will end.  That’s good writing and directing, too.  All of this worked together to make the first great cattle drive western, with John Wayne at the heart of it.
  • Hondo Lane is an ill-tempered Arizona scout who puts up with no nonsense and is all business, even in his relationship with Geraldine Page and her son.  Although he had used a longarm to good effect in Stagecoach, his seeming familiarity with a rifle in this role was even more natural.  (It became an integral part of Wayne’s performance as John T. Chance in Rio Bravo, as well.)  He carries the movie, as he usually did, and this excellent performance tends to be underrated in part because this 3D movie wasn’t readily available for viewing for several decades after its release, when the short-lived 3D fashion of the early 1950s had faded.
  • The occasionally irrational and always obsessive Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is nevertheless the character who captures us and carries us through his odyssey in pursuit of a niece taken by Comanches.  His towering obsession is rivaled by the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley, but he stands up to it with a compelling performance for a great director (John Ford again).  One of the iconic shots at the end of the movie shows Ethan Edwards silhouetted in a cabin doorway, holding his left elbow with his right hand before he turns and walks back out into the sunlight.  And we’re not sure to what future.  (Wayne said the pose was an homage to his mentor Harry Carey, whose widow Olive and son Harry Jr. were part of the cast here.)
  • In his second western with director Howard Hawks, Wayne carries the story in Rio Bravo as Sheriff John T. Chance, under siege much of the movie.  He faces bad guys who have much greater numbers and resources, while he has only a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a gimpy jailor (cackling Walter Brennan) and a very young gunman (Ricky Nelson) to stand with him.  He even makes the May-December romance with a much younger Angie Dickinson seem reasonable.  Here, as in some other films, Wayne was more convincing with a rifle than with a pistol, especially as he got older.  And he was beginning to age when he made this movie.  Wayne played the same character in two more Hawks remakes, with progressively worse results each time.
  • His best acting was arguably in Red River and The Searchers, but he won his Best Actor Academy Award for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  As an aging, one-eyed, drunken U.S. marshal for Judge Isaac Parker, he leads a small party into the Indian Territory in search of a murderer and other miscreants.  One of the defining moments of his career in film takes place in a mountain meadow, where the indomitable Rooster Cogburn, facing off alone against four outlaws on horseback, shouts his challenge “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and charges, firing a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other.  Thrilling stuff.  Good writing and direction, too.  It’s interesting to compare Wayne’s version of the character with the Cogburn played 40 years later by another excellent actor, Jeff Bridges.

HC Butch Cassidy Newman.jpgButchCassidy

Newman as Butch, and the real Butch Cassidy.

Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Always a superb actor, Newman brought an elusive quality to most of his performances and played all over the map as the roles required.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in one of the greatest he restored the almost-forgotten outlaw Butch Cassidy’s mythology as a likeable western Robin Hood.  Especially effective because of good directing, a legendarily great screenplay by William Goldman, excellent cinematography, a notable score and a balancing performance by Robert Redford, Newman’s Cassidy is nevertheless what moves the film, especially in the first half.  The chemistry between Newman and Redford is probably the most significant element in making the movie compelling.  For another really good performance in a western, see Newman in Hombre.

RedfordSundance2Sundance

Redford as Sundance, and the real Harry Longabaugh

Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and Jeremiah Johnson in Jeremiah Johnson

Redford was one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, and his natural reticence plays well in westerns that are written with due regard for the taciturn nature of many real westerners.  A native westerner himself, Redford could play them well.  It would have been good to see him in more westerns, but after the early part of his career, such films were no longer in cinematic fashion.  He can be seen in westerns with a modern setting and a concern for social attitudes:  The Electric Horseman (1979) and The Horse Whisperer (1998). And he directed and narrated a beautiful film about the 1920s modern west in A River Runs Through It (1992).

  • As the less talkative, better-shooting half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford’s Sundance is engraved on the memories of those who love westerns.  Two of the best Sundance moments of the movie:  The initial scene, shot in sepia tones, where Sundance is at a card table, accused of cheating.  The setup is brilliant at revealing elements of both Butch and Sundance’s characters and establishing Sundance’s reputation.  And in Bolivia as the pair is trying out for jobs as payroll guards, when Strother Martin as the “colorful” mine manager asks for a demonstration of shooting ability.  Inexplicably, Sundance misses badly.  He asks, “Can I move?”  “What do you mean, move?”  “I’m better when I move.”  And with that he draws, shoots and hits the target multiple times within what seems like a heartbeat.  He was born for the role.

RedfordJohnsonliver-eatingjohnson

Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, and the real Liver-Eating Johnston.

  • Not as heralded these days but even more difficult was Redford’s performance as Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man extraordinaire.  There’s not a lot of dialogue, Redford is alone on the screen much of the time, and he has to carry the movie himself.  He does.  The silences seem part of the story, and he’s very effective in the action sequences, although he doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the historical Johnson.  He makes relationships seem convincing with few words, on those few occasions when he forms them.  There’s good directing at work here, but the film depends on Redford’s performance.

DuvallCall

Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove and Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies

Both of these roles now seem unimaginable in other hands.  Duvall is one of the pre-eminent actors of his time, and not as a conventional leading man.  He could be on this list for his performances as Boss Spearman in Open Range and Print Ritter in Broken Trail as well.

  • Gus McCrae is the more loquacious of the two ex-Texas rangers around whom the epic Lonesome Dove revolves, and he carries more than his share of the action.  He’s garrulous and compelling, and it’s especially his relationships (with Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston) that interest us.  He’s more engaged than Call with the black-hearted Indian outlaw Blue Duck, and he and Tommy Lee Jones (as Woodrow Call) balance each other nicely.  Lonesome Dove might have been made for television, but Duvall himself sees this as his defining performance.   For Duvall as similar characters leading trail drives, see the other two in what Duvall refers to as his western trail-boss trilogy, Open Range and Broken Trail.
  • As alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Duvall won an Academy Award as Best Actor.  He’s convincing in a May-December relationship with Tess Harper, and he’s great at bringing us along as he sobers up and establishes a new family in which he’s only one of the wounded spirits.  It’s a terrific performance in a very good movie, not seen often enough.  For a comparable performance by another actor in a similar role, see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.  For another similarly great performance by Duvall, albeit in a non-western, see The Apostle.

JonesCall

Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove

Younger than Duvall, Jones nevertheless was persuasive as Woodrow Call, Gus McCrae’s long-time friend, co-Texas ranger and ranching partner.  A native Texan, Jones as Call embodied the taciturn, emotionally-repressed man of action.  It’s one of the high points in his career.  One stand-out moment:  As a mounted cavalryman in a Nebraska cow town starts to beat young cowhand Newt with a whip, Call spies the action from down the street.  Without a wasted motion, he bounds onto his horse (the Hell-Bitch), rides her full-tilt into the cavalryman and his mount and starts beating him bloody with a branding iron.  His explanation when finally pulled off by McCrae?  “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man.”  Grizzled and unhesitating, he’s a fit companion and complement to McCrae.  James Garner takes the role of an older Call in Streets of Laredo, and, although the material isn’t as strong as Lonesome Dove, he’s surprisingly good, too.  For other good Jones performances, see him as the long-lost half-Indian father in The Missing, as Hewey Calloway in The Good Old Boys (MfTV, 1995), and as the world-weary modern Texas sheriff in No Country for Old Men.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross (1969; Dir:  George Roy Hill)

While True Grit in the same year was a backward-looking western playing off the traditions of the genre, Butch Cassidy looks ahead.  The language and humor are modern, and were more revolutionary when this movie was released than they seem now.  There are more overtly and self-consciously cinematic techniques used.  For example, the movie occasionally slides into sepia tones to reproduce the effects of old photographs; it even opens with such a sequence as it introduces Butch and Sundance to us.  And the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” interlude where Butch rides a bicycle and frolics with Etta Place and a belligerent bull is reminiscent of the singing scene from Rio Bravo, although Burt Bacharach’s music here is better, if more irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of the movie.  The soundtrack was immensely popular in its time, and the “Raindrops” song won an Oscar for Best Song.

butch&sundance

Paul Newman, of course, plays Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid.  They were so good in these roles that they touched off a vogue in “buddy” movies, where the primary relationship was a friendship between two males.  The peak of this trend was 1973’s The Sting with the same stars and director, which won the Best Picture Academy Award.  Butch Cassidy is so enjoyable that it has a lot of re-watchability.  For someone who is not familiar with westerns, this movie might be a good place to start.

The plot deals with the late stages of the career of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.   Historically, it was sometimes called the Wild Bunch, not to be confused with the fictional outlaws in the Peckinpah movie with that title or with the Doolin-Dalton gang based in Oklahoma, sometimes referred to by that name.  The gang is led by mastermind Butch Cassidy, who is slowly coming to the conclusion that there isn’t much future in the train-robbing business at the end of the 19th century, as the railroads devote more resources to his capture and become better at pursuing him. 

The movie opens with two brilliant sequences.  First, with the opening credits, is a pseudo-version of The Great Train Robbery, followed by a sepia-toned card game that establishes the tone for the movie with its dialogue, as well as setting the characters for Butch and Sundance.  As the movie goes to full color, it features two actual train robberies and their aftermath.  Butch and Sundance escape their relentless pursuers, but only with great difficulty.  They take temporary refuge with Etta Place, a rural school teacher and the girlfriend of Sundance, with whom Butch enjoys the musical bicycle interlude.  Etta is played by the luminous Katharine Ross, then best known for her breakthrough role a couple of years earlier in The Graduate.  (These two movies represent the peak of her cinematic career.)  And Etta doesn’t come between Butch and Sundance.

butchbicycle

Foolin’ around, during a musical interlude that shows off the David-Bacharach music but doesn’t do much to advance the plot.

Using their ill-gotten train-robbery gains, the trio stops in New York to see the sights on the way to South America.  They travel to Bolivia and try to go straight, but that doesn’t work for them and they take up bank robbery again as Los Bandidos Yanquis.  Eventually tracked down by the Bolivian army in the small town of San Vicente, they shoot it out, ending the movie with the famous final freeze-frame shot of the wounded Butch and Sundance emerging with guns blazing from the room where they’ve taken cover.  For many, it’s a more effective end for characters we’ve come to care about than the final slow-motion violence of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde.

Butch was an immensely attractive character, both in real life and as portrayed by Newman in this movie.  It is now hard to imagine anybody but Redford as Sundance, although the role reportedly almost went to Steve McQueen.  Newman and Redford are very persuasive, both in their individual roles and as friends.  The cast is excellent, top to bottom.  Ross is very good, although there are times when her character seems extraneous.  The various members of the gang are very good, too, although Ted Cassidy is physically much larger than the actual Harvey Logan, the meanest and perhaps most dangerous man in the gang.  (See the famous photograph of the bunch taken in Fort Worth, where Harvey Logan appears much more innocuous.)  Strother Martin makes a memorable appearance as a “colorful” Bolivian mine manager.  Jeff Corey, who was the killer Tom Chaney in True Grit, is a sympathetic sheriff here.  This was also the film debut of Ross’s future husband, Sam Elliott, but he’s hard to spot.

butch&sundancereal

The famous photograph of the Wild Bunch taken in Fort Worth in 1901, with Sundance in the left front and Butch in the right front.  Harvey Logan is standing on the right.

There is violence in this movie, and not just from blowing up safes and railroad cars.  Aside from all the shooting in the final scene, there is also a scene where Butch and Sundance take back from Bolivian bandits the mine payroll they were hired to protect.  In Bonnie and Clyde fashion, the shootout and the resulting deaths are in slow motion–except here the slow motion is stopped with the hail of bullets, so the last image of the two is of them in action.

butch_cassidy_sundance_kid_01

Butch and Sundance take on the Bolivian army.

The script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride) is an acknowledged gem, and it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.  Lines from it are bandied between aficionados of the genre:  “Rules, in a knife fight?”  “Can I move?  I’m better when I move.”  “Woodcock, is that you?”  “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”  “You just keep thinkin’, Butch.  That’s what you’re good at.”  “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.”  “Who are those guys?”  “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”  The squabbling of Butch and Sundance sometimes sounds like an old married couple, but it’s effective.  The film was included at no. 73 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time (http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx).

Butch&SundanceWide

As with True Grit, much of the movie was shot in Colorado; the Bolivian scenes were shot in Mexico.  The cinematographer was the excellent Conrad Hall, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work here.  The movie was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Midnight Cowboy.

Save

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Jeremiah Johnson

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 23, 2013

Jeremiah Johnson—Robert Redford, Will Geer, Allyn Ann McLerie, Delle Bolton, Joaquin Martinez, Stefan Gierasch (1972; Dir:  Sidney Pollack)

This is perhaps the best mountain man movie ever made, although that’s kind of a limited field.  Robert Redford was a hot acting commodity in the years between Butch Cassidy and The Way We Were, and this was his second western.  It was filmed in Utah, much of it on the back side of Mount Timpanogos near Redford’s adoptive home.  Redford had been so taken with the Timp Haven ski resort there that he bought it and renamed it Sundance, after his character in Butch Cassidy.  Redford’s well-known ecological sensitivity is on display in the film.

JeremiahJPosterJeremiahJPoster2

Jeremiah Johnson (or John Johnston) was an actual historical character during the late fur-trapping period.  He was sometimes referred to as Liver-Eating Johnson for his supposed culinary inclinations during a lengthy feud with the Crow Indians in Montana and Wyoming.  His story is as much legend as fact, however.   This movie conveys the beauty, the solitude and the dangers of the early west during that late fur-trapping period.  It depends on Redford’s star power to carry it, and he’s up to the task. 

Jeremiah Johnson is a disillusioned soldier from the Mexican War who heads as far away from people and civilization as he can get.  That puts the start of this movie in the late 1840s, after most of the fur-trapping era was done.  He goes to the mountains in the vicinity of Montana, with references to the Judith and Musselshell rivers of that state.  He encounters Bear Claw (Will Geer), an older mountain man whose specialty is hunting grizzly bears and who teaches him the basics of mountain hunting and survival.  Johnson later comes across Del Gue, a different kind of loud-talking trapper played by Stefan Gierasch.  Johnson accidentally acquires a family, taking on the mute young son of a crazy woman and receiving a Flathead wife in a situation where he can’t argue or refuse.

jeremiahjohnson1

Johnson and his mentor Bear Claw (Will Geer).

While guiding a party of soldiers to rescue stranded emigrants, he unwillingly (but not unwittingly) trespasses on a Crow burial ground, thereby touching off a feud with that tribe.  Taking revenge for the Crow killing of his Flathead wife and adoptive son, Johnson kills several of the Crows and the feud is on.  Once the feud has started, the Crows come at him one by one, as a point of honor.  Johnson doesn’t come out of these encounters unscathed, but he wins each one.  There’s no eating of livers in the movie, however. The final scene is a wordless encounter with Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez), Johnson’s avowed enemy since mid-film and the presumed force behind the attacks on Johnson.  Several hundred yards apart, Johnson reaches for his rifle for what he thinks will be a final duel, but Paints-His-Shirt-Red raises his arm, open-palmed, in a gesture of peace that Johnson returns, closing the film.

Some feel that the portions of the film where there isn’t much dialogue—and there are a lot of them—drag a bit.  The end feels abrupt and lacking in resolution, as if somebody just got tired of telling the story and quit.

jeremiah-johnson-4

Johnson and Caleb encounter Del Gue.

The Indians in this movie look very authentic, if occasionally somewhat overdressed.  In particular, Delle Bolton, who plays Johnson’s quiet young Flathead wife Swan, is very effective in a limited role.  Redford doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the real Johnston, but he’s very good at the central role of the movie, maintaining an innate sense of mystery about his character.

Sidney Pollack was an excellent director not particularly known for westerns.  He was talked into doing this one by Redford, who made seven movies with him.  Something like this, with comparatively little dialogue, requires very high composition skills to take advantage of the natural setting, which becomes a primary character.  And it’s not just showing the mountains and background.  There’s a scene in which Johnson is shot from his horse and plays dead on the ground, while his assailant comes up behind him.  The camera work and editing are masterful in indicating clearly where Johnson lies, where his horse is standing and where the out-of-focus Indian that Johnson can’t see is coming from.  It must have been extremely hard to set it up so the action is that clear but mostly implied from Johnson’s point of view.

jj-paintshisshirt Paints-His-Shirt-Red.

Sam Peckinpah was originally attached the project to direct, with Clint Eastwood slated to star.  But Peckinpah and Eastwood did not get along, so Peckinpah left the project (just as well, probably); then Eastwood decided to make Dirty Harry instead. The script with its notably spare dialogue was originally written by John Milius, who says he was paid $5,000 to write it at first.  But he was then hired to rewrite it several times and wound up earning $80,000 on it, with Edward Anhalt.  Milius says he got the script’s idiom and American spirit from Carl Sandburg and was also influenced by Charles Portis’ novel True Grit.

liver-eatingjohnson The real Liver-Eating Johnston.

The bones of the story are based on Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s supposedly non-fiction book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man.  The music by Tim McIntire (the son of actors John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan, who also provides the voice-over narration for the film) and John Rubinstein (the son of internationally-known Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein) is a little pretentious for a western, with an overture and entr’acte.  But this is not a typical western, and the music works well enough in its way.

According to Hal Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), this is “an epic about loss, and how change will take from us everything we love, but that there are, indeed, things that endure.  Some people thinks it’s the greatest outdoor adventure movie ever made.”  For the second-best mountain man movie, try Howard HawksThe Big Sky, from 1952.

Narrator:  “His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man.  The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains.  Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much.  He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.  He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better.  He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better.  Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said good-bye to whatever life was down there below….”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone