Vardis Alvero Fisher was the novelist who spurred the tale of a mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit and becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by the Crow tribe and proves to be a match for their warriors in single combat on the early frontier. Fisher was an American writer from Idaho who wrote popular historical novels of the Old West.
But it was John Milius who would garner screenplay credit along with a few less noticeable writers.
"I was never conscious of my screenplays having any acts. It's all bullshit," Milius told Erik Bauer in a 2015 interview for Creative Screenwriting. Guys with a herculean list of epic films can say that, I guess. Writer of Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, The Wind and the Lion, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and the list goes on and on.
Jeremiah Johnson was a turning point for Milius. "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."
Milius wrote the script for nothing. Eventually he was paid $5,000 before moving on to Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola. What he wrote, has become a part of American history. Poetic, humorous, gritty and sad. The untamed west never grows old, and neither has this 1972 classic.
I saw the film with my mother one afternoon at a matinee. She hauled all of my siblings to the movie because she had heard some good things. That evening, when my dad got home from work, we all went again. The next night, we went again, the entire family. The price of a ticket was a buck fifty. It cost my dad $21 for a family of 7 to see the film twice.
I was 10 years old. It was my first experience seeing Robert Redford on the silver screen. I was enamored. He was bigger than life, his heart and his courage were humble and brash. It was all I could do to not strap on a backpack and a pair of snow shoes and follow him into the wilderness. Years later, I would have my chance and lived in the back country of Colorado's Rocky Mountains It was as close as I could get to the mountain man experience, but every day in the back country was a reflection of what I had witnessed when watching Jeremiah Johnson.
The breadth of characters that displayed the hardships of the west included greats, Matt Clark, Charles Tyner, Jack Colvin, and Will Geer. Director Sydney Pollack is known for "character driven stories about people and relationships." One might say that describes any movie ever made, but Pollack had an art form that gave characters life and that life translated into believability for us the viewer.
Films like Three Days of the Condor, the Way We Were, Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman and forty more on the list are a testimony to Pollack's characters he brought to life. Characters which now reside in our hearts and minds like that of Jeremiah Johnson.
The breathtaking scenery of the film is made so even more by the soundtrack. Peaceful, entrancing melodies that weep to share the haunting tale of the mountain man, his love for an Indian woman, his love for solitude, and his courage for freedom. "And some folks say, he's out there still."