It doesn’t take too long web surfing to encounter some youngster’s idea of humor: a looping, seconds-long video image of Robert Redford nodding his approval, in response to a sarcastic statement or maybe a “big booty.” While modern civilization has not quite closed the cultural gap between generations, the very existence of the “Robert Redford nod of approval” GIF is a fascinating contradiction, joining millennial Internet language with a film from 1972, penned in part by a screenwriter relatively infamous in Hollywood for a conservative outlook. If context mattered for GIFs – and it shouldn’t – these millennials might be disappointed to learn that Jeremiah Johnson is a stereotypical manly man movie, something that dads the world over have fallen asleep to in their big chairs watching AMC. However, there’s a third layer to this inverted, bearded matryoshka doll, which is that Jeremiah Johnson is actually an incisive look at manhood, and a fantastic film.
Hollywood was beginning to grow up in the early ‘70s. Marlon Brando had reinvented acting, and independent cinema was delivering edgier material to the multiplex. As Sergio Leone had well put the Western to rest by 1968, Jeremiah Johnson would not be a classical adventure. Its director Sydney Pollack was no pulp filmmaker, and he’d go on to direct serious fare like Three Days of the Condor and Out of Africa. The star, Robert Redford, was still hot off his success in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and this film is the bridge from his playing second banana to Paul Newman to headlining films like The Sting and All the President’s Men. This is the rather elevated context of Jeremiah Johnson, though the story itself begins without any context whatsoever.
‘Jeremiah Johnson’ Is a Healthy Male Power Fantasy
Our first glimpse of Jeremiah is his arrival by boat to the Rocky Mountains, skipping over his departure from “civilization.” Where does he come from? It doesn’t matter, because any specificity might threaten the viewer’s ability to identify with this man – assuming that “man” and any other signifiers aren’t specific. His early struggles as a newly-minted mountain man play well with film language, being so elemental. There is no dialogue, and Pollack’s visual storytelling draws the audience closer to Jeremiah. Catching fish and building a fire have immediate success states, and his repeated failures encourage sympathy.
The film itself is elemental, standing as a quintessential “man in the wilderness” movie, and yet, Jeremiah finds himself hopelessly out of his depths. This tale of rugged individualism quickly gives way to a fable about society. Jeremiah first relies on the posthumous assistance of a Hatchet Jack for his new rifle, left behind in a will and testament but nonetheless pried out of literal cold, dead hands. Jeremiah is then treated with food and shelter by Chris Lapp (Will Geer), or Bear Claw, so named for his primary business, “grizz hunting.” Bear Claw lets him try bear, before leading a live and very angry bear into the house for Jeremiah to “skin.” However unorthodox his methods, Bear Claw is an effective teacher, and the lessons culminate in ominous warnings about mountain politics. Jeremiah is in Crow Tribe territory, where everything has a price, including passage, but these things can be negotiated. This is a place with rules; without Bear Claw as a guide, Jeremiah would’ve suffered consequences.
Robert Redford Is an Underrated Comic Actor
In these early movements, Redford plays Jeremiah with some slapstick, including a booming, almost biblical manner of speech. After his goodbye with Bear Claw, Jeremiah encounters an isolated cabin that’s been attacked by Blackfoot warriors. A woman mutters to her children as if they’re alive, and a young boy (Josh Albee) has been rendered silent by trauma. Approaching them, Jeremiah tells the woman, “The Indians will not bother you now, on account of… you are touched. They will be afraid,” and later tells the boy, “I will call you Caleb!” and neither instance of chest-puffed bluster is met with a response. It’s as if he’s playing the role of a legendary figure.
Jeremiah loses track of the woman and is left to watch over the kid. He’s being saddled with responsibilities, and remains a surprisingly passive character. Soon, he finds himself part of the traditional family unit so symbolic of the civilized world he attempted to leave behind. No matter how individual, the competing interests and tribes on the mountain require that everyone take a side, and it isn’t long before Jeremiah is swept into a greater conflict. He helps an untrustworthy man who calls himself Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) – first encountered by Jeremiah and Caleb buried up to his chin – and ends up killing several Blackfeet. This puts him in the good graces of nearby tribes, who repay Jeremiah with marriage to the chief’s daughter. Refusal means death.
The Origin of the Nodding GIF
With the kid and his new bride, Swan (Delle Bolton), Jeremiah has no choice but to settle down. This is where the GIF comes from. Startled by Jeremiah’s use of a rifle to hunt for food, Swan shows him alternate forms of gathering. It takes time, but eventually, he catches fish using a method she taught him. He looks back at Swan and Caleb, and there you have it. The approval is hers. The shot is actually part of a montage, in which this found family pulls together a log cabin, a visual measure of their burgeoning relationship. However ironic, and not as Jeremiah initially planned, it’s very sweet. Swan doesn’t speak English, but Jeremiah comes to learn a few Salish words.
The film’s portrayal of Native Americans may not be impressive by a modern standard, but that standard was only established earlier this year. There have long been Native American movies, books, and TV shows, but high-profile titles like Reservation Dogs, Dark Winds, and even Prey have centered Indigenous voices on mainstream platforms. By comparison, Jeremiah Johnson is based on two books, themselves based on folklore: Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher, and Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker. The liver-eating may be whitewashed, but the violence against Native Americans is not.
Jeremiah Johnson Becomes a Legend at Great Cost
The final act of the film pits Jeremiah against the Crow in an extended conflict, and by this point, he’s become the legend of his own aspirations. The tale of his struggle with a feared people reaches everyone, where even the Crow leave monuments to their enemy. It’s an adversarial relationship, but one within the auspices of the mountain. When army men seek Jeremiah’s help in retrieving lost settlers, he warns them, “This is Crow land,” and they respond, “This is the Department of Colorado.” They believe they can assert their authority here, these flat-landers. They haven’t learned the respect for this world that Jeremiah has, even if that world is trying to kill him. He’s become one with the mountain, part of its culture – a footnote, no matter how notable.
It’s clear the writers and director of Jeremiah Johnson had greater ambition than a simple boy’s adventure, despite the genre trappings. It’s a film generous with natural beauty and equally strong character work. Where its modern equivalent, say, The Revenant, is monotone and nihilistic, Jeremiah Johnson prefers a wider spectrum of human emotion and experience. It’s almost like a lack of insecurity, for a story about how one man’s quest for individual fulfillment, the ultimate test of self-determination, is actually a story about how one is never truly alone. The film is perfect for a snowed-in Sunday, when we’d all like to escape the coming work week. However, Jeremiah’s story balances victories with defeat and even tragedy, a reminder to never escape for too long. Get up and get back to it. A GIF will be waiting for you.