The Mountain Man as frontier hero

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) is a central film in Redford’s filmography, because he produced it and shot it on his own mountain property in Utah, with the help of his director friend and fellow Westerner Sydney Pollack.  Therefore Redford was able to express many of his own ideas about the West and his chosen lifestyle, between New York City and the unspoiled mountains of Utah, where he built a wood and stone house for his family with his own hands.  He understands the myth of the Westerner as a man that, like Buffalo Bill Cody “stood between savagery and civilization,”  and is aware of the antinomies posited by Jim Kitses in Horizons West: wilderness stands for the individual, nature and the West, civilization for the community, culture and the East.

In Jeremiah Johnson Robert Redford plays a young soldier who, as the opening narration goes, “wanted to be a mountain man and said goodbye to whatever life was down there below.  He was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains.”  When he reaches a bustling trading post by the Green River in Colorado, populated by Indians on double-hulled canoes, he gets himself a Hawker rifle, a horse, a pack mule, traps and supplies; he wants to know where to find “bear, beaver and other critters worth cash money when skinned,” and he’s told “Ride due West to the sunset, turn left at the Rocky Mountains.”
The myth of the mountain men, the nomadic fur trappers who roamed the Rockies in the mid 1800s, has long been part of the western legend.  Henry Nash Smith calls them “the first generation of fictional Wild Western heroes after Cooper,” and “symbols of anarchic freedom.”  The successor of Natty Bumppo (the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s Lethearstocking Tales) and Daniel Boone, the mountain man was more uncivilized, he had adopted many more Indian ways than the typical pioneer.  “His costume, his speech, his outlook on life, often enough his Indian squaw, gave him a decidedly savage aspect.”

(To read more) Buy the book, Robert Redford and the American West.


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