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Littleton, Colorado m i c k M c A l l i s t e r You Can’t Go Home: Jeremiah Johnson and the Wilderness The American trappers. . . . Space ate into them. Loneliness engulfed them, more vacuous than the gorges below them, than the spaces between the stars. And so, they struck at everything. Not with a true and innocent blood lust, a simple will to dom­ inate. But with a cold dispassion that frightened even the Indians. These they killed as they killed animals, on sight, as if this were the only natural outcome of a meeting. These were the first nonindigenous men to turn their backs wholly and forever upon their former homeland, to meet in mortal struggle the invisible forces of the land, and to accept its terms. And so they were the first of us, American “Westerners,” to reflect, magnified and distorted, the signs of our subjection. Not until we understand the mountain men can we understand ourselves. —Frank Waters, The Colorado [condensed] The film Jeremiah Johnson is based on Vardis Fisher’s novel, Mountain Man, and Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of John Johnson, Crow Killer. It is a controversial film, panned by the New York critics, hailed in the Journal of Popular Film as a movie of tragic dimensions, the first ecological western. It is fitting to find the Eastern critical establishment unable to appreciate this eminently western film, since that same establishment was the bane of Vardis Fisher’s last 36 Western American Literature years. Jeremiah Johnson is a mythopoeic film, reaching like Shane beyond mere anecdote to create a contemporary vision of the westering experience. This mythic quality was foreshadowed by the film’s major source, Fisher’s novel, which bore the subtitle “A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West,” but the film’s emphasis has shifted from the sexual and racial conflicts of Mountain Man to the failure of the Euro-American to understand and live within the American wilder­ ness. The film is, in a sense, an “ecological western,” but the vision it presents is ultimately pessimistic, an urgent denial of the romantic daydream of escaping from white civilization into a new Eden. Frank Waters anticipated this interpretation of the mountain man’s encounter with the wilderness and Edward Anhalt, who rewrote the screenplay, expressed it well in an interview: “This is the story of the inevitable destruction of every man’s dream and the spine of the film, the comment it makes is that the measure of a man is the grace with which he survives that destruction.”1 Jeremiah Johnson embodies the man of good spirit and good intentions, not Everyman but the tragic hero, who carried with him into the wilderness his romantic illusions and with them the seed of the very civilization he sought to repudiate. This choice of emphasis is a little different from the central theme of Fisher’s novel, but it is utterly distant from the original source of both works, Thorp and Bunker’s Crow Killer, a peculiar biography of an equally strange man, John “Liver-eatin’” Johnson, whose gruesome sobriquet was earned in a feud with the entire Crow nation.2 The original Johnson was uneducated, unprincipled, insensitive, contemptuous of Indian cultures; his character is typified in the film by Jeremiah’s some­ time partner, Del Gue. Thorp and Bunker attempt to mitigate the picture of their subject somewhat by stating that “though Johnson did express the generalized contempt of his era in regard to Indians, we shall observe repeatedly his very real respect for the warriors of many tribes” (13). The book is nonetheless distasteful for the unwashed and vicious racism of its hero, who was not above killing twenty-nine Blackfeet 1William Froug, The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1972), p. 283. 2C tow Killer: The Saga of Liver-eating Johnson (Bloomington: Indiana Uni­ versity Press, 1958). Page references are to the Signet edition printed in 1959. The other source of the film is Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (Boise: Opal Laurel Holmes, Pub., 1972). Mick McAllister 37 warriors with strychnined biscuits as a pointless practical...


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