Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Edward Anhalt, John Milius (uncredited: David Rayfiel)

By Roderick Heath

John Jeremiah Garrison “Liver-Eating” Johnson was one of those authentic characters of the American West’s history who nonetheless occupies a blurred zone between fact and legend. Born in 1824, Johnson became one of the strange breed of wandering trappers and traders called mountain men in Western mythology, after he deserted from the US army during the Mexican-American War. In later years he served during the Civil War, worked in various law enforcement jobs around Montana, and died in Santa Monica, California in 1900, a month after finally entering a retirement home for veterans. In between these reasonably verifiable incidents in his life, Johnson survived by hook and crook, trying his hand in dozens of professions and money-spinning endeavours, becoming the subject of campfire tales and popular legend along the way. The defining event of his life, and his myth, was a twenty-five-year-long blood feud with the Native American Crow nation, sparked when some of their warriors supposedly killed his wife, a woman of the Flathead nation. Johnson supposedly defeated untold numbers of their braves and committed the purposefully blasphemous act according to Crow belief of eating the livers of his felled foes, before eventually making peace with the tribe.
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In the late 1960s Western films began to change radically. After years of being annexed by Italians and over-plied on television, its great stars aging or dead, and many of its fundamental assumptions held in dubiety by the rising new zeitgeist, the genre seemed ready to slide into pompously moribund irrelevance. For a while, however, a fresh, eccentric, wilfully heretical breed of Western film suddenly appeared on the scene, armed with a revisionist outlook and shot through with countercultural questionings of both the historic and current states of America whilst often trying to call back to the cultural roots of the genre with greater authenticity. Sydney Pollack’s take on Johnson’s life isn’t as celebrated today as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972), but it stands with them as an exemplar of the breed. If Pollack’s adherence to an ethic of chic entertainment eventually made him entirely too safe and tony later in his career, his first decade’s work in particular remains startlingly strong for the way he managed to blend this ethic with the verve of genuinely rich and inventive cinema, achieving rhapsodic intensity in his best work.
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Pollack’s work with actor Robert Redford eventually defined much of both men’s careers, and began with Jeremiah Johnson, with Redford playing a role far out of his familiar character zone and yet echoing through his career to his solo role in 2013’s All Is Lost, where he played a similar self-exiled wanderer who has given up the world of men but finds that self-reliance entails facing great existential terror. Pollack’s film was made in uneasy collaboration with the spikiest of the young talents in New Hollywood, John Milius. A more peculiar collision of talents is hard to imagine. Milius, the self-appointed wild man of the Movie Brats, had steeped himself in frontier and outlaw mythology, and as he kicked off his directing career with Dillinger (1973) he also gained attention writing Jeremiah Johnson for Pollack and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1973) for John Huston. Milius was hired by Warner Bros. to try and wrangle a workable script out of Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of Johnson, Crow Killer, and accomplished the feat by working in material from Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man. Milius’ love of rambling narratives that move in obedience to the happenstance rhythm of folklore might have seemed a tad too eccentric at first glance and Pollack fired him, hiring the experienced Edward Anhalt in his place during production, only to then be obliged to rehire Milius because only he could handle the stylised, old-timer idiom of the dialogue.
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Jeremiah Johnson became a passion project for Pollack and Redford, who both eventually mortgaged their houses to help get it made, and some of it was shot on Redford’s Utah property. They were rewarded when it became the first Western ever in competition at the Cannes Festival, and became a big, surprise hit. Jeremiah Johnson extended a theme Pollack explored repeatedly as he depicted various periods in history and portrayed deeply alienated individuals at odds with official mythologies in each. Such characters ranged from the pathetically marooned protagonists of Castle Keep and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (both 1969) and the radicals of The Way We Were (1973), the conscientious spy hero of Three Days of the Condor (1975), the rebellious rodeo man of The Electric Horseman (1979), and the cross-dressing wannabe of Tootsie (1982). Even Pollack’s Oscar-winner Out of Africa (1985) to a certain extent offered a gender-flipped take on Jeremiah Johnson as it portrays Karen Blixen’s introduction to a land that serves as cradle for personal transformation.
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It says as much for the mood of 1972 as much as Pollack’s efficiency in erecting the essentials of the story that it takes little to explain why Johnson wants to leave behind civilisation and the company of human beings for a solitary existence relying on his own muscle and wit (and it might well explain why it feels a tad appealing now, too). A quick glance at Johnson’s faded military trousers, a store sign that invites white men only as customers, and a general sense of disgust with civilisation is quite easy to grasp. Johnson steps off a boat and takes only what he needs to survive up into the Rocky Mountains, “the marrow of the Earth” as one character calls them. Johnson is hardy but inexperienced in fending for himself, and his early travails confirm his lack of bushcraft, his fires doused by snow, his attempts to fish by hand ending in humiliation as he’s watched by a silent, grim-faced Crow warrior on horseback, a man he will later know by the name Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martinez): so pathetic a figure does Johnson cut that the great warrior decides he’s not threat and rides on. Johnson knows his life in the mountains depends on the forbearance of the local native populaces, so he makes a gift of hides he’s collected to Paints-His-Shirt-Red. He obtains a longed-for article, a .50 calibre Hawken rifle, when he comes across the frozen body of a predecessor named Hatchet Jack, who, with legs broken in a struggle with a bear, took the time to pen a will explaining the story and bequeathing the weapon to whoever finds it.
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Johnson soon encounters the prickly, long-experienced mountain man ‘Bear-Claw’ Lapp (Will Geer), who specialises in hunting grizzly bears for their hides, and chews out Johnson upon their first meeting for scaring away one of his quarries with his blundering ways. Bear-Claw gives Johnson a rude introduction to his own sense of humour as well as the vicissitudes of grizzly hunting as he deliberately lets one chase him into his cabin and leaves it to Johnson to deal with the critter. Johnson nonetheless sticks with Bear-Claw for a time as the old-timer schools him in survival in the mountains. After he takes his leave, Johnson encounters a tragic scene: a frontier cabin with two children left dead and scalped by some Blackfoot marauders, leaving their mother (Allyn Ann McLerie, in a brief but extraordinary performance) a distraught, unhinged wreck. When she threatens the interloping Johnson with a rifle, he manages to placate her (“Woman, I am your friend.”) and helps bury for the dead children, prompting a cruel miniature lampoon of John Ford as mother and man sing a ragged version of “Shall We Gather at the River” over the graves: the “civilising” march, which Ford so often used that hymn to denote as having arrived in the frontier, here has outpaced itself in the ugliest way possible. Johnson finds she has a third child, a young boy who can’t or won’t speak, and the woman thrusts the lad upon him with a vague assignment to get him away so she can maintain her mournful vigil. Johnson takes the boy in hand, naming him Caleb.
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Johnson’s picaresque encounters see him, in a fashion anticipatory of Steven Spielberg’s fascination for pick-up families, piece together the rudiments of a quasi-normal life, forging odd and spiky friendships with men like Bear-Claw and shaven-pated nut-job trapper Del Gue (Stefan Gieresch), performing neighbourly acts for the crazy lady (his using a boot soul as an improvised hinge for the cabin door is one of the film’s marvels of throwaway detail), before finally gaining a son in the form of Caleb and then a wife and setting up a home. Johnson’s first encounter with Gue is a surreal moment as he and Caleb find him buried up to his neck in sand, victim of robbery and misuse by the same band of marauding Blackfoot warriors that killed Caleb’s siblings. Johnson digs Gue out and agrees to help him take back his stolen articles when they locate the sleeping band, but Gue starts a fight with them, forcing Johnson to help until all their foes are dead. A band of Flathead braves comes upon them and Gue transfers his collected scalps onto Johnson’s horse in fear they might want to repay the favour, but instead Johnson finds himself celebrated for the feat of slaying the wanton band. When he accidentally commits a faux pas by gifting the scalps to the head of the Flathead tribe, Two-Tongues Lebeaux (Richard Angarola), a gift that’s hard to match, Gue warns they’re at risk of being killed, until Lebeaux gets the great idea of marrying Johnson to his daughter Swan.
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“I see I missed another war down there,” Bear-Claw notes as he sees Johnson’s military trousers, offering the promise of blissful indifference to the drop-out who can make a go of it in the mountains. Later, Johnson has to ask whether or not the war he fled is over yet. Jeremiah Johnson contemplates this corner of the American landscape as a place of terrible but rarely entirely arbitrary violence. People kill for many reasons in the course of the film, for the cause of survival, defence of territory, for revenge and points of honour and even an eccentric spiritual cause; but it’s a deeply personal kind of violence all the way, rather than the anonymous clash of civilisations and abstract forces of history, which is one reason why, for all the woe he suffers and exacts, Johnson still prefers this way of life to any other. The narrative describes a great concentric circle that moves in accord with Johnson’s peripatetic ways, early scenes meeting their mirror later in the film, those early episodes gaining new meaning and import, as Johnson returns to places and reencounters people he met along the way, and experiences things he previously only glimpsed as an onlooker in his attempt to remove himself from the flow of history and society. The mountain man gives way to the settler; the land of the Crows becomes the Department of Colorado. The land gives unto Johnson unexpected bounties and burdens and then takes them away again with the same curt beneficence.
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Jeremiah Johnson bears distinct traces of the odd and volatile blend of creative sensibilities involve in its making – Milius’ ornery admiration for outsized figures at war with the world, Redford’s quiet, mindful observation and regard for setting, Pollack’s romanticism – and yet it never feels divided against itself. The film mediates ideas and images Pollack had parsed already in his films as well anticipating works to come. His interest in characters trying urgently to find a place for themselves in the world, and finding they can step in and out of roles with surreal mutability, echoes the gritty social drama of This Property Is Condemned (1966) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as well as the multiverse fantasia of Castle Keep, whilst The Electric Horseman would transplant the drama to a contemporary setting. Pollack’s suggestions of time and being in a state of flux as human nature wars with itself explored in Castle Keep recur here too, particularly in the sense of time in a gyre, of events repeating over and over according to cycles of nature and human perversity. The eagle embodying some spiritual force that haunted the soldiers of Castle Keep returns here to appeal to Johnson and warn him as it wings high above, seen vanishing in the mountain peaks where Johnson will soon face a consequential test.
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Since Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), with its band of troubadour choruses, and particularly High Noon (1952) with its faux-folk ballad theme song explaining the film’s essence, many a Western had aspired to entwining musical and cinematic narrative. This idea had a particular appeal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the wake of a folk music boom, and many of the Western films around this time aspired to the state of achieving a cinematic texture closely akin to such music, a moody, low-key, ambling place that immerses completely in a way of feeling and seeing. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its soundtrack of carefully inserted Leonard Cohen hits and Bob Dylan’s score for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) came close, but Jeremiah Johnson matched them with a specially crafted soundtrack that entwines deeply with the onscreen images and presaging motifs, like “the day that you tarry is the day that you lose” for a hero whose dedication to movement lends him the aspect of a holy fool. Purportedly because it was a cheaper option than hiring a name composer, actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein successfully sold Pollack on using their score with interpolated songs, charting Johnson’s life passage playing over images of his physical journeying in low, sonorous phrases. All this leads to the totemic final sung line, “And some folks say he’s up there still,’” as Johnson passes through a metaphysical veil to become the spirit of the land itself.
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The song scoring is particularly vital as otherwise Jeremiah Johnson could be one of the quietest mainstream films ever made, with long passages with scarcely any dialogue spoken or with untranslated Native American speech, and Pollack depending almost entirely on the rhythm of the editing and behaviour to hold the screen: he referred to it as his silent film. The audience learns the arts of mountain survival alongside Johnson. Pollack’s developing instincts as filmmaker for a mass audience nonetheless emerge in touches like the bear scene, where he offers an effect faintly reminiscent of Looney Tunes cartoons by simply watching the cabin from outside with the tumult within registering on the soundtrack. The cinematography by Duke Callaghan always considers the characters in relationship with their environment, the great cathedral domes of the mountains crusted in snow beckoning with promises of the sublime, the snow-packed alpine forests and grey, gritty scrublands. All have a specific meaning in terms of the human drama as well as foraging, as Johnson’s yearnings for escape aim always towards the high peaks but demand hunting for subsistence down where the animals lurk, and finally when Johnson drifts into something like wedded bliss he builds a cabin down on the flatlands. When he finally does venture into the highest stretches of the mountains, Johnson finds himself doomed to disturb a taboo, because communing with the sky is a pleasure reserved for eagles and spirits.
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Johnson finds unexpected accord with others who share the land with him even though they’re all seemingly defined by the same distaste for company; even the mad woman and her husband seem to have been driven out to the middle of nowhere (which is always someone else’s somewhere) in obedience to impulse that has no name. The likes of Bear-Claw, who admits that he’s never been able to adapt to a domestic situation and remains bewildered by the thought (“I never could find no tracks in a woman’s heart.”) and the shambolic Del Gue are weirdos suited for the wilds, whilst Johnson is still young and retains the reflexes of a romantic hero, much as he tries to bury it under a taciturn surface. The gentle humour, close to a romantic comedy, of Johnson’s unwilling marriage and setting up home with Swan and Caleb, sees Johnson gobsmacked by erotic contact (“Lord!”) and contending with forces he’s not too happy with, like religion, as Swan comes from a Christianised tribe who insists on saying grace. Johnson’s occasional slips into absurd boastfulness with Bear-Claw and then his serendipitous wife and son (“Great hunter!…Fine figure of a man!…That is all you need to know.”) betray his intense unease with company and also the constantly noted tension between his pretences to haughty self-reliance and the knockabout way he achieves it.
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The longing for a Zen-like deliverance from the bawling pressure of American life Pollack would return to repeatedly comes closest to being realised in Jeremiah Johnson, but also terminates in the fractious violence that results when ways of life collide. There’s an echo of this in a pivotals scene in The Yakuza (1974) in which Richard Jordan’s young gunman meditates upon his Japanese lover’s tea making skills moments before a gang of hoodlums breaks down the door. Johnson’s journey can be seen as a logical end-point for the countercultural idyll of going back to nature, and as a wistful conservative fantasy for the days of self-reliance. Pollack depicts the process of Johnson, Swan, and Caleb fusing together into a family and constructing a life for themselves with a dash of cosiness that might seem a bit too Little House on the Prairie at points, although it’s a cosiness that eventually turns out to have a ruthless price. Pollack’s sense of rhythmic visual storytelling and feel for detail certainly never desert him. Life together sees Johnson absorbing Swan’s language to the point where they can converse, the couple clearly genuinely in love, and Johnson taking pride in Caleb learning the arts of trapping and other vicissitudes of frontier life.
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Casting Redford as Johnson had a counterintuitive quality, particularly considering Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood had been considered for the role before him. Redford’s screen persona was usually considered anything but hard-bitten, with his golden boy looks and urbane, upright, but slightly cagey aura, and the period brogue sounds odd coming out of his mouth at first. But his presence soon proves vital, as he imbues Johnson with an everyman quality. He’s no giant frontier warrior who seems fittingly born to the wilds, but an ordinary guy who slowly but surely grows into the role he’s chosen, and there’s an almost shocking sense of revelation when he finally shaves for Swan and Redford’s handsome mug is revealed again. Wry deflations continue, as Johnson does the unthinkable and shaves off his beard to save Swan from being scratched by it, only to find she doesn’t recognise him, and their domestic bliss is frustrated by annoyances like scarce game and Swan’s unimpressive cooking skills. Nonetheless Johnson finds tranquillity in a life that seems to be the opposite of what he wanted, enacting, after a fashion, a version of the real Johnson’s life that doubles as a parable for the unexpected way life tends to accumulate around us.
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Johnson’s reverie is shattered when a cavalry unit arrives outside his cabin, and for a long moment he stares in bewilderment at the commander, Lt. Mulvey (Jack Colvin), and a reverend, Lindquist (Paul Benedict), before laughing and explaining to them he hasn’t heard so much English spoken to him in a long time. The soldiers have sought him out because he knows the land and can guide them to a party of settlers lost and probably snowbound up in a high mountain pass, and Johnson agrees to help. A unique diptych is offered for Johnson’s perusal: Mulvey, with his dedication to service and sense of necessity (“You say you have to hunt – I have to try.”) represents the best of civilisation and Lindquist, with his casual racism and self-righteous disdain for Johnson’s sensibilities and anything outside the purview of God and empire, embodies the worst. Crisis arrives when Johnson finds the path he’s leading the unit on leads through a Crow burial ground. Johnson becomes afraid of what offending the Crow might entail, Lindquist advocates bullishly moving through, and Lindquist feels bound to do what will fulfil his orders. Johnson reluctantly acquiesces, presaging a strikingly tense and eerie sequence as the horse soldiers proceed in deathly quiet across a somnolent, snowclad land amidst vaulted skeletons grinning at the sky, the feeling of deadly violation and broken covenants all but palpable.
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Johnson succeeds in guiding the soldiers to the lost party, but panics at some subliminal cue as he returns through the burial ground and speeds home. Pollack stages one of his greatest sequences here as he portrays Johnson’s dash along the last few metres to his cabin with a hand-held camera shot, breaking upon a scene of carnage as Swan and Caleb both lie dead and scalped. Johnson remains sitting for a night and a day in silent meditation before his horse wandering around outside rouses him. Johnson tenderly places Swan and Caleb together on a bed and sets the cabin afire, watching it burn down as their pyre before setting out after the Crow war party responsible. When he finds them encamped, Johnson strides into their camp, taking them by surprise through his sheer audacity, and a whirlwind of violence is unleashed as Johnson shoots two and smites others. Johnson only comes out of his berserker state when the last one stands off against him and starts singing his death song, and Johnson lets him flee. Something like justice, blended in with primal revenge, but Johnson soon learns the cost is a vendetta as the Crow send out warriors one by one to take him on, dogging his days and nights.
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Jeremiah Johnson reveals itself as, in part, the tragedy of a man who gains exactly what he wanted at first even as life gave him other possibilities. A late scene sees Johnson reunited with Bear-Claw and the two men struggling to work out what month it is. But it’s also a tale that uses Johnson’s life as a parable for mastery over self, the necessity life sometimes presents of picking up from square one again and making sense of it according to a private compass, and the narrative undercuts the idea anyone can live a life separate from humanity, as Johnson’s initial status as onlooker at the crazy woman’s calamity gives way to his own. The land itself is bounty, arena, church, and trap for all the characters: Johnson’s late encounter with Del Gue sees him deliver an ecstatic, poetic paean to the glory of the Rockies, a land worth all suffering to experience and dwell in, in the film’s most Milius-esque moment. The film’s gyre-like structure sees Johnson encountering his comrades in solitude and returning to the crazy woman’s shack, where he finds a shrine set up to him by the Crow and a new family led by a quaky patriarch named Qualen (Matt Clark), representing the clumsy, clueless, yet unstoppable tide of colonisation: they might be doomed to like their predecessors end up strewn around like gory confetti, but there will be more, and more.
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The slaying of Swan and Caleb was a remarkably dark and risky twist even by the brusque standards of early ‘70s cinema, however demanded by the nominal historical record and leavened by proto-Death Wish (1974) satisfaction in Johnson’s swift retribution, reflecting the way the film sprung from, and spoke to, a specific anxiety of its era about roles of masculinity and fear of social breakdown. But eye-for-an-eye morality quickly descends into a self-perpetuating bloodbath, albeit one that both Johnson and his Crow enemies feel represents a deeper challenge. White man and indigenous man are doomed to ruthlessly battle, but there’s a sense of unity in opposites that points the way to the film’s last frame. It’s not the cheeriest of portraits of the old west, but it’s certainly greatly superior to the laboured, audience-flattering parables of Dances With Wolves (1990) and its ilk in suggesting a tentative understanding between Native American and European emerging from ruthless struggle for domain. The film’s last segment is often criticised, but I feel it’s perhaps the best thing Pollack ever did, as he depicts Johnson’s transformation from man to myth in a dazzling montage, Johnson battling various adversaries. Such contention is glimpsed in a string of Pollack and Callaghan’s most technically masterful shots, as Johnson is glimpsed atop a great boulder, a lens flare grazing across the screen as his opponent is felled and tumbled down a rock, somehow encapsulating all the epic flavour of folklore into one frame.
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The montage ends with Johnson swatted off his horse by an ambusher’s bullet, and another amazing shot results as Johnson plays possum, lying in wait for his enemy with one eye wide and waiting as the warrior pads cautiously up to his fallen form. Johnson refuses to be ousted from his chosen home and the Native Americans pay tribute to Johnson in the form of the shrine, which each warrior going out to meet him adds to, for Johnson learns he’s become a great ennobling enemy to the Crow and a fabled figure to the settlers. Although their duels apparently have little to do on the surface with the war of civilisations unfolding on the American landscape, still they become spiritual avatars for that clash, locked in a perpetual death brawl that ends not in triumph but in exhausted, wary, mutual respect. Johnson sees Paints-His-Shirt-Red salute him from a distance, and Johnson, after a long moment of contemplation, returns the salute with a smile: Pollack freezes the frame and fades out, using only that song lyric as a capstone. It’s one of the most understated movie endings ever, but also an enormously moving one, as it condenses a sense of struggle becoming accord, chaos birthing understanding, hatred yielding to brotherhood, the crude and terrible business of life touched with a breath of the eternal.

5 thoughts on “Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

  1. André Dick

    Great review, Roderick. About observation:

    “It’s not the cheeriest of portraits of the old west, but it’s certainly greatly superior to the laboured, audience-flattering parables of Dances With Wolves (1990) and its ilk in suggesting a tentative understanding between Native American and European emerging from ruthless struggle for domain.”

    I like Jeremiah Johnson, but I think Dance with wolves underrated. Johnson is more discreet in approaching themes, but Costner’s film has an emotional line, in my opinion, more interesting. And the cast (Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene,Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) is wonderful.

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      1. André Dick

        Roderick, thank you. A wonderful review again. First: I did not see the 4 hour version. I read the romance of origin and the film takes a similar path, but it’s certainly very different from the westerns of the 70’s or the daring of Heaven’s Gate, for example. His remarks are exceptional, but I still think it’s a more commercial movie (the Oscar responds) despite the original 3 hours, and less than Goodfellas and The godfather Part III. However, within the more commercial genre, it seems to me to work more than for you.

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  2. Vanwall Green

    Great review! This is one of those special films for supporting players, somewhat like DARK PASSAGE from 1947, where the lead has enough understanding of his abilities to let the other players shine. Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue does an amazing performance , and very much in the times of the period in which it was set, his motor mouth character sly and self-dealing, with a hidden streak of good intentions. He’s like craggy, old Housely Stephenson, the outlaw plastic surgeon in DARK PASSAGE, although Del Gue undergoes his own transformation as he ages a little and his view of the land against himself is changed. You already mentioned Allyn Ann McLerie as the Crazy Woman, a tour de force of a minor role. I wasn’t sure about Will Geer when I saw him at first, but he also was perfect, and Redford had to have let each one of them wring the most out of their roles.

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