Sydney Pollack: Mountains and the Man

Jeremiah Johnson pretends to be the saga of a tall, tough mountain man who takes tetuge items civilization in the Utah wilderness Sydney Pollack, hailed for They Should Houses Don't They". directed: he cast his old friend. Robert Redford, in the title tole Redford comes to the mountains a young creenborn, enters the tutelage of an old grizzly hunter named Bear Claw, and gets roped into wilderness domesticity when an Indian code of honor forces a wife upon him. Civilization does catch up: a cavalry detachment enlists him to help rescue a party of settlers trapped high in the mountain. The only pass, of course, leads through a sacred Crow burial ground; Redford's favor to society managers to get his family destroyed at the hands of vengeful Indians.

Which manges to convert Jeremiah Johnson to pure legend. He takes his own revenge on the Crows, and seldom since Custer died for our sins have so many Indians died such gruesomely efficient deaths as they do now Johnson becomes "big medicine" for the Indians. As a settler remarks: "Some say he's dead; some say he never will be."

The film is a glossy cinematic post card, full of the breath-taking scenery of the Rockies, and Robert Redford riding silently among the mighty mountains. There's even a message on the back.

Build me a cabin in Utah,

Marry me a wife; catch rainbow trout,

Have a bunch of kids who call me pa.

That mind be what it's all about.

Bob Dylan, New Morning

Jeremiah Johnson does everything Dylan wanted to. And the film effectively manufactures and distributes a reigning Western myth.

Pollack admitted as much in an interviews shortly before the film's Boston premiere. His hero, he told me then, is "a man who turns his back on civilization because he wants to find a place where it's totally unnecessary for him to conform to a code of ethics not his own."

In the end, of course, the film gives us a kind of half-heated moral; Johnson "finds that there is no such place, that you have to go so high that nothing is left alive." Flight into myth remains ambiguous, inexcusable but still eminently attractive.

Says Pollack, "I'm as much a victim of the romantic myth of 'getting away' as anyone else. My head tells me it's myth but I don't want to believe it is..." Like Redford, who built his own resort and personal retreat in the same Wasatch range where Jeremiah Johnson was filmed. Pollack has a vacation "cabin" with running water, heat, and a dishwater.

Pollack feels his film crew struggled with the wilderness much as Jeremiah Johnson did. Jeremiah Johnson's flight from civilization emerges in Pollack's telling, from a battle between cinematic technology and the Utah high country. "Meanings," he says, ought to emerge from the "mood and feel" of a film. The primary fascination which directing holds for him is with "the technical aspects of shooting, what certain lenses can do, how each shot is set up."

Pollacks recalls the difficulties his crew in deep snow there are no seconds takes" for a director to cover himself with. "Up in the mountain, in the scenes with new snow, you couldn't have the actor's tracks in the shot. You'd have to take a snowmobile, move the actor into thicket by some back way, and call him on a two-way radio to come out." He recalls other difficulties: the scene of Redford riding through the Crow burial ground was shot in a driving snowstorm with barely enough light for the cameras; for a shot of Redford chipping a stone tool by the side of a lake at down, the crew had to set up at three in the morning and do the shooting in tea minutes.

This sort of technical challenge was evident in Pollack's earlier films, particularly They Shoot Horses, Don't They", but it was the strength of the screenplay and acting that made that film seem so much more significant. Pollack was faced in Horses with the restricted arena of a marathon dance floor and its dressing rooms, the problem of following moving dancers, and pacing tedium and crisis in the course of the marathon. Only top lighting could be used because the cameras needed to pan all 360 degrees of perimeter, and it was emential to give a sense of the central couple's positions on the floor. Pollack won an Academy Award nomination, not just for his technical solution, which helped to turn the contest into a convincing metaphor for the world which has tricked and beaten the heroine--but for helping bring out Jane Fenda's bitter performance and turning Gig Young into a genial but finally heartless M.C.

If in recent years the Western genre has been driven close to its limits, in the long run it has proved a reliable vehicle for action directors' imagination. Pollack's Sealphumnters, with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis, marked an innovation in the genre. As Pollack says, "It was a black and white film before black and white films were popular, a kind of funky morality play, a bit larger than life and full of a strange kind of banter." Like Jeremiah Johnson, however it did retain elements of the traditional Western.

Pollack sees new Western, like The Wild Bunch or McCabe and Mrs. Miller as attempts to diversify Western audiences: "There are very few Westerns that have ever made really giant money," so film-makers try to pad out the normal Western audience with added appeals.

All of Pollack's films have been (in his words) "period pieces," including the film which he has just finished shooting, The Way We Were. Starring Redford once again, with Barbara Streisand, it is "a political love story, about two very intelligent people who don't end up together because of ideological differences." The film focuses on three different periods in the recent past; the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the '44 election and for the first time in any film, the period of the Hollywood Black Lists.

Pollack feels this kind of chronological and topical distance has given him additional freedom to work. "It's a little bit like finding a guy who doesn't say a word at party, who's just too painfully shy, then once when you get him on stage where he's got a character to hide behind all sorts of things start to happen..." The Way We Were may bear this out; in any case, it will be a significant film only it Pollack returns to the film-making which characterized They Shoot Horses, a kind of filmmaking whose depth and control is simply not required to make something like Jeremiah Johnson.