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“Some say he’s dead…some say he never will be”

Welcome to Come Monday where on my blog where we celebrate the joys of reading.  Today marks the third week of Book vs. Movie.  Today my choice is a little more obscure and off the beaten path.  Far off the beaten path, and high up into the mountains.  A trip back in time to the days of fur trappers, mountain men and the old west.

In the first two weeks of this series, we discussed books and movies by the same name, which were extremely successful and popular during the time of release.  To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are works that transformed from book to movie with overwhelming success.  I hope everyone enjoyed last week’s guest blogger Samantha Warren.

Today’s pick was a popular movie in its time, but the book went relatively unknown.

From the moment I saw Jeremiah Johnson in the movie theater as a young boy I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – a mountain man!  The great outdoors, the mountains, hunting, fur trapping, log cabins and danger behind every mountain pass.  Bear claw necklaces, winter coats made of different animal hides, leather fringed pants and knee-high moccasins.  What was there for a young lad not to like?   If there were a heaven to be found it was somewhere high up in the Rocky Mountains.

The Book

The book Crow Killer The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker was first published by the Indiana University Press in 1958.  The story is a biography of a relatively unknown Rocky Mountain trapper and Indian fighter in the mid-nineteenth century told and retold by word-of-mouth sources.  It’s part folklore, part mythology.

The story of John Johnson, the eater of Crow Indian livers, begins with the scalping of his Flathead wife by Crow Indians in 1847.  The story follows his revenge and the Crows attempted retaliation in the ensuing decades.  It is the personal history of Liver-Eating Johnson from 1847 until his death in 1900 told to the author from oral legend.  The oral accounts came from “Del” Gue who trapped with Johnson and another mountain man White-Eye Anderson.  I imagine Gue and Anderson had a ‘good time’ with the author, telling tall tales and pulling the writers leg where ever possible.  They claimed Johnson killed close to 300 Crows and ate their livers.  I have no doubt the feud between Johnson and the Crows is historically accurate.  Killing 300 Crows and eating every liver?  Sounds like a tall tale from the old west.  At least, I hope so.

Many years after seeing the movie, and realizing I would never become a mountain man, I read the book.  I enjoyed revisiting the accounts from my childhood hero, fictional or not, did not matter too much to me.  The book is an engaging look back into our history, of the westward movement through the frontier, and of a rugged, individual who took survival of the fittest to the extreme.

The Movie

The movie starring Robert Redford as “Jeremiah” Johnson was released in May, 1972.  The movie was filmed in Utah and directed by Sydney Pollack, who also directed famed movies such as The Way We Were, Absence of Malice, Tootsie and The Firm.

The most immediate and notable difference with the book is the renaming of John “Liver-Eating” Johnson to simply Jeremiah Johnson.  In the movie version Redford is never referred to as John or  Liver-Eating Johnson.  Many of Johnson’s exploits in the movie follow the book closely, whereas many other scenes are sensationalized by Hollywood.  Hard to argue against following a book, based on oral histories.

As “Del” Gue is credited by the author for his part in the oral telling of the story, actor Stefan Gierasch does an excellent and colorful job of playing Gue in the movie.  Will Geer portrays “Bear Claw” an experienced mountain man and ‘grizz’ hunter who occasionally shows up and shares a campfire and his wisdom with Jeremiah.

Pollack does a terrific job of capturing the beauty and ruggedness of the mountains in Utah.  The casting of Redford as Johnson was a wise choice (it was rumored that Clint Eastwood was originally offered the part).  Redford has always listed this movie as one of his favorites and most influential to him.  Parts of the movie were filmed near his ranch in Utah.

Summary

The movie remains an all-time favorite for me.  Whenever the weather takes a turn for the worse, on those cold and snowy days, I find myself popping the dvd in and reliving my dreams to become a mountain man.  For those interested in the history of the frontier, and of more infamous mountain men like Jim Bridger, this is a powerful retelling of that time in our history when the west had yet to be  civilized.

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