A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, dedicated to the memory of his father, with my thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It is 1972, and you have a Western with Robert Redford in it. With that in mind, what's most surprising about Jeremiah Johnson is what it somehow manages not to be: a revisionist challenge to the genre. Hell, by '72, even conservative Westerns were mostly revisionist, and one starring a man notable for his liberal politics would seem to be a surefire candidate for a downbeat commentary on American culture and values set in a pointedly metaphorical frontier wilderness. The pointedly metaphorical wilderness part, now that Jeremiah Johnson has down pat, but everything else about the movie is astonishingly old-fashioned. It is a real damn stately thing, conceived in obvious tribute to the undying Myth of the West, and playing surprisingly straight with the idea that for a man to truly find himself, he must journey to the edge of civilisation and lose himself in the isolation of nature. Perhaps this would be better if it had a more satiric, questioning edge; maybe that would just make it seem fashionably cynical. I would hardly call Jeremiah Johnson a bad movie, though it's one whose ambition frequently outpaces its execution. It's very weird, though, given its historic context.

The film was originally a fact-derived blood-and-guts epic fashioned by credited co-writer John Milius according to his own private fascinations with violent masculinity, until Sydney Pollack got involved and had his people de-Milius it. The result is mostly a meditative treatment of physical landscapes as an extension of quietly tormented internal psychology: sometime near the end of the Mexican-American War, one Jeremiah Johnson (Redford) decided to abandon the corrupting influence of civilisation to journey to the Rocky Mountains, to pursue the life of a grizzled old trapper. This is where we meet him - that is to say, where we meet him in the flesh, after a rather questionable bit of opening narration that suggests what might have happened if Yosemite Sam had gone into poetry rather than varmint-hunting, as well as a drop-dead hokey '70s folk-type song telling us all about how Jeremiah Johnson jes' wanted to forget his troubles - having a really hard time making it through his first winter. After a distant encounter with a Crow warrior who will weave his way in and out of the movie, who we'll get to know as Paints His Shirt Red (JoaquΓ­n MartΓ­nez), Johnson finds two other white hunters. One of them is dead, and serves mainly to show us in the audience just how merciless the Rockies could be, as well as to provide Johnson with a better gun. The other, Chris "Bear Claw" Lapp (Will Geer) is of rather more active help, giving Johnson a crash course in mountain man life. And from here...

Jeremiah Johnson is only in the most literal sense a continuous narrative. Watching it, one has the sense of discrete events unfolding over the course of what could be months or years in Johnson's life; very much part of the point of the thing, I suspect, is that time somewhat ceases to have much actual meaning as Johnson mostly succeeds in dropping out of the ungainly flow of urban American life, and instead finds himself living by the rhythm of the mountains. As I take it, we're meant to understand that life removed from the artificial structures of the civilised world loses that world's obsession with causality and conflict, and so narrative itself starts to loosen up and go slack; Jeremiah Johnson can't have a clear series of events that bleed into each other, because Jeremiah Johnson's experience of life no longer functioned that way. Instead, there are certain key moments interspersed with wandering states of being. It's such an extraordinary way of assembling a film plot that it's not really to anybody's discredit that it doesn't always quite work: in practice, the anti-continuity I've just described looks very much like a whole lot of exceptionally well-done sequences studded into a whole that's a bit less than the sum of its parts.

Even so, those parts can be very good (they can also be not so good: the hoedown-tinged score has a tendency to unnecessarily trivialise many moments). The early sequence in which Johnson discovers his dead, frozen colleague is absolutely terrific, for example, and it comes early enough that it casts a glow over much of what follows. Howard Hawks once famously claimed that to be perceived as good, a movie needs three great scenes and no bad ones; my own formula is that a movie needs a great opening scene and a great closing shot, and Jeremiah Johnson nails both of those. The whole introductory act is great, really, with Duke Callaghan's cinematography capturing the endless snow of the Rocky Mountain winter as a living entity, not a field of dead white but a landscape of shifting reflections and textures and shapes that seems much more active and conscious than the people milling about on it. That remarkable sense of presence, coupled with Redford's exceedingly fine work playing a mostly unspeaking man with a giant beard and a sad, desperate look behind his eyes, goes a hell of a long way to making Jeremiah Johnson interesting right away, and while I don't know that the film gets back to that level, the best parts linger.

What "happens" is that Johnson acquires both an adopted white son (Josh Albee) and a Flathead Indian wife (Delle Bolton), and manages to make an enemy of the Crow after defiling their sacred grounds when pressed into duty as a U.S. Cavalry scout. This gives the film's second hour somewhat more shape than its first, and places it vaguely but not quite in the tradition of "whites versus injuns" Westerns since time immemorial, replacing the triumphant tenor of those movies with a more ambivalent, weary one, which pays off nicely in the final scene. It's still awfully plotless and episodic, mind you, and there's very little sense that things are building in any direction. Which I think I admire, though there's little doubt that the early part of the film is generally more interesting and effective than the latter.

There's something generally stitched-together about the whole of Jeremiah Johnson. A sense of effortfulness, maybe. Pollack was a more than fine director and he'd already made a semi-mythic tale of America in his immediately preceding film, the marvelous and perpetually under-appreciated They Shoot Horses, Don't They? But something in this film remains just beyond his grip; I think working in such an abstract idiom as The Man in The West hobbled his strength for concrete, small-scale human drama (the mode of all his best subsequent films, and even several of his weaker efforts). The film strives to be grandly epic, often in some loopy ways: at all of 116 minutes in length, the film includes an overture and exit music as well as a intermission, all of them wild anachronisms in '72 and never exactly typical of Westerns; it's hard to imagine what drove Pollack to include such touches other than an active desire to make his film feel larger than life and special, somehow. It sometimes gets there: in the first thirty minutes, it gets there quite easily, and it often returns. Sometimes, it feels like the human drama Pollack wants to make and the broad-strokes adventure he also wants to make are simply too much at cross purposes for either to emerge.

For all its limitations, though, Jeremiah Johnson is very much a striking movie. It feels like "Westerns" as a category without particularly resembling any one Western I can name, and while it doesn't always perfectly capture the mythic sensibility of that genre, the attempt is bold and impressive. I doubt that anyone unsympathetic to its basic aims would find much outside of maybe Redford's uncharacteristically visual performance to cling to, but as a Western fan of long standing, I found this one, shortcomings and all, to be a fascinating attempt to capture the soul of the form and splash it out for all the world to see.