Jeremiah Johnson (1972) does not take place in the southwest. But it is a western all the same. It deals with the life of mountain men, shot in Utah's Uinta, Wasatch, Ashley, and Zion National Forests. Those who yearn for days of yore and its crystalline simplicity might want to reconsider. Jeremiah (Robert Redford) has to do everything himself, and the tools of his trade are few and inconsiderable. He has a horse, a Hawken rifle, knives, and enough layers to survive the cold and snow. His aim at the beginning is to acquire hides that will fetch a price, but he soon becomes embroiled in the nasty politics of an embattled frontier. Crow, Flatheads, and other tribes track the trackers. It is not always readily apparent who is friendly or unfriendly. Sometimes the answer comes too late.
Merely by situating himself in the high altitude and its pristine, lonely landscape, he meets a friend and colleague buried to his neck, his wife -- a Flathead -- and a boy or son, orphaned by a massacre. Obviously, this is not the way it is supposed to be. But within the context at hand, it all makes perfect sense. Hardship dictates what shape and form one's fate shall take. On occasion, days are good, fraught only with the tender cares of providing for a meal and shelter. On other occasions, things go awry, such as when Jeremiah stalks and shoots a buffalo. There also seems to be an understanding among those who steadfastly abide in the mountains that their majestic heights and fast moving downhill streams somehow make the strenuous effort to remain worthwhile.
It is impossible for the average, genteel cosmopolitan, suburbanite, or movie buff to tell the difference between what is authentic and what is not. But a great deal of effort has gone into the recreation of the 19th century, its open space life styles, and rabid ethnic conflicts. It turns out that the character Jeremiah is based on was a real-life mountain man, whose story is told by authors Raymond W. Thorp and Vardis Fisher, among others. There is quite an impressive array of non-fiction and fiction books on the subject of mountain men, as well as a related movie, Mountain Men (1980). The reliability of Wikipedia is an ongoing topic, but it, too, contains a lot of relevant information to read up on.
Eventually, Jeremiah becomes famous in the backwoods of America. As to what this means since the society in which he dwells is rather unpopulated is a subject more to contemplate than answer outright. Jeremiah Johnson is also sparsely populated with a bare minimum, but very talented cast. One comes away with a sense and appreciation of how life in the upper reaches of the Northwest might have been for those tough enough to endure it. This is a well-made film from many standpoints and worth delving into for those so inclined. It is also of interest merely to think that this is part of what was going on while in the southwest, young America was still only just beginning to assert itself.