Jeremiah Johnson and Billy the Kid: Stranger than Fiction?
I doubt many care – or even that it’s all that important – but Robert Redford doesn’t look much like the real Jeremiah Johnson.
However … in most Westerns, it don’t really seem to matter whether the actor looks like the actual person – or not. There’s plenty of examples: Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Kristofferson was too good looking for ‘the Kid’ – and was also in his 30’s. While the ‘Kid’ was … well … an ugly cuss (if I can tell by the famous photo) and was about 20 years old … almost ‘a kid’. But, James Coburn didn’t look a whole lot like Pat Garrett … I better stop here. Great movie though.
So if likeness’ is a casting necessity … ?
Hell, maybe it’s just too darn hard to find anybody that ugly who can act.
A young Henry Silva actually looks a lot like ‘the Kid”.
In most other movie biographies though, likeness is important. For instance, If you’re playing Winston Churchill … Redford wouldn’t get the job … and also (hopefully) the chance to murder an English accent.
And I do admit that Redford’s ‘matinée idol’ looks did initially grate on me a bit when I first watched Jeremiah Johnson. I figured they should have cast somebody a bit more (or a lot more?) rugged looking than Redford. Someone like Tom Selleck maybe, or Lee Marvin. Bronson? (Trivia says that this movie was initially to star Clint Eastwood as Johnson – and be directed by Sam Peckinpah … WOW! … that would have been a different movie … punk) We didn’t get lucky.
Director Sydney Pollock, however, had a very simple philosophy about making a movie: Employ Stars. Star Power guarantees success. And Pollock surely knew Redford’s Star Power – Directing him in seven movies.
And all in all … Redford did a great job: one of My Favorite Westerns.
The other beef I had with the movie was that the actual (supposed) true story about Jeremiah Johnson seemed more interesting than the movie version.
I suspect, however, that some of these ‘facts’ about Johnson pushed a few credibility buttons … and was hardly the stuff of ‘Heros’. “Liver Eating Johnson”?! Some believe Johnson actually did this. It’s said that the Crow believed that unless a body was intact that the spirit could not pass over. So Johnson removed the liver and … yet it’s also said that Johnson confessed once that this story was a story he propagated (to scare or anger the Crow?) But if you were a cannibal, would you admit it?
Possible. Probable? Believable?
I figure some of these ‘details’ were kept out of the movie because not only do they seem implausible, but they made the character – our Hero – a lot less of a Goodguy.
As the Crow flies …
Then there’s the story that Johnson killed over 300 Crow braves. 300?!! That’s a hell of a lot of empty Teepees. Let’s see … if the Crow sent only one brave at a time (as the movie suggests)… and Johnson killed one brave a month … it would take 25 years to kill 300 Crow. That’s almost as hard to swallow as liver. 30 would be impressive enough … and believable. But 300 … ??? You have to question it.
But who’s counting?
Johnson? The Crow? (I might believe their count). But Johnson’s …
Yet … maybe it’s true.
Billy the Kid’s myth labours under similar suspicious history. Some claim ‘The Kid” really only killed about 4 people … though folklore and myth claim about 20 … or more.
So … the truth is … we really don’t know the truth.
Yet again … sometimes the truth IS indeed ‘stranger than fiction’.