In this classic movie, Robert Redford plays an ex-soldier turned mountain man. He gets stuck with a boy whose family has been killed by Indians and receives an Indian wife as a gift. It takes him awhile, but he becomes connected to this conglomeration of a family, and when they are killed in an Indian attack he takes vengeance on the party that did it. As a result, the Indians keep sending assassins after him, all of whom he manages to kill. In the end, the narrator leaves us with an image of mountain man Johnson, wondering if he's still roaming the mountains somewhere.
First of all, who doesn't want to watch Robert Redford in the prime of youth? Add to that the sweeping panoramas of the Wasatach Mountains in Utah and the beautiful red rock canyons and you have a feast for the eyes, with or without a story.
Which raises the question, is there a story? We watch J.J. go from basically greenhorn, nearly starving in the beginning, to seasoned mountain man, able to meet whatever comes along head on. We never get too much of an inside track on how he or anyone else really feels about anything. Is that the intention? Are we to believe that the mountain man is a recluse who doesn't really care much for people and can take them (in small doses) or do without companionship entirely?
J.J. gets a rifle that he wanted off the dead body of an old mountain man who got his legs broken by a bear and froze to death after shooting the bear. In the note that the old guy writes, he expresses no regret at his death; his biggest concern seems to be that a white man and not an Indian gets his rifle. That sounds like detachment to me.
Another mountain man that J.J. meets, a grizzly hunter who has run out of grizzlies, doesn't even want to bother with a "night woman", he basically shies away from people altogether.
So is the message of the movie that mountain men were the social misfits of the time?
Or is it a roundabout way of telling us how beautiful the wilderness is and how the native inhabitants, human and animal were killed off and opressed by encroaching civilization?
It could be interpreted as a noble savage story, with J.J. making a journey from civilized soldier to savage.
Or, since it is supposed to be based on the life of a real man, it could be just telling a story.
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