Robert Redford As Jeremiah Johnson: Why Is This Man Smiling All Over The Internet?
If you’ve been on the internet for the last decade or so then you’ve seen Robert Redford’s bearded grinning face posted far and wide, reacting to any number of posts. The “nod of approval” from Jeremiah Johnson has taken on a life of its own, and many of the millennials, zilllenials, and zoomers who use it don’t even realize that this is from one of the all time great hang out movies. Released in 1972, Jeremiah Johnson tells the story of a man who learns to be one with nature, eschewing his former way of life to live peacefully among the indigenous people of the Rocky Mountains. The meme has taken on a life of its own, but it’s nothing without the film that birthed it.
The real Jeremiah Johnson was intense
This story of a man giving up the modern world to become a mountain man was written by John Milius, but it’s the real life story of a trapper named John Jeremiah Johnston, or John “Liver-Eating” Johnson to his enemies. Johnson grew up in New Jersey, but following the Mexican–American War he married a member of the Flathead American Indian tribe. When she was killed by a Crow brave and his fellow hunters Johnson went on a revenge spree, eating the livers of Crow Natives that he killed. According to legend, the Crow believed that their liver played a key role in moving on to the afterlife, Johnson knew this and removed the organ to defile the bodies of his enemies.
Robert Redford was the star and the location scout
When Warner Bros. gave the go ahead to Jeremiah Johnson they thought that Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack would be shooting on a set in sunny Los Angeles. Not so, said Redford. He argued that the film needed to be shot on location in Utah, but Warner Bros. put their foot down against spending unnecessary funds on filming in the freezing cold. Pollack put up his own money to split the difference with the studio to give the film its realistic look.
Redford knew exactly where he wanted to film - his property in Utah. At the time Redford owned about 600 acres in the state, which allowed the crew to do whatever they wanted while working on the film. The locations led to “movie magic” in some instances where a few scenes that take place next to one another where actually filmed hundreds of miles apart.
Redford performed most of his own stunts
When we hear about actors performing their own stunts today it’s impressive, but they’re also surrounded by millions of dollars worth of technology, their own doctors, and there’s all sorts of digital chicanery that goes on. That wasn’t the case when Redford decided that he was going to do his own stunts on the set of Jeremiah Johnson.
In order to get permission to put himself in harm’s way and not get the unions on his back, Redford paid the stunt guild to make sure that everyone kept their jobs and that he wasn’t turned into a pariah. Redford later explained:
I like the tough stuff. Half the fun of making movies is doing the action scenes. Anyone can say words. Don't get me wrong. The stunt guys are really necessary and I never do the stunts where a pro can pull it off safer and better. But I do like to do the action where the camera is too close to tell a lie and the movie's insurance men are back at the office making out policies.
People were freezing on set
During principal photography the temperature dropped as low as -25° Fahrenheit on set, which is exactly why Warner Bros. wanted to film on their lot. There would be no loss of time because of frozen cameras, actors, or crew members. Redford told the Atlanta Constitution that he expected the freezing temperatures, but that the crew and director Sydney Pollack had no idea what they were in for:
We had seven cases of frostbite, four cases of strep throat, two cases of pneumonia - and only three cases of Napoleon brandy! One week the thermometer didn't get up to zero once. Even the horses balked at coming out of their stalls. [Sydney Pollack] wondered where it was all going to end. I had a good idea, because I live there all year-round and know how tough a Utah winter can be. The weather couldn't have been rougher for the crew, but terrific for the finished film.
The film took seven and a half months to edit
Jeremiah Johnson is one of those movies that plays on a Sunday afternoon and if you’re even a little sleepy it’ll put you out. It’s not that the movie’s boring, it’s that it’s contemplative and takes its time. As powerful as its narcoleptic powers are today, when the film was being edited it was even more so. Director Sydney Pollack chalks the lengthy editing process up to the fact that people kept falling asleep while watching the dailies. He said:
It's a picture that was made as much in the editing room as it was in the shooting. It was a film where you used to watch dailies and everybody would fall asleep, except Robert Redford and I, because all you had were these big shots of a guy walking his horse through the snow. You didn't see strong narrative line. It's a picture made out of rhythms and moods and wonderful performances.
The fate of Johnson is intentionally ambiguous
In the final moments of the film, Jeremiah Johnson comes face to face with Paints-His-Shirt-Red, a Crow Native whom Johnson has been warring with throughout the film. The two men show each other a sign of respect before Johnson rides into the snow alone. It’s unclear if he survives yet another harsh winter or if he freezes to death. Robert Redford states that this ambiguous ending is exactly what he wanted, because at the time that’s what they thought happened to the real Johnson. In reality, Johnson passed away in 1899 at the Old Soldiers Home in Sawtelle - now West Los Angeles. He died penniless and alone, but Redford’s story of quiet heroism turned him into a household name.
The meme brought about some startling revelations
Meme history is pretty spotty, but the best we can tell is that the reaction gif of Johnson first came into being in 2012, when the gif was posted on Funnyjunk, although it could have been floating around earlier. From then on people have repurposed the image (it’s not out of the ordinary to see Redford holding a lightsaber) and used it as reactions when someone online does them a solid.
However, in 2019 it came to light that many people online assumed that the man in the gif was Zach Galifianakis, not Robert Redford. The realization spawned its own set of memes (because of course it did) and insured that the original gif will continue to live on through the internet.