The script was by John Milius and Edward Anhalt; the film was shot at various locations in Redford's adopted home state of Utah. It was entered into the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.
Mexican War veteran Jeremiah Johnson takes up the life of a mountain man, supporting himself in the Rocky Mountains as a trapper. His first winter in mountain country is difficult, and he has a run-in with Paints-His-Shirt-Red, a chief of the Crow tribe. Some time later, he finds the frozen body of mountain man Hatchet Jack clutching a .50 caliber Hawken. Jack's will gives his rifle to the man who finds his corpse. With his new rifle, Johnson inadvertently disrupts the grizzly bear hunt of the elderly and eccentric Chris Lapp, nicknamed 'Bear Claw', who mentors him on living in the high country. After a brush with Crow Indians, including Lapp's friend Paints-His-Shirt-Red, and learning the skills required to survive, Johnson sets off on his own.
He comes across a cabin whose inhabitants were apparently attacked by Blackfoot warriors, leaving only a woman and her uncommunicative son alive. The woman, maddened by grief, forces Johnson to adopt her son. He and the boy, whom Johnson dubs "Caleb", come across Del Gue, a mountain man who has been robbed by the Blackfeet, who have buried him to his neck in sand and stuffed feathers up his nose. Gue persuades Johnson to help recover his stolen goods, but Johnson counsels against violence when they find the Blackfoot camp.
The men sneak into the camp at night to retrieve Gue's possessions, but Gue opens fire and the mountain men then kill the Blackfeet. Gue takes several Blackfoot horses and scalps. Johnson, disgusted with the needless killing, returns to Caleb. Soon afterward, they are surprised by Christianized Flathead Indians, who take them in as guests of honor. Johnson unknowingly places the chief in his debt by giving him the stolen horses and scalps of the Blackfoot (their mortal enemies); according to Flathead custom, to maintain his honor the chief must now either kill him, or give him a greater gift. The chief gives his daughter Swan to be Johnson's bride. After the wedding, Gue goes off on his own and Johnson, Caleb and Swan journey into the wilderness. Johnson finds a suitable location to build a cabin. They settle into this new home and slowly become a family.
Johnson is pressed by a troop of U.S. Army Cavalry to lead a search party to save a stranded wagon train of settlers. Ignoring Johnson's advice, they travel through a sacred Crow burial ground. While returning home by the same route, Johnson notices that the graves are now adorned with Swan's blue trinkets; he rushes back to the cabin, where he finds that his family has been killed.
Johnson sets off after the warriors who killed his family and attacks them, killing all but one, a heavyset brave who sings his death song when he realizes he cannot escape. Johnson leaves him alive and the survivor spreads the tale of the mountain man's quest for revenge throughout the region, trapping Johnson in a feud with the Crow. The tribe sends its best warriors to kill Johnson, but he defeats them. His legend grows and the Crow come to respect him. He meets Gue again, and returns to the cabin of Caleb's mother, only to find that she has died and a new settler named Qualen and his family are living there. Nearby the Crow have built a monument to Johnson's bravery, periodically leaving trinkets and talismans as tribute.
Johnson and Lapp meet for a final time, and he later has a wordless encounter with Paints-His-Shirt-Red, presumed to be behind the attacks. While sitting astride their horses far apart, Johnson reaches for his rifle, but Paints-His-Shirt-Red raises his arm, open-palmed, in a gesture of peace that Johnson slowly returns.Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson
Will Geer as Bear Claw Chris Lapp
Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue
Delle Bolton as Swan
Josh Albee as Caleb
Joaquín Martínez as Paints His Shirt Red
Allyn Ann McLerie as the Crazy Woman
Paul Benedict as Reverend Lindquist
Jack Colvin as Lieutenant Mulvey
Matt Clark as Qualen
Richard Angarola as Chief Two-Tongues Lebreaux
Charles Tyner as Robidoux
In April 1968, producer Sidney Beckerman acquired the film rights to the biographical book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp Jr. and Robert Bunker. By May 1970, the rights were acquired by Warner Bros., who assigned John Milius to write a screen adaptation. Based roughly on Crow Killer as well as Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West by Vardis Fisher, Milius first scripted what would become known as Jeremiah Johnson for $5,000; however, he was then hired to rewrite it several times and finally earned $80,000. According to Milius, Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel were brought in to work on the screenplay only for Milius to be continually rehired because no one else could do the dialogue. Milius says he got the idiom and American spirit from Carl Sandburg and was also influenced by Charles Portis's novel True Grit.
The role of Jeremiah Johnson was originally intended for Lee Marvin and then Clint Eastwood, with Sam Peckinpah to direct. However, Peckinpah and Eastwood did not get along, so Peckinpah left and Eastwood decided to make Dirty Harry instead. Warner Bros. then stepped in and set up Milius' screenplay for Robert Redford. Without a director, Redford talked Sydney Pollack into it; the two were looking for another film to collaborate on after This Property Is Condemned (1966).
Casting for the role of Swan, Jeremiah's wife, took three months. After auditioning for another role, actress Delle Bolton was spotted by the casting director. Bolton then interviewed alongside 200 Native American women and eventually won the role.
After Warner Bros. advanced Redford $200,000 to secure him for the film, they decided that it had to be shot on its backlot due to cost constraints. Insisting that it must be shot on location in Utah, Redford and Pollack convinced the studio that this could be done at the same cost. To prepare for production, art director Ted Haworth drove over 26,000 miles to find locations. Ultimately, it was shot in nearly 100 locations across Utah, including: Mount Timpanogos, Ashley National Forest, Leeds, Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Sundance Resort, Uinta National Forest, Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and Zion National Park.
Principal photography began in January 1971, but unexpected weather threatened production. Even after Pollack mortgaged his home to supplement the limited budget, production remained constrained. "The snows of St. George in southern Utah were terrible," said Pollack, "and we were using Cinemobiles as the lifelines. There was no way I was going to let it overrun, and Bob was a superb partner in keeping us tight. In the end it was the greatest way to learn production, because I was playing with my own money." Struggling with weather and the budget, rarely were the crew able to shoot any second takes.
The film took seven and a half months to edit. "It's a picture that was made as much in the editing room as it was in the shooting," said Pollack. "It was a film where you used to watch dailies and everybody would fall asleep, except Bob 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 score was composed by Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein; known primarily as actors, they were also musicians. This was their film composing debut, arising after Rubinstein met Sydney Pollack through his agent. As Pollack recalls in the DVD commentary, McIntire and Rubinstein were "kids that just auditioned with a tape."
The soundtrack LP was not released until 1976 by Warner Bros. Records. On October 5, 2009, a restored and extended version of the LP was released by Film Score Monthly.
Jeremiah Johnson had its worldwide premiere on May 7 at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, where it was screened in competition. It was the first western film to ever be accepted in the festival. The film then held its American premiere on December 2 in Boise, Idaho, with its theatrical release in the United States beginning on December 21, 1972 in New York City. The film was a box office success, becoming the sixth highest grossing film of 1972 after grossing a domestic total of $44,693,786. The following year, the film went on to earn $8,350,000 in US & Canadian rentals.
The film was first released onto DVD by Warner Home Video on October 28, 1997. It was later released onto Blu-ray on May 1, 2012.
In addition to being a commercial success, the film also received positive reviews. Aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 93% of critics gave it a positive review, based on 14 reviews with a "Certified Fresh" rating, with an average score of 7.1/10.