This beautifully filmed movie is set in the 1840's Rocky Mountain territory. The movie is based on legendary mountain man, John "Liver-Eating" Johnson (c.1824-1900), who was also known as "Crow Killer" Johnson.
Jeremiah wanted to get away from civilization and make his living in the woods, hunting and trapping. In his first winter he struggled, and a Crow Chief, Paints-His-Shirt-Red, sees him trying to catch fish with his hands, but decides to leave him alone.
Jeremiah gets a powerful .50 caliber Hawken rifle from the frozen hands of a dead mountain man, and gets tutored by another mountain man, "Bear Claw" Lapp who calls him Pilgrim. Things are starting to look up.
When Johnson comes across a cabin that has been attacked by Indians, he take on a boy survivor, when he sees his grief stricken mother can't care for him. Johnson and Caleb come across a mountain man, Del Gue, buried up to his neck by the Blackfeet. When they find the Blackfeet camp, Gue opens fire and kills some Blackfeet. Some Flatheads take Johnson and Caleb in as their guest because of their success they had against their enemies, the Blackfeet. When Johnson gives the chief the horse he got from the Blackfeet, the chief must give him a gift and he gives him his daughter, Swan.
Johnson, Swan and Caleb grow into a happy family. There are some wonderful domestic scenes that show the family begin to bond. Hunting, trapping, wolves, bear and lacrosse. There are some wonderful scenes in the Colorado Rockies.
But then the US Calvary intervenes and ask Johnson to help the them on a rescue mission. The Calvary insists on traveling through a Crow burial ground, which Johnson warns them not to do. But the Calvary being the Calvary goes ahead despite Johnson's council. The Crows in retaliation for the desecration, attack Johnson's cabin and kill Swan and Caleb.
The Calvary incident is probably symbolic of the US Government and Native American historical relationship. Johnson, Swan and the local tribes were all getting along fine, until the Calvary rides in and tramples over local traditions, destroying relationships and making any chance for a peaceful integration of the white man impossible.
Johnson goes off after the warriors who massacred his family and kills them all except one, a warrior who began singing his death song. Johnson lets him live and his legend among the Crows begins. The Crows very nobly, send one warrior at a time to fight Johnson. Johnson keeps winning each duel and his legend grows.
In the final scene Paints-His-Shirt-Red, Johnson's enemy raises his arm, open-palmed, in a gesture of peace that Johnson returns, and the film ends.
The movie can be viewed as one of those movies where the white man drops down into a totally foreign culture and becomes a super native (for example : Tarzan, The Phantom, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves ), and there would be some truth to that. But like Dances with Wolves, this movie has some redeeming qualities. It showed that the tribes were all different and that it is foolish to try to stereotype them as one group. The Flatheads were peaceful and the Crows were noble and honorable. The movie showed a respect for the different native cultures it portrayed, and it also showed how beautiful the land was when it was in the hands of those cultures.
An excellent movie by the great Sydney Pollack.