The story how Jeremiah Johnson went from page to screen.
(Photo by Alamy Photos)

Sometimes—but not very often—the words of one author can become a movie. That happens in the event of an original screenplay. When a novel or play comes along that the right people think will make a great movie, they purchase the rights and hire a screenwriter. Then along comes a story like Jeremiah Johnson, where rights were purchased and two writers eventually worked on a screenplay (with Producer Sydney Pollock no doubt peering over their shoulders). 

Jeremiah Johnson Movie Background

The final shooting script of “Jeremiah Johnson” was written by and credited to John Milius and Edward Anhalt. The script was adapted from the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher and the book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker. 

Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man, still available from Amazon, is one of the best all-time works of fiction on mountain men. Packed with details on how mountain men trapped, hunted and survived in in the high country. The mountain man created by Fisher befriends the widow of a settler massacred by Indians, along with her children. She becomes known in the novel as “the Crazy Woman,” a character that made it into the Johnson script and movie. 

Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, is a non-fiction account of the actual mountain man whose adventures led to the creation of Jeremiah Johnson. The real Johnson was a far cry from the Redford version. Standing 6’2″ in his stocking feet and weighing nearly 250 pounds, he was a mountain man among mountain men, one of the toughest customers on the western frontier.

As the story goes, one morning in 1847 Johnson returned to his Rocky Mountain trapper’s cabin to find the remains of his murdered Indian wife and her unborn child. He vowed vengeance against an entire Indian tribe. Crow Killer tells of that one-man, decades-long war to avenge his beloved. Whether seen as a realistic glimpse of a long ago, fierce frontier world, or as a mythic retelling of the many tales spun around and by Johnson, Crow Killer is unforgettable. This new edition, redesigned for the first time, features an introduction by western frontier expert Nathan E. Bender and a glossary of Indian tribes. 

All-Star Production Cast

Edward Anhalt, a veteran screenwriter whose credits included The Right Stuff, The Young Lions, and The Member of the Wedding, worked on the Johnson script enough to earn a credit. He was known as a solid, no-nonsense professional. 

A lot of dialogue and most of the work resulting in a shooting script for Jeremiah Johnson came from a free-wheeling, colorful Hollywood “maverick,” John Milius. Born in 1944, he was writing action-packed screenplays as a young man, while spending as much time as he could surfing. “My religion is surfing,” he said in 1976. 

Milius attempted to join the Marine Corps and volunteer for Vietnam. He was turned down due to asthma. “I’d have given anything to be a Marine. I was devastated.” Milius continued: “I felt like I’d been rejected as a human being. I missed going to my war. It probably caused me to be obsessed with war ever since.”

In addition to Jeremiah Johnson, Milius’ screenplay credits included Apocalypse Now, Judge Roy Bean, the Wind and the Lion, among others. He also was a producer, and wrote and played production roles in his tribute to surfing, Big Wednesday. 

Milius Takes on Liver-Eating Johnson

When Milius took on writing a screenplay about the Liver-Eating Johnson character, he said that was “the real breaking point,” where he knew, almost overnight, “that I had become a writer with a voice.” 

“I knew that material. I’d lived in the mountains. I had a trapline, I hunted, and I had a lot of experiences with characters up there. I realized this was the voice the script had to have. It was as clear as a bell.” 

Milius sold the script to Warner Bros in 1970 for $5,000. If the movie was made, he could earn $50,000. Warner Bros had other writers work on the original script based on Crow Killer. Milius was also called back to work on it, and his fee grew each time. He eventually made $90,000 on the film. 

In a career involving scores of projects, Milius has been through battles with many top Hollywood power players. Despite being black-listed at times, he has stuck to his mantra, the code of which he once said: 

“Never compromise excellence. To write for someone else is the biggest mistake that any writer makes. You should be your biggest competitor, your biggest critic, your biggest fan, because you won’t know what anybody else thinks. How arrogant it is to assume that you know the market, that you know what’s popular today. Write what you want to see. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to have any true passion in it.” 

For more coverage of mountain men, Jeremiah Johnson and more, check out the Fall 2021 issue of American Frontiersman. Get your copy now at

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