Film Review:Last of the Dogmen
Steve Reevis, native American actor(Blackfeet), as Yellow Wolf
Film Review:Last of the Dogmen
This movie is enjoyable hokum, on one level it is romanticised escapism which, however implausible, keeps one's attention and is a watchable diversion as Caryn James of the New York Times observed when it was released. The presentation of the Cheyenne may be accurate and sympathetic but it is yet another version of the White Man's Indian. It may use native american actors, but the main characters that are developed are white. Although the native americans are presented as people with humanity, it is fair to say that the character of Lewis Gates (Tom Berenger) 's pet dog is developed more than any of the Cheyenne. Some of the film is hackneyed: the saving of the youth by modern medicine, (why not the other way round?) the hidden entrance to the valley behind the waterfall (straight out of Fenimore Cooper), the rough trapper with the academic anthropologist woman (complete with cliff top scare), but this is all fine entertainment. The problem is with the historical time warp in which the native americans find themselves. Ironically this is even the case in a film set in contemporary Montana. The time warp serves to perpetuate the myth of the Vanishing American which is central to the myths surrounding the history of the American West as portrayed in popular US culture, but which skews the American and hence our view of their history.Back to:
The film features beautiful mountain scenery (in Mexico) but the music drones on a bit, and rather like the whole film seems to have derived strongly from Dances with Wolves. It taps into what Michael Walker has referred to as "a romantic evocation of a lost world". (Walker, in Pye and Cameron)
Despite apparently referring to a book and being an academic anthropologist specialising in the subject, unfortunately Barbara Hershey's history lesson reveals that she does not know what she is talking about. There was no Lone Wolf in the Cheyenne attacked at Sand Creek. The Cheyenne in question did not go AWOL after the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, since the Cheyenne at Sand Creek were Southern Cheyenne, who had no reason to stray so far north. More likely historically they could have been survivors of Little Wolf's Northern Cheyenne, in the context of the film this could have made some sort of sense. Sand Creek is in Colorado, not Montana. Following the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 the Northern Cheyenne were "relocated" from their homeland with the Lakota in the Northern Plains into the unsuitable climate of the Southern Plains. Three years later, as depicted in John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn, they broke out and fled back north. Dull Knife led one group to another disgraceful massacre at Fort Robinson while Little Wolf rejoined the Lakota in Powder River country. It is his group which Barbara Hershey might have described as the ones who "just might be" those AWOL in Montana. There was a Lone Wolf involved in the southern plains wars but he was a Kiowa chief and was not Cheyenne, neither the North or South branches of the nation. If you are interested in reading about what happened to the Northern Cheyenne I recommend "The Last Frontier" by Howard Fast, a much better work than John Ford's film which was based on this book despite Ford's claim to have used Mari Sandoz's book as the basis for the movie script.
While Last of the Dogmen is not a bad film it is a bit treacly, sentimental and predictable, something which might be excusable for an older movie but given it was made in 1995 one might have hoped for more. It would seem that not only native Americans but the popular view of their history has been locked in the time warp. What I particularly dislike about Last of the Dogmen is that it is patronising to native Americans, despite ostensibly wishing to present them in a positive light. The genre needs to sort this out, it continues to blend history with historical myths and to exploit the nineteenth century images and myths of native Americans as if they either think it is still like that or wish it was. Having native American actors play the parts of native Americans, albeit usually of a different nation, is just one positive step in debunking the historical myth. One would have hoped a modern North American audience would recognize this if they understand the history of their relatively young federation of states. This film is a particularly mawkish example of historical nostalgia maintaining the myth of the Vanishing American. More films with native American directors and positively featuring native Americans in modern settings would not go amiss. Such few examples there are mostly serve to perpetuate and even augment the myths, and Last of the Dogmen is a particularly glaring example of this. Given its derivative links and the prominence given to Lewis Gates (Tom Berenger) 's pet dog perhaps this film should have been titled 'Dances with Woofs'.
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009