Film Review: A Man Called Horse,
Elliot Silverstein, 1970
" the whitest of movies I've seen. Everything they do; everything they write has to go through layers and layers of white cheesecloth and its all bound up in rolls of white tape" Buffy Saint-Marie
"The customs depicted in a Man Called Horse were neither Sioux nor Crow. They belonged only to the authentic Hollywood tribe called 'Indian'."
Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, The Only Good Indian The Hollywood Gospel, 1972, 206
A Man Called Horse, Elliot Silverstein, 1970
A Man called Horse was billed as "authentic", with advance publicity claiming it was "perhaps the first motion picture to treat the American Indian with unparalleled accuracy." Producer Sandy Howard claimed: "A Man Called Horse would not be just another Western or Indian picture. Members of the Rosebud Sioux reservation appear in featured roles, and 200 members of the tribe worked behind the scenes to make the the tipis, costumes, and the weapons, all created with precision to detail and accuracy." (Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, 1972, 94)
The result was patronising to native Americans and this was particularly offensive since it claimed to be accurate. Interviewed by Dan Jorgensen in April 1970, Sandy Howard suggested, "Indians themselves do not really know their past." Presumably this was in response to the furore the movie provoked among native Americans. The American Indian Movement (AIM) demonstrated outside a movie theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As activists encouraged moviegoers not to enter, placards were most revealing as to the authenticity or otherwise of A Man Called Horse:
" How to make an Indian Movie. Buy 40 Indians. Totally humiliate and degrade an entire Indian nation. Make sure all Indians are savage and ignorant. Satisfy Indian groups by seeking authenticity. Import a Greek to be an Indian Princess. Introduce a white man to become an 'Indian' hero. Make the white man compassionate, brave and understanding. Make the white man an 'Indian' leader to save the souls of the weak. Desecrate the Indian religion. Pocket the profits in Hollywood." (Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, 1972, 115)
This was the classic "white man in the wilderness" finding himself in the simple, natural way of life. But since he is inherently superior, he establishes himself as a leader, he is "to the Plains born." As the Friars pointed out, although there was no concept of princess in native American culture, it was convenient to label some film characters as such, for, along with the requirement of virginity, it helped to ease the way to an acceptance of a white man taking an Indian bride on screen: "let it be with a girl of royal blood and unsoiled to boot". (Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, 1972, 22)
Oglala Sioux Art Raymond remarked: " If A Man Called Horse ...is authentic, my name is George Armstrong Custer..... Who would complain if this were simply billed as another portrayal of white man's version of Indian wars in which the white man wears the white hat and the Sioux the black hat; that is wrong, of course, but the Sioux have come to expect that. To bill this as an authentic film which accurately portrays the life and customs of the Sioux is not only wrong and unjust. It is a lie" (Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, 1972, 116)
The film followed native American practices, as observed and outlined by the authentic source of George Catlin, who lived among native Americans in the 1830s, sketching them and recoding their practices. "The only trouble was that the film had the wrong Indians". Practices attributed to the Sioux in the film were actually a combination of Mandan and Crow. Neither of them were particularly partial to the Sioux; and the Crow, displaced by the Sioux as they expanded onto the Plains, were their sworn enemies. (Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, 1972, 37)
Clyde Dollar, the historian behind the film, complained that such protests were unfair and, referring to the membership of AIM, tried to dismiss their complaints as 'tribal feuding' on the basis that they were not Sioux but Winnebago and Ojibwa and 'Urban Indians'. Unfortunately the complaints were nothing of the sort. Native Americans were now showing a wider awareness of each other which, had it been in place in the nineteenth century, would at the very least have result in a more sustained resistance of them to the imperial onslaught. (Ralph E Friar and Natasha A Friar, 1972, 120)
Roger Ebert wrote of the sequel: "What gets me is that initiation rite, which is repeated in this film in such grim and bloody detail you'd think people didn't have enough of it the last time. First Morgan has his pectoral muscles pierced with knife blades Then eagle's talons are drawn through the wounds and tied to leather thongs. Then he hangs by the thongs until sufficiently purified. You'd think one ceremony like that would do the trick, without any booster shots. In the first movie, he hung in the sun for 12 hours and then was cut down and immediately married to the chief's daughter (that's just what he needed - a wedding night). This time all he gets is a rumble of approval from the Thunder God."
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© Chris Smallbone November 2012