I have always loved westerns and especially those that gave a more realistic image of the native American culture. But I like them authentic and historically balanced. As a non-Native American, rating best Native American movies is not without its obvious flaws.
Empathy as a member of any tribe will be apparently lacking and identifying with customs and rituals will also be out of my reach. But what I can assess is how I was moved by performances in a given movie and what transformed any preconceived notions I may have had about a people whose heritage in America preceded the white settlers who came to dominate the land. Here’s a short list of my all-time favorites. The order I present them is not intended to rate their importance over others.
DANCES WITH WOLVES – For sheer cinematography and storytelling affect, this one comes up on my radar first. A tale that encompasses the journey of a man abandoning his own culture near the end of the Civil War, Lt. John J. Dunbar finds himself where he thinks he can be happiest – a lonely military outpost as far removed from the destructive forces of war that partially robbed him of his humanity. Yet he finds that even when confronted with those who he feels are a common enemy, a tribe of Sioux natives, his loneliness compels him to seek out their camp site after having a close encounter with several members earlier, with his scalp still intact.
Dunbar finds the comparatively rough life of the Plains Indians and their social structure endearing and one where what savagery he does experience with the tribe is not comparable to the brutal insanity of the modern warfare of his kind he recently escaped. The notion that all “Indians” were savages is dispelled in this movie and in fact portrays a way of life that depicts a familiar and simpler time when mankind lived in clans and co-existed relatively peacefully with other clans. The love that developed between Dunbar and Stands-with-Fist added to the humanity of the Sioux (and by proxy, Native Americans) that went missing in early western film making.
BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE – This movie wrenchingly depicts the inequity that Native Americans, once again represented by the Sioux, received from the American government and the people who represented it at the time. The westward expansion is wrapping up in America and most of what was initially given over to the Sioux at an earlier time becomes territory that many Americans feel is land that could now be better used for purposes they deem financially lucrative, with little to no regard of how it is viewed by the Sioux. It’s the age-old battle of materialistic expansion at the expense of cultural norms that put more emphasis on family and home.
The film is an adaptation of the book by Dee Brown with the same name but uses “literary license” to render a different reality. However, the message is accurately delivered as it reveals how the less sophisticated Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull, stands up to the military might of the U.S. Army. It’s a genuine David vs. Goliath saga that marks a dark point in American history. The moral failure of our government to reflect founding principles over capitalist exploitation and imperialist expansionism is a lesson that still has lapses within our body politic. You feel a great sense of loss at the defeat of a proud man and humiliated that he was deceived for less virtuous reasons not depicted in grade school history books.
I WILL FIGHT NO MORE FOREVER – Though a made-for-TV movie in the mid 1970’s it gave some great performances from some of my old-time favorites; James Whitmore and a much younger Sam Elliot. Both men played military officers who, though showing some compassion for Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe, none-the-less demonstrate their discipline as soldiers and carry out their assignment. Another heart-rendering story where a harmless group of Native Americans are forced to move out of their lush green homeland (in Oregon) to allow the territory to be inhabited by white settlers recently authorized by then President Grant.
In their move they encounter hateful settlers whose view that “the only good Indian is a dead one” starts a fight with the Nez Perce. After that deadly encounter Chief Joseph is then forced to evade the cavalry and their intended relocation in Idaho. For the next 108 days and 1700 miles the Nez Perce skillfully elude General Howard (Whitmore) and Captain Wood (Elliot) in scenes that exposed the beauty of the northern Rocky Mountains.
War and its ugly nature were not common for these Nez Perce who were better suited as “peaceful hunters and fishermen”, Charles A Eastman noted about them in a separate account on Chief Joseph. Ned Romero plays the aging Joseph and most of the cast of the Nez Perce were played by real Native Americans; something a bit out of the ordinary at that time.
In the end a proud people are ultimately humiliated in defeat, forcing the famous quote from Chief Joseph, “From where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more forever.” They are relocated to an even worse fate in the Oklahoma territory which is so removed from their previous habitat, visibly crushing the spirit of a people who once selectively bred the Appaloosa, one of the best breeds of horse on the continent.
LITTLE BIG MAN – An intricate, cleverly woven satire by director Arthur Penn who explores the life of his colorful character, Jack Crabb (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) over a century when the west was being developed in the 1800s. At age 121, Jack Crabb narrates his life to a historian played by William Hickey that covers his life from the time he was taken in by the Cheyenne after his parents were killed and the wagon train they were in was destroyed by marauding Pawnees. The Chief of the Cheyenne, Old Lodge Skins, won the actor who played him, Chief Dan George, and Oscar nomination. Old Lodge Skins serves as Crabb’s connection as he bounces back and forth between white and Cheyenne cultures over the course of the picture.
Jack Crabb is a real life character but was fictionally portrayed in this role by Arthur Penn. It was and is considered an anti-establishment and even an anti-war film where the scenes of slaughtered defenseless Indian women, children and old people represented the historically recent massacre at My Lai in Vietnam. Other similarities were raised with the use of some Indian characters clearly being played by Southeast Asians.
The mental battles that Jack Crabb fights, along with the physical ones in his roles that go back and forth as white man and redskin, present the contrasts between the cultures and convey the bittersweet associations living during that time as a member of both.
The movie is sweeping in its scope and thoroughly entertaining. It was artful in its attempt to show the adversities Native Americans endured under the authority of the U.S. Government and support of white settlers taking over native lands by portraying many of the characters in absurdly humorous contexts. This made it palatable for many at the time to acknowledge that our treatment of Native Americans was not always in line with the way we were raised to think.
LAST OF THE MOHICANS – Last but not least is the remake of the 1920 silent movie version of James Fenimore Cooper’s romantic classic. The idealized version of Cooper’s “noble savage” is less displayed here at a time when authenticity was the accepted norm. The screenplay kept true to the book but the inherent evil of the Huron leader, Magua, (played by Wes Studi) was I think appropriately down-played. This didn’t however increase any feelings of sympathy with the audience towards this character.
This is one of the films that reveals a time in history that precedes western culture’s cruel elimination of Native Americans and shows a unity between the two that existed with many during early colonial periods. The 1992 film provided eye-pleasing panoramic views of what came across as pristine wilderness, reminding us of an America, now greatly urbanized, that can only be viewed today in National parks.
Madeline Stowe was at her striking beauty best and Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye played his role superbly. Cleverly, the film’s Director, Michael Mann, used Russell Means to play Hawkeye’s father. Mr. Means, a real life Sioux, is a Native American activist that participated in many of the American Indian Movement (AIM) events of the 1970’s, gaining national notoriety of their siege at the Wounded Knee Memorial in 1973.
Overall The Last Mohican was a feel good movie that employed authentic settings and costumes. You are genuinely swept away to another time where Americana is romantically rugged and a sense of nostalgia accompanies you days after you have seen the film, captured in the excellent musical score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman.
I make no apologies that much of my critique on these movies centers on the lost heritage of Native American culture; a fact that resulted from the vastly superior numbers of western Europeans and their technologies that ultimately overwhelmed a smaller group of people with less sophisticated weaponry. I think we as a nation are less endowed through our near complete elimination of a people and their way of life. These movies help that culture endure and prevent a total loss of what is inherently American as anything we have recorded about our comparatively short national history.