Thursday, May 17, 2012

movie reviews: A Man Called Horse (1970) & The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)


(reviews may contain spoilers for those that have never seen the films or are unfamiliar with the characters.)

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Few movies capture the Native American culture as well as A Man Called Horse. Based on a five page short story that appeared in the January 7, 1950 issue of Collier's Weekly by Dorothy M Johnson, A Man Called Horse takes place in 1825, only a handful of years after the Lewis & Clark Expedition had forged its way across the unexplored West, yet prior to the huge westward migration that would forever throw the European and Native American cultures at each other's throats.

Richard Harris plays John Morgan, a European aristocrat, who has come to the young United States to break the boredom of his trappings back home. We are introduced to him as he is on a hunting expedition with some Mountain Men. After a couple of the Mountain Men frustrate him enough, he decides it's time to return to St. Louis to find a more suitable crew.

However, before they can start heading back to civilization they are ambushed by a Sioux hunting party, which immediately sets to kill everyone. As one is getting ready to take Morgan's magical golden scalp, he is interrupted by the war chief, who decides that Morgan is to be his prisoner. He starts treating him the same as one of the horses he has captured, so he's now known as "Horse."

The rest of the film deals with his metamorphosis from captive to an accepted member of the tribe. This may sound like Dances With Wolves. However, it takes place at an earlier time in our country's history, and was made 18 years before the Dancing With Wolves novel was written.

For anyone with even a remote interest in Native American culture, this is a must-see film. Producers were absolutely meticulous in setting up scenes, especially those of sacred ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance.

Most first hand source material of the time are journals and paintings done by renowned artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. I can remember seeing some of their illustrations while taking history classes at the University of Montana, and you can see where the production crews took pain staking effort to create living versions of those illustrations down to the shafts of light coming in from the roof of the lodge and the smokiness of the air.

Another of the neat things I like about this film is they do NOT use subtitles. Since Morgan does not understand the Native American tongue, there is no need for us to either. Even after he learns it, through the help of another captured European, no subtitle translation is provided.

This was filmed at a time when you'd see Caucasian actors in bronzing cream, and other non-Native American actors, in substantial roles. However, through expert costumes and makeup I was convinced. I do have to especially throw a shout out to Australian-born Dame Judith Anderson. Her portrayal as Buffalo Cow Head was superb, and had me even forgetting she wasn't a native until I was reading the credits. Were their Native American actors of good caliber who could have played these roles? Probably, but this was 1970, and Hollywood didn't think about such things.

Scenery is correct as this was about the Sioux tribes, and shot for the most part in South Dakota, though rugged Mexico stands in for some  locations.

RATED: 9 out of 10 STARS

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Richard Harris reprises his role of John Morgan in The Return of a Man Called Horse.  This film takes place a couple decades after Morgan was originally captured by the Yellow Hand Sioux.

He has returned to his native England and aristocratic society, with all its prim and proper attitudes and nuances. He should be happy, but he isn't; constantly reminiscing of his time in the American West where life seemed to have more of a purpose. Finally, finding he can't stand the boredom any longer, he tells his manservant he is taking a year to visit his extended family, the Yellow Hand.

What Morgan didn't know, but that the viewer had already been shown, was that European society's hunger for hides, has encroached on the Sioux. The rival Arikara tribe, with the help of a band of unscrupulous trappers, decimates the Yellow Hand, killing many, capturing others, and driving a rag tag group from their traditional camps out into the Badlands.

To boil the plot down, the premise is "White man gets bored with European life, goes to visit Red brethren, only to find they've lost their spirit and wildness. Said White man then shows Red man way back to former ways." Realistic? Seriously doubtful.

This film has a gritty edgier look to it compared to the original. Colors are muted, with a palate of drab browns and reds compared to the vibrant greens and deep blue sky in A Man Called Horse. Not sure if that was intentional, or just a byproduct of filming locations.

One of the film's main scenes is a return to the sacred Sun Dance ceremony. This version is a lot longer than in the first film and includes a very bloody end that will definitely leave some viewers squeamish. (What's ironic is this film drew a PG rating despite being more violent. The original was R, probably due mainly to several scenes of Harris' exposed backside).

Once again, most of the speaking Native American characters are non-natives, though a bigger portion of the extras seemed to be real Native Americans.

The main female character, Elk Woman, is now played by Gale Sondergaard, who some may remember for a returning guest role in Ryan's Hope. While her Native American lines sound very believable, her makeup is horrendously glowing bronzer. Also, they have her starting out in the Sioux tongue, then later in the film she starts speaking perfect English, only to return to Sioux for the rest of the film.

Despite its unrealistic plot, it's not a terrible film, but it doesn't hold up to the original. How many sequels do? An interesting factoid is that director Irvin Kershner's filmography also includes sequels, The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop 2 and Never Say Never Again.

RATED: 6 out of 10 STARS

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There was a third film from the trilogy, called Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983). Sadly, it has never been released on DVD, and as such could not be reviewed.

Due to failing health, Richard Harris reprised his role in only a few scenes, with the lion's share of screen time being devoted to John Morgan's son, Koda (Michael Beck).