Sunday 10 August 2008

A Man Called Horse (1970)

John Morgan is an English nobleman who has spent the last five years looking for something to do. He's resigned from his honorary position in the Guards and travelled halfway around the world on a hunting expedition in the west of the United States. Given that this is the 1820s, this west is still wild and sure enough, Morgan's party is attacked by a Sioux raiding party and killed. Morgan is the only one that they don't kill because they see his strength and so drag him naked back to their camp and give him to an old Sioux woman as a beast of burden, hence the title of the film.

This was 1970 and American westerns were generally all about Americans kicking the ass of either the heathen Indians or the heathen Mexicans, even when they were made in Italy. Only the East Germans, who had a very deliberate political axe to wield, told anything different. While there was a growth of insight into history over the many decades of American westerns, there really hadn't been anything that attempted to do what this film did. It's a pretty groundbreaking film in a lot of ways.

After the initial scenes in which Morgan's American hunting party is killed, everyone here is an Indian, beyond John Morgan himself and another captive, the tolerated Batise who is of French origin. Everything we see is Sioux: their camp, their people, their customs, shot with the assistance of the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota. We see their side of the story and it isn't shown from the perspective of some sort of early political correctness concept. These Sioux are savage and cruel, though what they do they do for very good reasons. They're just not the reasons that the rest of us follow for doing anything. The obvious comparison is Kevin Costner's Oscar-laden Dances with Wolves, which is a longer, more politically correct, version of the same thing, something not lost on Richard Harris who fully realised that Costner stole whole scenes from this movie.

As you can expect, given that he's played by hard boiled, hard living Richard Harris, John Morgan is no wimp. He tries escape a few times to no avail so bides his time and learns what he can. When opportunity presents itself he kills a couple of Shoshone warriors, bringing back their scalps and their horses to trade with his original captor, Yellow Hand, for his sister as a wife. The key is that this is all done to get that little bit closer to escape and return to England, yet the longer he lives among the Sioux the more he finds what he had been looking for all along.

It's all done very nicely indeed, but it's not without flaws. The biggest one for me was the casting of Corinna Tsopei as Running Deer, Yellow Hand's sister. She's fine as an actress but she doesn't look Indian enough. Her real name is Kiriaki Tsopei, she's Greek by birth and was presumably cast because she was a relatively recent Miss Universe. Much more appropriate is the casting of Manu Tupou as Yellow Hand, but unfortunately he reminds so much of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian.

The most surprising casting has to be Dame Judith Anderson, highly talented and regarded Australian actress as Buffalo Cow Head, the old Sioux woman who initially owns the man called Horse. While she can't quite mask the facial characteristics of her race, she does a far better job than most have done in situations like this and she speaks Sioux throughout. She had a habit of picking quirky roles and would follow this up a couple of films later with a spot as Spock's mother in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. She won awards for this role and it isn't surprising. She gets a few great scenes here with some surprising sutbtlety and she shines more than her role was designed to let her. The shot where she realises she's lost her pack animal is a peach.

There is subtlety here, though you wouldn't see it if you're only looking at the powerful savagery. The centrepiece of the film, the transition of John Morgan into Sioux, comes through a ceremony called the Vow to the Sun, and it's not a pretty picture. It involves a lot of protracted pain and it's not surprising that the US government banned it in the late 1800s. It makes for a highly memorable few scenes for Harris, to go along with the early scenes in which he was mostly naked. You can't say the man didn't put himself into his roles.

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