Thursday 1 January 2009

The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)

A Man Called Horse was something of a triumph for Richard Harris in 1970, so the only surprise here is how long it took him to make a sequel. Six years later he returns as the man named Horse: Lord John Morgan back in England but Shunkawakan to the Yellow Hand tribe, a branch of the Sioux. He had originally travelled to the wild west on a hunting expedition to find himself. He did find himself, though not in any way he would ever have dreamed of: his party killed, himself enslaved by the Sioux as a beast of burden, then becoming Sioux himself.

This film opens with a brief synopsis of the last, adding that after five years of 'fulfillment in their tribal and spiritual life' he then took that fulfillment back to England only to find that the spirit he'd found was lost. He spends three years in England, obviously now out of place and yearning for his previous life across the pond, and finally gives in to what must have been painfully obvious all along: to go back to the Yellow Hands. Unfortunately by the time he gets there, they've been attacked and driven from their sacred land by a man called Zenas who runs a trading post. Most were killed, some enslaved by the Rickaree trappers, the rest hide out waiting for the great evil spirit to free them.

So it falls to the man called Horse to get them back onto what he sees as the right path and fight to get their sacred land back, which means a new spirit vision and a new Vow to the Sun ceremony, though, like the film, it's a pale imitation of its predecessor. In fact that may be a little unfair. It really isn't an imitation at all: it's a different film with a different tone and telling a different sort of story, only a sequel in name and recurring use of characters. And in fact this becomes really telling, because of how and why the director did what he did and what the consequences of those decisions were.

The director is Irvin Kershner, a capable director, who had made films as far back as the impressive Stakeout on Dope Street in 1958. What he did here, to my eyes, was to make a compromised film. It certainly doesn't tell a story as bleak, impactful and uncompromising as A Man Called Horse. Most of that film was entirely Sioux, with mostly authentic actors, dialogue, language and culture. Harris was naked for a good part of it and went through obvious hardship in making the film, naturally not so much as his character but some nonetheless.

By comparison this one felt comfortable, with many concessions to Hollywood. The tough scenes are not as tough, the use of the Sioux language is subtitled and much of the dialogue is in English, even though it shouldn't be. Far fewer of the actors look authentic, though Gale Sondergaard is surprisingly effective. Not least, the story isn't simply a voyage of personal discovery but something far closer to a Hollywood western. Yet George Lucas, whom Kershner had taught in film school, was knocked out by it. He saw it as superior to the original and on that basis hired Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back. When Kershner later asked him about his choice, he said this: 'Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood.'

Now I like Kershner and I like the way he had a talent for instilling the basic essence of humanity into so many of his scenes, but these are telling comparisons. A Man Called Horse carried an impact, through its blistering honesty and lack of moral judgement and felt like a piece of art. The Return of a Man Called Horse feels like compromised Hollywood product, albeit effective compromised Hollywood product made by a talented director. It's full of Hollywood morality and cutaways from the more salacious aspects of truth. It's superior as a saleable product but it certainly isn't superior as a work of art. If anything could sum up Lucas better as a superlative businessman but someone who doesn't understand cinematic art, I don't know what that could be.

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