A Man Called Horse [DVD]
Screenplay : Jack De Witt (based on the novel by Dorothy M. Johnson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1970
Stars : Richard Harris (John Morgan), Judith Anderson (Buffalo Cow Head), Jean Gascon (Batise), Manu Tupou (Yellow Hand), Corinna Tsopei (Running Deer), Dub Taylor (Joe), James Gammon (Ed), William Jordan (Bent), Eddie Little Sky (Black Eagle)
The late 1960s and early 1970s was an era of genre revisionism in American film, and no genre was reworked more than that great mythological staple, the Western. In film after film, all of the hardened conventions and thematic givens of the Western genre were examined, dismantled, and critiqued. In films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), the Old West was portrayed as a dying era in which ideals about manhood and loyalty were a thing of the past, while in other films, most notably Ralph Nelson’s uneven Soldier Blue (1970) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1971), the longstanding paradigmatic relationship between the “good” U.S. cavalry and the “bad” Indians was revised to better reflect the historical realities of government-dictated genocide.
Another revisionist Western of that era was A Man Called Horse, a film that attempted to portray in anthropological detail the daily lives of a Sioux Indian tribe in the Dakotas of the early part of the 19th century. It reworked the conventional “captive” narrative by focusing not on how someone will be rescued from his Indian captors, but rather how he grows to prefer their way of life to that of “civilization.” Unfortunately, the film wants to have its cake and eat it too by portraying the Sioux in a generally sympathetic light, but still kowtowing to the worn-out notion that the central character in a Western has to be a white man. By centering on a white man’s experience with the Sioux, the Indians are shown to be the “exotic” and “strange” culture because they are judged against the criterion of Westernized civility.
Interestingly enough, however, the central white character is not an American, but rather a British lord named John Morgan (Richard Harris), who is on extended leave in the untamed American frontier (this is changed from Dorothy M. Johnson’s source novel, in which the protagonist was a Bostonian). Morgan is clearly an aristocrat, evidenced in the way he talks and in the way he handles himself around the three vulgar yokels who serve as his hunting guides. What is most interesting about Morgan is that he is completely self-aware; he recognizes the essentially silliness and wastefulness of his privileged lifestyle (at one point, he notes with a hint of both amusement and sadness that he has traveled halfway across the world at great expense just to shoot a different kind of bird).
Early in the film, Morgan’s guides are killed and he is captured by a band of Sioux warriors. He is first beaten and mocked by the warriors (who put a saddle on his back and declare him a “horse”) before dragging him back to their settlement where he is given to an elderly squaw (Judith Anderson) as a servant. At first, Morgan makes every attempt he can to escape, but it is all to no avail. Later, he meets Batise (Jean Gascon), a Frenchman who was captured by the Sioux five years earlier and has since integrated himself into their society, even if his role is that of the village idiot.
The thrust of the narrative is following Morgan as he slowly assimilates into the ways of the Sioux. When he saves a group of Sioux children from a war party of enemy Indians, he gains trust and respect from the other warriors, thus paving the way to his becoming fully integrated into the Sioux way of life. The film’s centerpiece—the scene that everyone talks about after seeing it—is the depiction of the Sioux’s Ritual of the Sun, an excruciating trial of pain that Morgan must endure in order to be declared a man worthy of taking a wife. The ritual itself involves his being suspended in the air by claws and blades that are buried in his pectoral muscles, and the make-up effects used to depict it are still impressively unnerving more than 30 years later (in fact, for the film’s DVD release, the MPAA re-rated the film R from the previous PG rating, although no footage has been added).
At its best, A Man Called Horse offers fascinating insight into another culture, even if the insight is gained through the eyes of an outside meant to somehow represent the audience’s inexperienced point of view. Director Elliot Silverstein and screenwriter Jack De Witt (a veteran B-movie scribe) do us a service by not using subtitles or having the Sioux speak any English—the language barrier between Morgan and his adoptive society persists until the very end, which is a fitting metaphor for the sad inability of many cultures to communicate. At its worse, though, the film bogs down into maudlin sloppiness, especially in the scenes between Morgan and his Sioux wife (Corinna Tsopei), who is devoid of virtually any character traits other than her erotic fascination for her white husband.
There is also a hefty battle scene at the end of the film that makes sense narratively, but still smacks of formula—having sat through an hour and a half of the daily details of Sioux life, perhaps the filmmakers thought they owed us some good ol’ fashioned action-movie bloodshed. The fact that Morgan is the primary warrior and the one most responsible for the Sioux’s victory is also a bit insulting, although the film’s genuinely sad ending is a fitting tribute to the eternal repercussions of bloodshed, whether it be white men killing Indians, Indians killing white men, or Indians killing each other.
|A Man Called Horse DVD|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||April 29, 2003|
| 2.35:1 (Anamorphic)|
A Man Called Horse is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film had been previously available in widescreen on laser disc, but most are familiar with it in its awfully pan-and-scanned version from TV and VHS. The widescreen transfer is well done, although the overall look of the film certainly betrays its age. The image is generally clean and clear, although some shots seem a bit soft with a minor amount of grain. The darker sequences maintain a good level of detail, and the brightly lit exterior scenes are colorful and well-saturated.
| English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
English Dolby 2.0 Stereo
The soundtrack has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround with a moderate degree of success. Much of the film is actually rather quiet, with only ambient noises and dialogue. The heavy drumbeats of the Ritual of the Sun sequence have a nice resonance to them, and Leonard Rosenman’s orchestral score is nicely spaced out amongst the five speakers, although it feels quite dated.
| No supplements are included. |
© 2003 James Kendrick