My family and I often enjoy visiting the Denver Art Museum. They have a large and ever-changing collection of art from all over the world. My favorite section of the museum is the section devoted to western art. One painting that always draws my attention is one that is pretty small, but depicts an unusual image. It shows native american warriors suspended from the ceiling of a ceremonial hut by ropes which have been hooked into their chests. It’s very painful looking. The description of the artwork points out that this may be one of the most controversial paintings in museum’s collection. There was always something familiar to me about the image, though. I pictured a similar scene on the cover of a VHS box. The movie that was tucked in the back of my mind was 1970’s A Man Called Horse.
The film centers on a British aristocrat named John Morgan (Richard Harris). He has come to explore the American west, but he ends up getting more than he bargained for when his guides are murdered and scalped by a group of Sioux. Morgan is captured, but he is treated by his captives as if he is an animal….specifically a horse. The chief, known as Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou) hands the care of Morgan over to his mother, Buffalo Cow Head (Judith Anderson) who is somewhat abusive to Morgan. The only thing close to a friend he finds is Baptiste (Jean Gascon), another captive who has become like a jester to the tribe, and at least understands English.
Slowly, Morgan becomes somewhat accepted by the Sioux, but is not really respected until he kills two attacking warriors from an enemy tribe. This victory allows him to propose marriage to the chief’s sister, Running Deer (Corinna Tsopei). However, the chief insists that Morgan go through the sun vow ritual before signing off on the marriage. That’s the particularly icky ceremony I described earlier. Sometime later, Morgan, now known as Shunkawakan, helps lead the tribe against an all-out attack by an enemy tribe.
I found A Man Called Horse to be a very intriguing film. I can’t say how accurate it is in its depiction of the Sioux and their rituals, but it is still fascinating. I appreciated that we as the audience are left to decipher and interpret things right along with Harris’ character. Once Morgan is captured, the only English we get is the conversations between Morgan and Baptiste. There are no subtitles for us to understand the Sioux language. We also don’t get any of the Sioux characters being able to miraculously speak and comprehend English in a very short time. In many ways we are discovering and learning to understand the Sioux right along with Morgan.
Without a lot of understandable dialogue, the film does a lot with the visuals…which are both beautiful and brutal. Of course, the centerpiece moment of the film is the sun vow ritual. Though not particularly gruesome in its depiction, it’s fair to say that it’s not for the squeamish either. The atmosphere of the scene is quite haunting…a dark, hazy room lit only by small blades of sunlight coming through slivers in the roof. Even more ominous are the glances shared between Harris and Iron Eyes Cody (yep, the crying chief from the Keep America Beautiful commercials) in the sequence. That man had a very accurate name. Somehow without speaking a word his amazing face seems to be communicating both comfort and foreboding to Harris. Then, as Harris twirls suspended mid air, the film turns slightly psychedelic as he has a series of visions. Strangely, this journey into a lava lamp doesn’t feel at all out of place.
The performances are great all around. Harris does a masterful job of going from cultured Brit to sleeping next to the dogs to fighting his way back into the human race again. Also impressive is Judith Anderson (I know, she’s not Native American…she’s credited as “Dame” for crying out loud) as the somewhat extreme mother of the chief. On the other end of the spectrum is former Miss Universe Corinna Tsopei (I know, also not a Native American) who does a solid job bringing a quiet dignity to her character. Though, her part of the story is the most predictable aspect of the film. After all, you KNOW the leading man has to fall in love with the hottest girl in the tribe.
The film seems to have struck enough of a chord with audiences back in 1970 to have warranted two sequels. It’s strange that all of the films have drifted somewhat into the realm of forgotten films. I have already gotten hold of a copy of the second film, 1976’s The Return of a Man Called Horse, and will be watching and reviewing it soon. The third film, 1983’s Triumphs of a Man Called Horse, looks to be a bit harder to find. Regardless of how the sequels stack up, the original is a powerful piece of filmmaking. It features skillful performances and striking visuals all in service of a story that both inspires and haunts the viewer.