Monday, July 27, 2009
Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Day Two
I get out of Rapid City quickly and drive south toward the Badlands and Pine Ridge Reservation. Farmland gives way to grassy folds of earth that suddenly transform into the ash-colored strata of Badlands formations. In one section of the Badlands called the Stronghold, Ghost Dancers hid from the U.S. Cavalry’s crackdown on the new religion. The American government feared an uprising, but the Oglala had no uprising planned; they just wanted the grass and the bison to come back and the whites to disappear. (Similarly, the FBI feared members of the American Indian Movement, campaigning for civil rights in the early 1970s, and considered them communists and subversives.) I realize the car in front of me has no glass in the rear. A mini-van passes me with its shattered windshield held together by a broad band of tape running down the center. Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in the United States.
I stop at the Badlands Visitor’s Center at Scenic and talk to the Lakota park ranger about Lakota language. He suggests I stop at Oglala Lakota College, a brief detour from my planned route. The college is comprised of very modern buildings set in the middle of nowhere. At the student bookstore, I buy a beginner’s Lakota language book for children and Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie’s novel about the racial hatred and alienation suffered by modern-day Indians in Seattle. I visit the college’s compact historical museum. Four walls of exhibits tell the story of treaties made and broken and the dramatic loss of Indian lands from the 1850s through the 1870s. Here are the famous photographs of the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, December 29, 1890: the mass grave; the bodies piled in the snow; Minneconjou Chief Big Foot – his contorted body frozen forever in death.
I reach the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. A shoddy metal placard, in the middle of a dusty, gravelly crossroads, marks the spot and explains how the massacre occurred. A board with the word “Massacre” is screwed over what must have been the word “Battle.” On a nearby hill, a marble tombstone marks the mass grave. Additional graves have turned the place into a community cemetery. Gravestones designate the resting places of citizens of Pine Ridge like Emily Her Many Horses and Leo Her Many Horses. Many of these Lakota served in World War II. Graves are adorned with pictures, toys, medicine bags, twists of sage, and bundles of sweetgrass. Ribbons dangling from tree limbs flutter in the wind.
West of Pine Ridge I drive through the broad, grassy valley called Buffalo Gap. I imagine riding across this land in the 1800s – fold after fold after fold of grassy, featureless land. You can see why millions of bison loved this area.
I cross into the northwestern corner of Nebraska. I’ve never been to Nebraska, and I’ve always wanted to go because of its Oregon Trail history. As I drive across the border, I’m thinking of Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate, and Malick’s Badlands.
I stop near Crawford, Nebraska, at Fort Robinson, a U.S. army post from 1874 to 1948. It’s a shady spot to stop on a hot day. A park-like quadrangle contains reproductions of headquarters and barracks buildings from the 1870s. One of the buildings is the guardhouse. Here, on May 5, 1877, Crazy Horse resisted arrest and ran onto the parade grounds where he was bayoneted to death; a pedestal marks the spot. There is also a reproduction of the room where he died – Teshunka Witko – the strange man of Oglala Lakota who refused white encroachment much more than Sitting Bull did. There are no authenticated photographs of Crazy Horse, and no one knows what happened to his body. Legend says his heart was buried at Wounded Knee Creek.
Here at Camp Robinson ended the flight of the Cheyenne refugees who escaped poor conditions on the reservation in Oklahoma on September 10, 1878. For over a month, the band of Cheyenne men, women, and children, crossed Kansas into Nebraska, eluding the U.S. army at every step. On October 24, 149 of the Cheyenne under Dull Knife surrendered and came into Fort Robinson where they were stuffed into an unheated barracks with little food in an effort to force them to return to Oklahoma. Freezing and starving, the Cheyenne assembled a few guns whose parts they had hidden in their clothing, and broke out of the barracks on January 9, 1879. Shot down as they crossed the parade grounds, or run down later by the cavalry, 64 were killed. Some survived by hiding in the rugged bluffs near the fort. Today you can see the reproduction of the famous barracks. The bluffs where the survivors hid lie to the west.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964), John Ford’s last Western, tells the story of the Cheyenne exodus. The film tries hard to be that epic of Plains Indians vs. whites conflict. Though it fails, I love it for its earnest effort and its visual beauty. Ford captures memorable images (with his signature Monument Valley, Utah, doubling as locations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska) of the refugees crossing the land and using its ruggedness to elude the cavalry as well as long shots of the cavalry in pursuit diminished by the terrain that thwarts them. Ford stages a thrilling cavalry charge reminiscent of Stagecoach and Fort Apache, but the film’s attempts at drama fall flat.
Ford picked an epic story that could stand for most of the conflicts between the white army and various tribes at the end of the 19th century, but its episodes, which seem to promise drama, lack strength. The film splits its attention between the plight of the Cheyenne, led by Gilbert Roland as Dull Knife, and the persistent pursuit of the cavalry, led by Richard Widmark as a fictitious cavalry officer, and this shifting focus is a detriment. The barracks breakout sequence is promising. It builds tension and achieves some seconds of visceral impact, but the sound stage set detracts from the very brief bland violence that is merely representational of the massacre of the 64 Cheyenne.
The film’s greatest blunder is a lengthy middle sequence that played after the intermission when the film was shown in theaters. In Dodge City where the fearful citizens expect an attack by “rampaging” Cheyenne, James Stewart as Wyatt Earp engages in a comical poker game and extracts a bullet from a cowpoke’s foot. Then the citizens form a ridiculous, slapstick army, including buffoonish dancehall girls (a frequent Fordian weakness), who ride out to do battle with the Cheyenne – a scene as absurd as anything in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Unfortunately, the reasoning for the insertion of this very silly film-within-a film is that the producers felt the rest of story was too tragic, which means that John Ford was on to something that could have been memorable.
It’s a tragedy that there is no epic theatrical film on Plains Indian history. Made-for-TV movies/mini-series such as Son of the Morning Star, Crazy Horse, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are noble efforts that employ real Native Americans as performers and adhere to the facts more than older films, but they are softened by that small-scale TV look, a bland didactic tone, and a stilted political correctness.
After enjoying the shade of Fort Robinson and strolling around the quadrangles of officers’ quarters that served the men over decades of service during many wars, I drive the last leg of the day’s journey of 275 miles to Scottsbluff.
Nebraskans are nice and polite, not effusively so, but they are real sticklers for propriety and the rules. My bladder on the point of bursting by the time I reach the Comfort Inn, I dash through the lobby to the men’s room before checking in. The woman behind the desk – no doubt a descendant of Oregon Trail emigrants and hard-working Nebraska farmers – gives me a shocked look. And even though I check in as politely as possible, I have started off on the wrong foot, and I get a sharp look of distrust whenever I pass through the lobby.
Since I have a couple of hours before dinnertime, I decide to visit the Scotts Bluff National Monument rather than wait until Day Three as I had planned. After consulting a very confusing city map, I find and follow a street called Old Oregon Trail through a residential area. Seeing the siltstone and volcanic ash bluffs rearing up directly ahead beyond the city, I know I’m on the right road. Excited, I want to push it to 30 or even 35 on the 25 mph street. But – and this is a huge adjustment for a Massachusetts/Cape Cod driver used to adding at least 10 mph to any speed limit – the young dude in the pickup truck in front of me will not go 26. I conclude it’s just this guy – but, no. Next it’s a 35 mph limit, and the vehicle ahead of me, driven by the type of driver on Cape Cod who tailgates you as you drive 45 on a 35 mph road and then speeds past you, mouthing “Fuck you,” will not go 36! It is a most uncanny experience. But figuring the Nebraskans know something I don’t know about the stringency of the local police, I make the titanic effort to drive like a Nebraskan.
Scotts Bluff National Monument is a much bigger attraction than I had expected, and a highlight of the trip. The road follows the old Oregon Trail up a pass through jutting bluffs, and you stop at a very sprucely kept Visitor’s Center with an intelligent museum and wonderfully kept grounds where you can stroll past old emigrants’ wagons. A road winds up the side of the largest bluff, passing through two tunnels, and takes you to the top where you can follow hiking trails to the brink of the cliffs and see views of the land crossed by the wagon trains coming from the east, the North Platte River down below, and the way west to Wyoming and the ascent of South Pass.
Movie viewing in Rapid City was slim pickings. I had to settle on the final action in David Fincher’s Alien3. I remember when it came out. I went to the theater hours ahead of time, expecting Aliens-lines, but hardly anyone went to see it opening night, or any night. I was so disappointed by that movie. Now it’s kind of fun to watch. Wow, those aliens – no matter what movie they’re in – are so awesome – so outlandishly creepy and inexorably vicious. And they don’t even have a name! Aliens. They’re just Aliens. I love how skinhead Ripley becomes a Christ figure. Arms flung out – crucified by fire.
My night at the Comfort Inn in Scottsbluff, I switch between The Transporter and that silly dragon movie with Dennis Quaid. Then I hit paydirt on TCM. Overlord (1975), directed by Stuart Cooper, has just been introduced. I’ve always wanted to see this – and I get to see the whole thing, no commercials.
Overlord is a simple but stunningly powerful anti-war film set during World War II, about a refined English lad who is called up for service in 1944, just in time to be trained for Operation Overlord: the Invasion of Normandy. Innocently practical about getting ready to leave home, Tom makes sure to get the copy of David Copperfield he loaned to a friend. With his fine but mischievous features, Brian Stirner as Tom looks like a cross between James Franco and James McAvoy. What follows is elemental. He goes off to training camp. He is trained. He meets a young woman at a dance. He kisses her. He goes off to war, convinced he will be killed outright.
Director Cooper melds his own black-and-white footage with black-and-white wartime footage of the bombing of London, various strafing runs, and preparations for D-Day. Sure, the war footage is not Cooper’s own, but he manipulates it to produce some mesmerizing, surreal images: bombs completely isolated in white air; strafing bullets chewing up a locomotive, a barge, a river. Meanwhile, Cooper’s own camera uses light and lines dramatically to capture images that achieve that distinctive visual clarity caused by a fatalistic soldier’s adrenaline rush.
Ah, the supreme joy of one’s first viewing of an excellent film! The movie starts late, I’m planning to get up at 4 a.m. so I can see the sun rise at Chimney Rock, but I never move from the bed as I watch the film, but I’m careful to turn the volume down during loud scenes so the disapproving desk lady doesn’t call the stringent Scottsbluff police.
(For more historical background and commentary on related filmography, please go to Into the West: A Road Trip Preview.)
(Look for Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Days Three and Four – coming soon.)