Thursday, June 18, 2009

Set in the West: A Road Trip Preview

I love Westerns, and I love the West. Growing up in California, my family vacations took me on road trips to the great National Parks west of the Mississippi River. In later years my younger brother and I went camping or backpacking in the Sierra Nevada whenever we had the chance. A cross-country drive with my wife included a requisite stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Last summer, I did a road trip starting from Billings, Montana, taking in the Little Bighorn again so I could shoot video for a documentary for my history class, and continuing on to Yellowstone National Park. (Below is the prologue to this documentary.)

This July, I will fly back to Billings, Montana, to start another western road trip. Day One: Back to the Little Bighorn to take some footage in a different light; down to the site of the Battle of the Rosebud, the precursor to the Little Bighorn that turned back General Crook's column on June 17, 1876. Day Two: Parallel the Black Hills to the east; Pine Ridge Reservation and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre south of the Badlands; into Nebraska to Fort Robinson where Crazy Horse was killed. Day Three: From Scottsbluff, Nebraska, along the Oregon Trail; Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock, Register Rock, Fort Laramie. Day Four: Independence Rock; Devil's Gate; back to Montana; stop at the site of Reno's attack west of the Little Bighorn River. In late July, I will post my Log of a Road Trip along with a video of sites of historical events depicted in Western films. What follows here is an introduction to history and filmography related to those events.

The area between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming has always been my favorite area historically. This was the sacred hunting ground of the Lakota and other plains tribes, and it was the location of the final conflicts between the whites and the plains Indians in the latter part of the 1880s, the history encompassed in Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Within this area, or nearby, Custer bit the dust, Crazy Horse was killed, and the last tragic Indian “battle” took place at Wounded Knee. This is my spirit land, too, and when I’m there, I travel back in time to that period of history, and I visualize scenes from films that depict those events and locations.

Alas, there is no great theatrical film about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876. Films like They Died With Their Boots On (1942) nurtured the Custer legend but the battle scene has little basis in fact; Custer’s men don’t even attack a village. Here Custer (Flynn) is a martyr sent in Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade fashion to certain death. Appealing to World War II era emotions, Custer's final departure from wife Libby (Olivia de Haviland) is a beautifully shot scene made achingly poignant by an eloquent Max Steiner theme. This Errol Flynn feature is a fun entertainment – and I like how it established Custer’s regimental tune Garry Owen as the iconic anthem for a movie of this kind – but the oak trees and golden hills of southern California are a poor match for the cottonwoods, coulees, and ridges of the Little Bighorn Valley.

In Little Big Man (1970) the Custer’s Last Stand depiction is more accurate in regards to terrain, and it captures some of the truth and the spirit of the event from the Indian point of view; otherwise, it is much more representational than historically accurate. Closest to the historical truth, and filmed at a location near the real battle site, are the Little Bighorn battle sequences in the TV mini-series Son of the Morning Star (1991) (image below), with Native Americans playing the parts of the Lakota and Cheyenne. I love the meticulously accurate details: officers wearing straw boaters; Springfield rifles jamming; soldiers committing suicide in fear of torture; Indians stripping the dead bodies and taking the soldiers' accoutrements. To date, this film includes the best depiction of the battle, the most historical portrayal of Custer, and the most authentic depictions of Crazy Horse and what his people were like.

You would think the more recent HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, released in 2007, and based on Dee Brown’s book, would be meticulous about historical accuracy, but the depiction of the Little Bighorn battle that comes in the beginning of the film is ludicrously fallacious in regards to terrain and how the battle occurred. With the recent publication of James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn: The Last Great Battle of the American West, an excellent piece of non-fiction incorporating all the latest research that radically revises what occurred on the ridges above the Little Bighorn River, the time has come for a great director to undertake the production of a theatrical film about this crucial event in the history of the Lakota and their allies.

A bit of a digression here to say that in my opinion Little Big Man incorporates the best portrayal of Native Americans in a theatrical film. Through the eyes of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) – who knows the Cheyenne “for what they were” – the Cheyenne are, indeed, romanticized, but they are also presented as the very alien persons they must have appeared to white men. We see their peaceful, family-oriented culture, but we also see the realities of that culture. One reason for their nomadic nature is their mounting “garbage dump” and the accumulation of human and horse waste this seems to imply. The Cheyenne are shown doing the things they liked to do – stealing horses and engaging in conflict in order to win coup feathers. They acknowledge that it is “a good day to die.” Yes, Jack Crabb’s “grandfather,” Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), is as whimsical as he is wise, but he is also bloodthirsty and earthily graphic about his sexuality. As for Jack Crabb, he is a white man accepted as a Cheyenne, but he is just another one of the Indian guys, not a great white leader they look up to and follow.

Kevin Costner would like to think that Dances With Wolves (1990) is the definitive American theatrical portrayal of Native Americans. The film is lauded for employing Native Americans to play all the parts, speaking in Lakota with subtitles. (Back in 1970, Little Big Man also used Native American actors.) But the film idealizes and romanticizes the Lakota more than it paints a realistic picture of them. Yes, they kill cruel Pawnees and white cavalrymen, but the latter are portrayed as dirty, sleazy degenerates, and audiences don’t mind it when the Lakota kill them to save a white man. In the beefed-up video re-issue of the film, the Lakota come back from killing and scalping white buffalo hunters, but the hunters have laid waste to a herd that is crucial to Lakota survival. The film never shows that a Lakota might kill merely for the sake of counting coup; the Indians are never shown glorying in the fight for the sake of honor and prestige.

In contrast, Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is graphic in its depiction of Apache-perpetrated violence. Yes, the Apaches have reason to be bitter about white encroachment, but they kill innocent white women and children because it is part of their culture. When they kill an enemy, they assume the power of the dead victim. Ulzana’s Raid and Little Big Man are about Indians. Dances With Wolves is about Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) and his relationship with the Lakota. At first, Dunbar is initiated into the tribe and taught the language and customs of the culture. But very soon he assumes the role of the paternalistic white man who conveniently finds a captive white woman he can marry. (Jack Crabb has four Cheyenne wives at one time.) Wind In His Hair, played by Rodney A. Grant, is the film's most realistic Lakota character. His first appearance is awesome – the wind playing through his long hair and the decorations hanging from it. He is wild, elusive, and alien, but he looks up to Dunbar and he cries out in pain when Dunbar must leave the tribe. Losing his white friend is portrayed as the greatest loss in his life.

I much prefer Rodney A. Grant’s portrayal of Crazy Horse in Son of the Morning Star. He is truly the strange man of the Oglala. He takes no scalps. He refuses to adopt white culture (though he is not averse to carrying a Winchester). Without mercy, he kills white gold miners encroaching upon the Black Hills. His portrayal of Crazy Horse comes the closest to the truest portrayal of a Native American living in the late 1800s.

Southeast of the Little Bighorn, in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, is Camp or Fort Robinson where the great Oglala leader Teshunka Witko (Crazy Horse) died. On September 5, 1877, he came to the fort expecting to be given his own reservation. Instead, he was arrested. Resisting, Crazy Horse was held by an Indian named Little Big Man and stabbed by a white soldier with a bayonet. Another version of the story says he was accidentally stabbed by Little Big Man. Crazy Horse died that night. The final scene in Son of the Morning Star is a dramatic depiction of the mortal wounding of Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse lies dying in the dust, singing his death song, while onlookers form a circle around him - the symbolic hoop of the Lakota nation that has been tragically broken.

Another movie made for TV, Crazy Horse (1996), starring Michael Greyeyes in the title role, is another historically accurate account of the famous Indian leader’s life, and it includes authentic depictions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Crazy Horse’s death. Camp Robinson is also the place where, on January 9, 1879, Cheyenne prisoners were shot down while trying to resist their return to the reservation, an event depicted in John Ford’s last Western: Cheyenne Autumn (1964) (below). Contradictory in mood and over-long, the film still displays John Ford's inimitable talent for grand visuals. Starring Richard Widmark and Patrick Wayne as cavalry officers, and Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban as Cheyenne leaders, Cheyenne Autumn serves as a tragic concluding chapter to the famous director's cavalry films.

Not far from Fort Robinson, on Pine Ridge Reservation, is the site to the Wounded Knee Massacre. Apprehended after leaving their reservation at Standing Rock following the death of Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, approximately 350 Minneconjou men, women, and children were escorted to a camp near Wounded Knee Creek and surrounded by 470 members of the 7th Cavalry of Custer fame. On the morning of December 29, 1890, as soldiers were disarming the Indians, a struggle over one man’s rifle resulted in an accidental gunshot that started the indiscriminate slaughter of over 200 Minneconjou by Custer’s old regiment.

For a long time, films have shied away from depicting this shameful episode in American history. As far as I know, the first brief depiction of the massacre came in Hidalgo (2004), with Viggo Mortensen, but what we see is small-scale and merely representational. The HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (image above) focuses mainly on the last days of Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) and the experiences of Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a Lakota physician, but it also includes a depiction of the Wounded Knee massacre that redeems the film somewhat for its silly Little Bighorn depiction. Although shown as a fleeting flashback that robs it of gripping immediacy, the incident unfolds accurately. Most effective are shots of the aftermath: the bodies lying scattered in the snow and the frozen body of Chief Big Foot matched with the famous photograph. A more detailed, more visceral depiction of the Massacre at Wounded Knee comes in the sometimes silly but often gripping and mostly authentic TV mini-series Into the West (2005) (image below).

As for accuracy of the depiction of conditions and conflicts at Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, in the 1970s, Thunderheart (1992) (see below), directed by Michael Apted, starring Val Kilmer and Graham (Dances With Wolves) Greene, is a noble effort that dramatically employs the stark Badlands terrain in its climactic scene. Michael Apted’s 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala is a noteworthy depiction of those same conflicts and of the conviction of Leonard Peltier for the deaths of two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout.

The Oregon Trail, like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, deserves a worthy depiction in a theatrical film. During this 18-year migration, considered the largest human migration in recorded history, over 300,000 emigrants made the 2,000-mile journey from places like Independence, Missouri, to the Williamette Valley in Oregon. The silent film The Covered Wagon (1923) and Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, with John Wayne, capture the realism of terrain and hardships, but they did much to promote the factual inaccuracies adopted by subsequent Oregon Trail films: unwieldy Conestoga wagons pulled by horses or mules – not the light wagons drawn by oxen; families riding in the wagons – not walking alongside; hordes of Indians attacking fortified circles of wagons – not stealing in at night to take livestock.

The Way West (1967) (image above) gets the terrain right, but nothing much happens in this ponderous, disjointed adaptation of A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s novel, starring Kirk Douglas as a zealous, hard-driving senator with dreams of establishing his own city in Oregon and a tired Robert Mitchum as a washed-up wagonmaster. There are some historically accurate details that have stuck in my memory: the engraving of names on Independence Rock; the discarding of furniture as the wagons climb South Pass. But there isn’t much story here and, sadly, very little panoramic sweep, which is a shame for a film about the Oregon Trail. All I remember from my viewing of this film back when I was fifteen is a very young Sally Field playing a randy farm girl who gets pregnant by a married man, but when he gets hanged to prevent an Indian war, she marries a teenage boy with a crush on her and introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh.

How the West Was Won (1963) (image below), a silly film I rather enjoy, depicts how the Oregon Trail was not done: Conestoga wagons drawn by horses, a high-speed pursuit by Indians that seems to echo Stagecoach, and Debbie Reynolds leading sing-a-longs. The TV mini-series Into the West includes a depiction of families moving west on the Oregon Trail, but the film also packs in the California Gold Rush, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the Wounded Knee Massacre in typical made-for-television, family-saga fashion, and the Oregon Trail sequences have no memorable impact. Despite romanticism and historical inaccuracies, films like these can't help but make stunning use of spectacular western locations, and I'll watch any film set in the Old West simply for the exteriors.

On July 13, I go into the West. The sprawling country I drive through will make it easy for me to visualize the historical events that occurred here and the Westerns that depict those events. Upon my return I will post my Log of a Road Trip with a video, historical commentary, and further reflections on films set in this part of the West.


Jason Bellamy said...

Damn, dude! This was epic! Looking forward to the video logs!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks! The mere contemplation of the West puts me in an epic mood. I am looking forward to the widescreen landscape.

The Film Doctor said...

Excellent post--very thorough. Enjoy your trip, and thanks for the links.

Richard Bellamy said...

You are most welcome - and thanks for the comment. As I write, I am in a motel lobby in Billings, Montana. Tomorrow - the Little Bighorn, the Rosebud - and more!