A Man Called Horse

Hey, peoples of the world: white guys are awesome! Suppose a white guy–a pasty English lord, let’s say–were kidnapped by a bunch of Lakota Sioux. Sure, he might try to escape from captivity once or twice, but after a while he’d be totally cool with it. Instead of whining like a paleface, he’d go out and kill some other Native American people, maybe grab him a scalp or two, and then finally prove himself to his tribe by undergoing a bizarre physical ritual and fucking the chief’s sister. Eventually, he’ll be the leader of the tribe, rocking a tomahawk and a headband and showing them how to skirmish, English-style.

That’s what A Man Called Horse would have you believe, anyway. The picture’s aspirations to authenticity are defined by an opening scroll that thanks a shortlist of museums–for what, exactly, isn’t clear–and cites historical documentation of the “rituals dramatized” herein. Though this is, in its way, as much an exploitation movie as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whose own “based-on-a-true-story” claims were completely spurious, I see no reason to doubt that the filmmakers were trying their best, within a variety of practical and commercial limits, to depict Native American life with integrity. And while some aspects of the film–like its resolute focus on the smug, silver-tongued John Morgan (Richard Harris) as both its unambiguous hero and an audience’s entrée to the story–feel hopelessly convention-bound today, there was a certain daring to it.

American moviegoers definitely weren’t used to being immersed in non-English dialogue, and big chunks of A Man Called Horse are spoken in the Sioux language. (The picture resorts to creating a secondary English-speaking captive, Batise (Jean Gascon), to translate the native tongue for Morgan.) And though Sam Peckinpah had, with The Wild Bunch, essentially exploded the classic western genre formula one year before, not everyone got the memo. A few of the film’s howlers–bits of business like one character’s too-dramatic death scene coming a moment after he loudly declares victory–might not have seemed so astonishingly silly to a 1970s audience. And its approach to violence was still somewhat startling, especially when it came to the “vow to the sun” sequence, the centrepiece and calling card of A Man Called Horse to this day.

In the film, once Morgan begins to gain a degree of acceptance among the tribe, he takes a shine to the chief’s sister, Running Deer (Corinna Tsopei), who starts making eyes at him like he’s a big turkey drumstick. He learns through Batise that he can only win her hand in marriage with a suitably lavish gift. When he finds himself in a mêlée with another tribe that nets him scalps and horses, he tries his luck presenting the animals to her. The horses are fine enough, but Chief Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou) wants him to prove himself through a ritual called the vow to the sun. Try me, says Morgan, probably incognizant of the fact that said “vow” involves having hooks placed through your pectoral muscles, the better to hoist you into the air with, only to spin you in a vision-inducing whirl and then leave you hanging for a good long time before allowing you to fall, in an ungainly lump, to the ground below. The bonus is that, as soon as you are able, your next big move is to screw the chief’s sister in a special white tipi erected for the occasion. (The picture fuses sex and suffering as inextricably as any contemporaneous horror offering.)

The vow to the sun is nowhere in evidence in the film’s ostensible source material, a short story by journalist Dorothy M. Johnson, but the filmmakers didn’t make it up from whole cloth, either. The ceremony depicted in A Man Called Horse appears to be based in large part on O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Ceremony, an 1867 account by the writer and painter George Catlin, one of the few outsiders who was ever allowed to witness the Okipa ritual practiced by the Mandan people. This section of the film is its strongest, partly because Harris gets to deliver a rousing, Hollywood-style speech to the tribal elders before enduring the ritual, and partly because the ritual itself is of such interest–to anthropological gawkers who enjoy rubbernecking at this aspect of Native American culture as well as to the body-modification crowd that borrowed from it for its own use.

Naturally, criticism rolled in. Some viewers took issue with the film’s emphasis on brutality, while others decried its appropriation of sacred ritual for the purpose of mass entertainment. Historian Angela Aleiss writes in her book, Making the White Man’s Indian, that Sioux historian Clyde Dollar saw many of his complaints dismissed as unimportant by the production even though he was ostensibly on hand to ensure accuracy, and that a greater focus on the Native American characters was precluded by Harris’s contract, which ensured his Morgan was the centre of the story. Then there’s the stuff they didn’t bother trying to get right, like casting. A Greek actress plays Running Deer, a Fijian is Yellow Hand, and, most egregiously, an Englishwoman (Dame Judith Anderson!) essays the tribe’s grieving mother, Buffalo Cow Head. Even Hollywood Indian archetype Iron Eyes Cody, who was later outed as an Italian-American native of Louisiana, shows up, presiding over the vow-to-the-sun ceremony.

If A Man Called Horse had more going on beyond its details of history and culture, the critical discourse surrounding it might not be so exclusively centred on anthropology. Truth is, there’s not much else to discuss. Harris spends large portions of the movie nude–which is admirable, but his role is less memorable for the humility he evinces early on than for the preachy self-satisfaction that develops once he earns his place in the tribe. The movie’s success didn’t lead to bigger things for director Elliot Silverstein, a TV veteran who made his feature-film debut in 1965 with Cat Ballou (which won Lee Marvin his lone Oscar). After only two more films–a rape-revenge flick called Nightmare Honeymoon and the infamous 1977 killer-automobile thriller The Car–he found himself back in movie-of-the-week purgatory. While cinematographer Robert B. Hauser, another TV lifer dabbling in features, catches a handful of beautiful Mexican landscapes, like the stunning deep-red sunset that opens the film, his work is mostly just serviceable, and neither he nor Silverstein has a knack for using the widescreen frame. Gene Fowler and Philip W. Anderson shoehorn in some expressionistic, quick-cut film editing meant to help visualize Morgan’s spiritual journey among the tribe, but the occasional flings with psychedelia, perhaps inspired by the “ultimate trip” proffered by 2001: A Space Odyssey, don’t mesh very well with the strongly traditional genre sensibilities of the rest of the piece.

The movie’s legacy among Native Americans is fraught. Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means wrote in his autobiography, “Its depiction of Indians as cruel savages was totally false, historically inaccurate, and highly racist.” I found online a copy of a defamation lawsuit filed against distributor Paramount Pictures by an individual plaintiff who claimed the film “made perfect assholes out of indigenous native [peoples],” which is another good way to put it. But the timing was right, and A Man Called Horse hit a nerve with mainstream audiences. Amazingly, Harris returned for sequels in 1976 and 1983. It has been an inspiration to filmmakers like Umberto Lenzi, who parodied the sun-vow sequence in a memorably tasteless, spectacularly repugnant, and arguably misogynist scene in 1981’s Cannibal Ferox. And, what do you know, DVD sales are strong enough to warrant a Blu-ray release. I’m mildly surprised the film didn’t birth a more robust cycle of exploitation westerns centred on the Native American experience–maybe Hollywood didn’t recognize the appeal of an American mythology with its roots in flyover country.

A Man Called Horse takes striking visual form in a 1080p, VC-1 encode on Blu-ray Disc. Artifacts are minimal–I noticed nothing but the occasional bare hint of mosquitoes dancing in the film grain around a sharp edge or two. Speaking of grain, I’d guess the image was carefully de-noised, but not egregiously so. The quality of the 2.35:1 transfer is a little uneven from shot to shot, partially owing to decisions made by the cinematographer that vary the look of the film’s exteriors. Select shots exhibit rather dramatic halo effects, but since those are mainly instances where fringing is apparent around dark objects backlit against an extremely deep blue sky, I’m inclined to blame those artifacts on the anamorphic lenses of the time, or perhaps on certain filters Hauser used in bright daylight, rather than on digital sharpening techniques. There is no indication of what elements were used to create the HD master, though I’m guessing most of it is taken from at least a nice intermediate source, with a few more contrast-y shots spliced in, perhaps from a good release print, where necessary. The frequently interspersed stock wildlife footage and occasional optical process shots appear somewhat grungier than the rest of the feature. This is all par for the course with an American movie of this vintage. I wouldn’t call it a stellar presentation, but it’s solid.

The silliest thing about this disc is that the original monaural soundtrack is available only in Castilian, German, Spanish, and French. We English speakers are stuck with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix or a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio “stereo surround” mix. I sampled both of them, switching on Dolby Pro-Logic to matrix the 2.0 track into my surround speakers. Considered only as a surround experience, the 2.0 option was actually more satisfying on my system, with plenty of ambient sound and music steered towards the rear of the room. The 5.1 track played at a somewhat lower volume overall, although the sound had notably better definition, especially the low frequencies pumping gently out of my subwoofer. Interestingly, there’s very little going on in the surround channels in 5.1 when Leonard Rosenman’s score isn’t being spread out back there. Some of the recorded dialogue is a little rough, and I found that it consistently had a bit more presence in 2.0. Because both tracks are losslessly compressed, I’d say either one of them is an acceptable option, but the 5.1 version will, ironically, get you closer to the film’s original incarnation. The mono tracks in other languages vary in quality–the Castilian track is bass-heavy, the French track sounds great but has no low end, etc.

Extras? There are no extras, unless you count a full complement of subtitles or some surprisingly minimalist jacket art that makes the Blu-ray look like a release from a boutique label as opposed to a major Hollywood studio (Paramount, in this case). It’s not the best thing ever, but it is refreshing.

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