Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Dir. Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow 

It’s Halloween and so it is time for a horror movie! Except I don’t really have any horror movies in the house so a slasher flick will have to do. And it is the granddaddy of all slashers: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Even before The Evil Dead this was one of the earliest ‘video nasties’. The British Board of Film Classification only cleared it for release in 1999, 25 years after it first came out. 
“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives they could not have expected not would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history: the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” 

My first reaction upon watching this much vaunted shocker was ‘What was all the fuss about?’ Okay, it’s grisly and it’s gory – but I’ve seen worse. The violence is sudden and any, shall we say, forensic activity is hidden from view. It hardly counts as ‘torture porn’ in the same breath as Saw, Hostel or The Human Centipede. Rather than flesh being shredded The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is more likely to focus upon a screaming mouth or a frantically-rolling eye. 

The action takes place in Muerto County, Texas. Graves have been defiled and a regular Mystery Machine of kids head out to ensure that their grandparents’ graves are intact. Upon leaving they have a run-in with a lunatic hitchhiker. While the wait the fuel delivery to an isolated petrol station they decide to visit the abandoned home of their grandparents. They then discover that the neighbours ain’t friendly… 

Writer and director Tobe Hooper creates a very threatening environment. The scene is set from the opening voiceover. The very first images we see are of a memorial fashioned from corpses. This is an America that is going to the dogs: defilement, crime, natural disasters and war fill the news. In Texas an unforgiving sun bakes the land. There is a constant white noise, either provided by the soundtrack or from humming generators, clucking chickens, chirping chickens. Everyone is on a knife’s edge. Literally in the case of the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal). It was all enough to make me feel rather unsettled before we had even caught sight of the monstrous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). 

And Leatherface is monstrous. He is barely human, a hulking idiotic brute, raw strength and power. Apart from swinish squeals he is silent and his face is unseen behind hand-stitched masks (prefiguring Jason Vorhees’ hockey masks from the Friday the 13th franchise). He seemingly keeps the corpses of his grandparents upstairs like Norman Bates in Psycho. He does use more modern technology – not just a lump hammer but also the chain saw of the title (and that is a ‘chain saw’ rather than a ‘chainsaw’ – the technology was not yet in common parlance). The lipstick on his second mask is even more frightening as it implies some form of sexual deviance. The hitchhiker obviously attracts some sort of thrill from drawing blood and interfering with corpses. Cannibalism is the least of this family’s deviancies. To them all flesh is grass. Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain) repulses his friends early on in the film by talking about cattle-slaughtering processes. To Leatherface and Co humans are just one more source of meat. Their house is littered with bone and flesh from cow, horse, bird and man. As the Hitchhiker explains, “My family’s always been in meat.” 

Leatherface made short work of the cloud
Is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre exploitative? Well, yes – but less so than many films today. In horror movies and particularly slasher flicks it is always the pretty young girls that suffer most. I guess this can be put down to residual misogyny on the part of directors and horror fans – who are, after all, mostly male. In The Evil Dead Cheryl gets raped by a tree. In Slither Starla wanders around in a negligee. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the three boys die suddenly and quickly; the two girls suffer worse fates. Contrary to the voiceover talking about the indignities heaped mostly upon Sally and Franklin Hardesty it is really Pam (Teri McMinn) and Sally (Marilyn Burns) that suffer the most. 

Despite this the film is watchable. To be honest I think tastes have moved on (of maybe ‘degraded’) since 1974; this means that there is little that is profoundly shocking about the film to a modern eye – except actually how little gore there is.  

What have I learnt about Texas?
Despite the film’s claims that this is a true story, it isn’t. There was never a genuine massacre with a chain saw in Texas. But there are elements of Texan life that can be discerned from the movie. There is the Spanish influence. This can be seen in Spanish names of the county (Muerto – ‘death’) and the sheriff (Jesus Maldonado). There is the terrain – baking hot plains under a dazzling sun, dried up waterholes and fields of sunflowers. There is the beef – cows and slaughterhouses. And there is the food – barbecue. Best not enquire too much about what meat is under all that sauce however… 

Can we go there?
The locations are fictitious. There is no town in Texas called Newt and there is no county called Muerto.

Filming actually took place north of Austin in Round Rock. A development called La Frontera now occupies the site. You can, however, still visit the home of the inbred cannibals – hell, you can even have a meal there! The building was disassembled and relocated to Kingsland in Llano County. In the grounds of the Antlers Hotel and Historic Railroad District can be found the Junction House Restaurant. This is the ‘Texas Chainsaw House’.

Other locations include Bagdad Cemetery in Leander and Bilbo’s Texas Landmark on State Highway 304 in Bastrop which was the gas station without any gas. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson

John Wayne was disgusted with the film High Noon. It was borderline Communistic in his eyes: a film where the Marshall is reduced to going door-to-door to beg his fellow townsfolk for help. And they all turn their backs on him. It was, to Wayne, a negation of everything that being American stood for. 

And so he got together with director Howard Hawks and together they made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. This was a film to show that Americans knew right from wrong and acted accordingly.

Wayne (previously seen in Dakota and True Grit) stars as Sheriff John T. Chance. He is not as compromised as in either of those two films however – here he is an out-and-out good guy. He arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder – much to the anger of his wealthy rancher brother Nathan (John Russell). Nathan stops up the town of Rio Bravo to rescue his murderer brother. But it is Chance’s duty as sheriff to see that justice is done. He does not seek assistance. He even turns it down when it is offered. Yet in their own ways a motley crew of people play their part in ensuring that the Burdettes see justice. The Burdettes laugh that all Chance has on his side is “a drunk and a cripple”; but both play their part. Dean Martin’s Dude, the drunk (or “Borrachón” as he is known in Spanish) quits the sauce and refinds his pride; the constantly kvetching tin-legged Stumpy (Walter Brennan, the steamboat captain from Dakota) also refuses to let his disability get in the way. Also offering assistance are wagon train owner Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond, the villain in Dakota, appearing alongside Wayne for the 22nd time), the smart young sharpshooter known as Colorado (Ricky Nelson), Mexican hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) and ever-so-slightly soiled rose ‘Feathers’ (Angie Dickinson) who visits Rio Bravo while gambling her way through the old west. The drunk, the cripple, the kid, the Mexican and the showgirl - outsiders all.
Only a desperate man would trade his waistcoat for whisky
The film ambles along, with the Sheriff and his deputies holding the line while Burdette’s hired killer poke and pry at their defences. It ends – of course – with a climactic shoot-out. This central story line is pretty good stuff and revolves around two people struggling with their own decisions. Dean Martin shows that he is not just a meatball crooner as he plays the part of a man resurfacing from a two-year drinking binge and discovering that he can take a lot of pride in who he is. He starts the film in tattered clothes, scavenging for coins in a spittoon; he ends it a hero. His stand-out scene has to be when he rediscovers his swagger by tracking a killer into the saloon; as he explains to Chance, he's nver been allowed to go in the front door before. Ricky Nelson plays the Han Solo part, a detached young man who looks out for himself but then makes the moral choice to get involved. Another plot line concerns the relationship between Chance (played by the 51-year-old Wayne) and the 22-year-old-ish Feathers. Angie Dickinson is certainly sparky enough, but she has to be because she gets nothing back from Wayne. It is a bizarre kissing-with-closed-lips affair. I can’t see what attracts Feathers to him enough to make her want to change her ways, and I can’t see that he is attracted to her at all. There is no passion or romance in their relationship at all; the nearest we get is Chance’s stone-faced threatening to arrest her if she goes out wearing (gasp!) tights! As such, it’s a rather weird sub-plot to foist upon the viewer. While I liked Angie Dickinson’s performance I felt this plot-line rather undermined the value of the remainder of the film. So too does one very odd scene in the jailhouse. The Burdettes have made repeated attempts upon their lives, the sheriff and his deputies are holed up insude… and they have a jolly little sing-song. Now don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice jolly little sing-song between Martin, Nelson and Brennan. But it just doesn’t fit. It is almost as though the studio, at a very late date, suddenly realised that they had two singing stars in the same film (Martin and Nelson) and thought that they had better get their money’s-worth out of them. They even threw in a few cut-aways to a genially laughing John Wayne. But it is hopelessly out-of-place at that point in the movie. 

Those caveats aside, the film ain’t bad. It benefits from not having the High Noon refrain played every four minutes; instead veteran western-score composer Dmitri Tiomkin takes a light hand with, for him, a rather unmemorable soundtrack. The action scenes are good and the characters of Dude, Colorado and Feathers are intriguing. There is plenty to arrest the attention of the casual viewer. It just could have done with being a bit tighter and having the romantic sub-plot dropped.

What have I learnt about Texas?
This is Western territory once again. Dry plains, looming rocky mountains, clapboard towns full of saloons and outfitters – and one plucky sheriff trying to hold the whole thing together. Money talks out here, with cattle barons having the most of it; they can hire men to commit crimes with their money. We have Mexicans here as well, drinking in the bars, playing their music and running hotels. 

The memory of the Alamo lives long in Texan memories. The Mexicans apparently played a piece of music over and over to unnerve the defenders and signal that they would give no quarter: that piece of music is the El Degűello that Nathan pays a band to play here to unnerve Chance and Co. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in the town of Rio Bravo (though, to be honest, it was never referred to that I heard) in Presidio County, Texas. This places it in the extreme west of the state on the Rio Grande river (referred to as the Rio Bravo in Mexico), roughly half-way between El Paso and what is now the Big Bend National Park 

Sadly Rio Bravo was not shot on location along the Rio Bravo – in fact no river is seen in the movie. If was filmed in the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was shot. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Week 44: Texas

"When the day is dawning
 On a Texas Sunday morning
 How I long to be there
 With Marie who's waiting for me there..."
 - 'Is This the Way to Amarillo?'
 Tony Christie

Form a line and we'll do the Texas Two-Step down to the Lone Star State!
Texas is, of course, the second largest state in America. How they must hate being reminded of that fact! It is also the only state to have existed as an independent nation before being subsumed into the USA. Its history is one of brave rebellion against the Mexicans - remember the Alamo! Now separated by the mighty Rio Grande Texas and Mexico have to my mind certain similar characteristics. Look at all the towns with Spanish names: El Paso, San Antionio, Laredo and, of course, Amarillo. They have a joint style of cooking: Tex-Mex. I invisage hot dusty plains peppered by bleached cattle skulls. This is serious cattle country, and with cows come cowboys in their ten-gallon hats. Now oil is the main source of wealth of course and the cowboys are outnumbered by oilmen like J.R. Ewing and George W. Bush.
The Texan is in many ways the archetypal American: a tough frontiersman, wealthy through his own efforts, a land-owner, a straight-talkin' straight-shootin' good ol' boy who likes things bigger and better than you can manage. He loves the open range and distrusts anyone wearing a suit. Particularly if they're Mexican.
My three films for the week are:
  • Rio Bravo (1959)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
  • No Country for Old Men (2007)

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Blind Side (2009)

Dir. John Lee Hancock
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates

Having watched movies this year about basketball (Best Shot) and baseball (Bull Durham) it seemed right that I watched one about American Football. But this isn’t it. American football may play a part in the story but it is not a film about American football. It is more properly a story about how a little Christian kindness can change someone’s life. 

Yes, that’s right – I used the word ‘Christian’, and I used it in a positive way. The Christianity shown in Inherit the Wind was one of bigotry and ignorance, a Christianity that believed in The Word of God. The Christianity shown in The Blind Side is one of compassion and charity, a Christianity that acts after the example of Jesus. 

Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is a product of an appalling background. With a drug-addict mother, an absent father (just one of many men who appeared and disappeared from his mother’s life), and a childhood spent in and out of one foster home and one school after another he has lttle in life to look forward to. He has always been passed along, a dirty little job for the next person to attend to. A friend’s father manages to wangle Michael a place at the private Wingate Christian School. It is there that he ccomes to the attention of Leigh Anne Tuohy (an Oscar-winning turn from Sandra Bullock). Realising that Michael has nowhere to sleep she invites him to spend the night with her family. One night becomes several and Michael becomes part of the Tuohys’ lives. Finally with people believing in him he becomes more confident. His school grades improve and – with a bit of an appeal to his protective feelings towards his adopted family – he starts to excel on the football field too. 

It is easy to be cynical about the events portrayed in the film. The Tuohys saved one boy from poverty – but as the film shows there are plenty more out there. Michael is a drop in the ocean. If he had not become an American football star would anyone really have cared about the story? And what happened to his friend and his father who managed to get him admitted to Wingate in the first place? They just drop out of the tale after five minutes. But where will cynicism get us? Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family follow their charitable instincts. Unlike her fellow Ladies Who Lunch she does not just organise charity events and donate to good causes – she is not afraid to act in the service of her ideals. She invites an unknown young man into her home. When he disappears she goes alone to the crime-ridden projects in which he grew up in search of him. She even verbally slaps down a gangsta who has the audacity to call her “bitch”. The film does hint at another reading of her behaviour; the National College Athletics Association suspect that the Tuohys might have taken in Michael just to benefit their alma mater, ‘Ole Miss’. But I prefer to set aside the cynicism and take the story at face value. The Tuohys have led very comfortable, blessed lives. In their own way they take the opportunity to change the future. One of Leigh Anne’s friends tells her “You’re changing that boy’s life.” “No,” Leigh Anne replies; “He’s changing mine.”  
Please Lord... take him back...!
If you want to criticise The Blind Side do not criticise the intentions of the characters unless you are willing to do the same and more. Criticise other things. Like, for instance, it’s kind of predictable. It is, like The Help, a story of how white people save black people. Once the Tuohys take that first step of inviting Michael into their home you can pretty much guess what will happen over the rest of the movie. It’s like a love story. Boy (Michael) meets girl (Leigh Anne). World does not understand their relationship. Struggles as they strive to make it work. Then, in the penultimate reel, there is a big argument and boy storms off. They patch things up and they all live happily ever after. I maybe wasn’t expecting the sudden cloud thrown over the Tuohys’ motivations but all the rest was as predictable as a Michael Bay movie. Or criticise the annoying smart-mouth kid brother SJ (Jae Head), one of the most precociously irritating kids I have seen in a film since Jurassic Park. Or, to be honest, criticise society when Memphis seems resolutely divided between wealthy white communities who send their children to private schools and attend prayer meetings with the District Attorney and impoverished black-populated sink estates swarming with drugs, violence and family breakdown. Do not criticise the people who try to make even a small difference.

What have I learnt about Tennessee?
Fifty years of civil rights do not seem to have led anywhere in Memphis. Black characters inhabit crime-ridden projects. Inhabitants are either pushing or addicted to drugs. Life is crude. They make specific reference to pickpocketting tourists on Beale Street. Education is the only way out, but that costs money. Social services do not care. In comparison the white characters in The Blind Side are wealthy and go-getting, athletically-inclined and well-educated. They are well-connected and religious. These two communities are very separate; they simply do not mix. The nearest they come is one of Michael’s step-brothers waiting tables at a restaurant the Tuohys frequent. Politically things are polarized too. The Tuohys and all their friends are Republican – Godfearing churchgoing members of the NRA. As Leigh Anne’s husband at one point comments “Who would have thought we would have a black son before we met a Democrat?” 

The Univeristy of Tennessee American football team play in a “gaudy orange”. Despite living in Tennessee Leigh Anne refuses to support them – it seems that they are sworn rivals of the University of Mississippi. 

Can we go there?
The film is based on real events in and around the city of Memphis. The real-life ‘Wingate Christian School’ was actually Briarcrest Christian School. Michael Oher still plays for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. 

The film was not filmed in Memphis however – shooting took place in Atlanta, Georgia. The schools used for Wingate were really Atlanta International School and The Westminster Schools (whose alumni includes Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind). Westminster supplied the school football pitch. The Tuohy house, which was supposedly in East Memphis, was located in the Buckhead neighbourhood. The area used to signify the poverty of Hurt Village, where the Ohers lived, was a section of projects in East Atlanta scheduled for demolition. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

The Evil Dead (1981)

Dir. Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManicor 

With Halloween a week away one’s thoughts turn, inevitably, to horror movies. The imprimateur of Sam Raimi – whether as producer or script consultant – is enough to get any horror movie greenlit these days, no matter how ropey. He himself has gone on to be a very successful director – his last film, Spiderman 3 had a budget of $350 million. So it is interesting to go back and see Raimi’s first directorial effort, made on a shoestring budget of $350,000 (one thousand times less than Spiderman 3). 

The Evil Dead sees five students head off for a break in the woods of eastern Tennessee. The wooden hut they have hired for the weekend hides its own secrets. A tape recorder discovered in the cellar reveals that an archaeologist used the lodge as his base while translating an ancient Sumerian text, the Naturan Demento or Book of the Dead. His words awaken an ancient evil and, one by one, the five friends find themselves possessed by a bloodthirsty demonic presence.

I feel like I have seen an awful number of pretty duff horror movies this year. To my surprise I can relate that The Evil Dead is not one of them. It may have some slightly amateur acting. It may have had a small budget. It may have a rather unnecessary tree-rape scene (which Raimi himself has apologised for). But it is a really enjoyable movie nonetheless. It may not be the scariest film ever, but it may well be one of the goriest. There were more than enough shocks, attacks and even laughs to keep me hooting in my seat. It’s the sort of film that left me shouting things at the screen: “Don’t go into the woods alone!” or “Don’t go into the cellar!”  

The first half sets the scene well. A camera panning across a bubbling oil-black lake, something unseen pushing down through the trees, clouds bubbling up and covering the moon, a fog creeping across the ground, a ticking clock pendulum stopping suddenly mid-way through its swing, a horrific face scrawled on a sketch pad. The suspense builds. And builds. And then explodes in an orgy of violence. Grisly make-up, sudden attacks, gore and violence – Raimi knew when to change the mood completely and just go for bloody mayhem. The violence is comic-book-like, the results are all kinds of grue and ick. Yet there is imagination in the shooting. The camera throws the audience off balance with low shots, crazily tilted angles and – in one case – an overhead upside-down view which swoops down dizzyingly. There are images that will live long in the memory, whether it is Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) peering out from the cellar, the giggling doll-like possessed Linda (Betsy Baker) or the blood-spattered projector. There are teasers too – Ash (Bruce Campbell) picks up a chainsaw… but then puts it back down again. I was looking forward to him fighting off the armies of darkness with a chainsaw! Oh well, there’s always the sequels, right…? 
Never again would he use the shotgun
to open a tin of tomato soup
I wish I knew what the secrets were to making a good horror movie. The Mist got good write-ups, but I thought it was terrible. The Messengers had fairly average reviews, but I thought it was pretty good myself. The Evil Dead has achieved cult status – and for once I am inclined to agree with majority opinion. I expected very little of it and was blown away. I really, really enjoyed it. I would happily watch it all over again right now. I can start to understand why the brand of Sam Raimi is so revered amongst horror aficionados. 

What have I learnt about Tennessee?
Not too much. Tennessee was pretty much a fall-back location. Raimi and co originally wanted to shoot the film in Michigan but were unable to locate any suitably atmospheric log cabins in the woods. They did find one in Tennessee and so they kept the location as it was. So all we can really say about Tennessee is that, in its eastern parts, it has hills and forests, winding country roads out into nowhere and isolated cabins. The sort of cabins to which archaeologists might retire to study ancient Sumerian tomes.

Can we go there?
The cabin is specifically mentioned in the movie as being in eastern Tennessee – while driving they cross the state line (those driving scenes were filmed in the vicinity of Clinch Mountain, Grainger County). The cabin was actually located not far from Morristown. The cabin has well and truly collapsed in on itself now – all that can be seen is the remains of the fireplace and the shallow depression dug for the fake cellar. The evil trees have taken over the site. Neighbours don’t particularly like horror groupies (‘Deadites’) making their way to the place. Some have found it however. Some have even left directions... 

The bridge was located some miles further south, in the vicinity of Newport and Bridgeport. Lots of reshooting took place back up in Michigan. For instance, the cellar never existed at the original cabin – those scenes were filmed at the farmhouse of the family of Rob Tapert (the film’s producer) in Marshall or the garage of San Raimi’s house in Detroit. Much of the ‘vine rape’ scene was filmed near the Campbell family’s summer cabin in Gladwin. And the opening shot of the black bubbling lake was taken near Hartland.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Dir. Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Gene Kelly, Dick York 

Inherit the Wind takes us back to the America of the 1920s.In a small town in a Southern state a teacher is arrested for the heinous crime of… teaching evolution. Fundamentalist tub-thumpers are up in arms, demanding that the Bible must be understood literally and cursing the name and works of Charles Darwin. Science and progress are seen as the enemy, opposed to the power of God and the miracle of his creation of the world in six days. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? 

Stanley Kramer’s film, based on a stage play, looks back and laughs at this religious bigotry from the cosy perspective of 1960. How we can chortle at the backwardness of these people from a distance of 35 years! 52 years later, however, and it appears that the same battles may need to be fought all over again. Belief in the literal truth of the Bible and in ‘creationism’ seems to be on the upsurge, and not just in the USA. Darwin’s theory of evolution is chided as being just that: a theory. It is notable that, until researching this project, I had never before heard of Inherit the Wind

In the film a mild-mannered teacher by the name of Bertram Cates (Dick York – later of Bewitched fame) is the man who challenges the authority of the town’s overseers by consciously choosing to break the state law which forbids public school teachers from denying the account of the origin of man set down in the Book of Genesis. He is arrested and imprisoned and the news turns ‘Heavenly Hillsboro’ into a national laughing stock. To the delight of the Christian fundamentalists in town the highly-respected populist three-time-presidential nominee Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederic March) arrives to lead the prosecution of Cates personally. However, a spanner is thrown into the works by ths slyly cynical E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald newspaper (a non-dancing Gene Kelly) who funds Cates’s defence by the controversial lawyer (and former righ-hand man of Brady) Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy). As the two titanic legal minds tussle over procedure and evidence in the court of Judge Coffey (Harry Morgan, briefly seen in High Noon but most famous for his role as Colonel Potter in the M*A*S*H TV series) Cates and his romance with conflicted pastor’s daughter Rachel (Donna Anderson) are increasingly side-lined. Cates taught a point on principle, and it is the principle that is contested in court rather than Cates’ guilt or innocence. 

Cates was always going to be found guilty. The state law was plain enough, and he contravened it. Drummond’s case is to make it clear that the law itself is at fault. He perorates:

“I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys everyone it touches: its upholders as well as its defiers. Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you can make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Catholic and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy and needs feeding. And soon, Your Honour, with banners flying and drums beating we’ll be marching backward – backward! – through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

If the plot seems far-fetched, sadly it really is not. Tennessee did have a law prohibiting questioning the literal truth of the Biblical creation of man. That law was only passed in the 1920s, some 50(!) years after Darwin first published his Descent of Man. And one small-town teacher did face prosecution for teaching evolution in soite of that law. His name was John Scopes rather than Bert Cates and the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ made headlines worldwide. The small-town was Dayton rather than Hillsboro. And the other main players were William Jennings Bryan (represented here by Matthew Harrison Brady), Clarence Darrow (represented here by Henry Drummond), and sardonic newspaperman H. L. Mencken (represented by E. K. Hornbeck). In fact there is a lovely photo on the Wikipedia page about the Scopes Monkey Trial of Bryan and Darrow – March’s Brady and Tracy’s Drummond look the absolute spit of them, down to their shirtsleeves and hairlines.  

But the film was about more than just the teaching of science. The 1955 play was a product of its decade. Much like The Crucible it is a tirade against the policing of thoughts. The play was a reaction to the McCarthyite era which prescribed what one could think and what one could do. When Drummond cross-examines Brady he asks whether all of God’s creatures have the right to think:
“Do you think a sponge thinks?”
“If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks.”
“Does a man have the same privilege as a sponge?”
“Of course!”
“Then this man wishes to have the same privilege as a sponge; he wishes to think!”

Inherit the Wind is a play about deciding where you stand. Taking a position because you have seen all the evidence and come to your own conclusions is much more valid than just regurgitating what someone else has said before. It is the refusal to listen to evidence – like the state forbidding even the mention of evolution in schools or the judge forbidding the testimony of scientists in court – which is the real crime. The Bible is just one book; “It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” 

The impartiality of the jury was cause for concern...

The actual facts of the Scopes trial are today rather mis-remembered. Popular perceptions for many years were shaped by this film. While the main plot, the major characters and a good portion of the action (Darrow’s contempt of court and his withdrawal from the case) were drawn from real-life events a lot more was the invention of the writers. One might say that the furtherance of creationism was seriously hampered while this film lived in the memory of the general public. It is interesting that Inherit the Wind seems to have become somewhat forgotten, just as an increasing number of people put their trust in religious dogma rather than science.

What have I learnt about Tennessee?
The great state of Tennessee is never mentioned by name. Yet it was Tennessee who introduced the state law in question and who was subjected to ridicule thereafter. Hillsboro is depicted as taking a joy in the sudden attention it receives and the arrival of the great and good from across America. The townsfolk are a pious, religious lot – so pious and religious that they can parade through the town singing that they will hand Bert Cates and Henry Drummond from a sour apple tree whilst burning their effigies. Wonderful. Religion in the ‘20s was one of hellfire sermons and outdoor meetings. As Hornbeck comments, “Whatever happened to silent prayer?” Mind you, with Hornbeck being the glib big city type he tends to think that small Tennessee towns are beneath his noticve anyway. 

Can we go there?
The action is set in ‘Heavenly Hillsboro’, though it was actually filmed on the Universal Studios Courthouse Square backlot in Hollywood. Another great courtroom drame, To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed here in 1962. In the 1980s it featured in Back to the Future, Gremlins and Weird Science.
Hillsboro, Tennessee does exist however. It is located in Coffee County, in south-central Tennessee, and is located not far to the west of Dayton, where the real-life Monkey Trial took place. The Rhea County Courthouse has been renovated. The courtoom used during the trial is on the second floor and the Rhea County Museum hosts exhibits relating to the Scopes trial in its basement. For balance a statue of William Jennings Bryan stands in its place. Dayton also hosts a Scopes Trial Festival (even if the 2012 festival had to be cancelled).

Overall Rating: 3/5

Week 43: Tennessee

"The Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar,
 I am following the river down the highway
 Through the cradle of the Civil War;
 I'm going to Graceland,
 Memphis, Tennessee..."
 - 'Graceland',
 Paul Simon

Music and travel are part and parcel of Tennessee. From the south we could indeed be shadowing the mighty Mississippi so we can go walking in Memphis to the sound of the Beale Street blues. From the east we could have hopped onboard the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. From the east we would be coming in through the Cumberland Gap. Right in the centre of the state Nashville's Grand Ol' Opry (as seen in Coal Miner's Daughter) is the spiritual home of Country & Western. Back again to the Graceland estate of Elvis Presley, the 'King of Rock 'n' Roll'. As Alannah Myles once sang, "up in memphis the music's like a heat-wave". Country & Western or Rock 'n' Roll... Tennessee has been home to not just Presley but Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, B. B. King, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. In fact, the number of musical luminaries is too long to list.
I was hoping to see and hear some of Tennessee's music in this week's movies. I've seen Walk the Line previously, however, and have been unable to get hold of a copy of Robert Altman's Nashville. My three films for the week are hence:
  • Inherit the Wind (1960)
  • The Evil Dead (1981)
  • The Blind Side (2009)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Thunderheart (1992)

Dir. Michael Apted
Starring: Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene, Fred Ward 

If Dances with Wolves shows the plight of the Sioux in the era of American expansion, than Thunderheart brings the story a century more up to date. What director Michael Apted (he of Coal Miner’s Daughter fame) does, however, is take some real life events as inspiration and weaves them into an action-packed and yet surprisingly spiritual conspiracy tale. 

It is the 1970s and Washington D.C. FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) is despatched to South Dakota to help Bureau legend Frank Couteau (San Shepard) investigate a murder. Ray’s primary qualification seems to be that he himself is Native American – or quarter Native American anyway. The murder has been committed on an Indian Reservation, and the victim was one of the tribe’s ruling council. It is thought that by sending the Indians “one of their own people” the FBI will be able to garner more support in a delicate investigation. 

It soon becomes clear, however, that the Sioux do not regard Ray as one of their own. They test him with Sioux phrases and customs; he always fails. They are dismissive of the Washington Redskin”. And Ray is just as dismissive of them. He in no way identifies himself as an Indian. He has only embarrassing memoties of his crazy drunk father. Driving through the poverty of the reservation he comments that life there might be more bearable if they only cleard out all the trash from their front lawns. He angrily tells Frank “These are not ‘my people’!”

It transpires that there has been more than one murder on the Bear Creek Reservation. In fact, by some markers, this isolated corner of the Dakota Badlands has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. There is practically a civil war going on. The Indian traditionalists of the Aboriginal Rights Movement (ARM) who call for a return to the old ways are pitted in a struggle against reservation chief Jack Milton (Tremors’ Fred Ward) and his pro-Washington Government Of the Oglala Nation (GOON) militia. Frank tells Ray to ignore the politics and just concentrate on solving the murder – especially when all the evidence seems to point towards ARM’s last remaining firebrand Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell). With doubts growing in his own mind Ray is forced to rely more and more upon the smart-arse tribal policeman Walter Crow Horse (Dances with Wolves’ Graham Greene) and ‘Grandpa’ (Ted Thin Elk). 

"If you could just sign it 'To Deirdre, with all my love...'"

What could have been a standard conspiracy thriller, with Ray picking apart the strands to the case, is given a couple of extra dimensions. Firstly there is plenty of action. Everyone is armed. Pick-ups of shotgun-wielding GOONs screech around the reservation. The FBI have their own guns to bring into play when suspects escape. And there is also the most inventive use of a badger as an assault weapon that I think I have ever seen. The gun fights are handled crisply and cleanly. The opening murder, seen in silhouette, is quite vividly and interestingly depicted. Secondly, the spiritual traditions of the Sioux themselves come into play. Corpses are placed face down so that their spirits will not return. Walter uses his Tonto-esque tracking skills: “Whoever killed Leo walks heel-toe… This guy was a big son of a buck. Based on the depth of that print, pressure released, I’d say he goes about 210, 215 [pounds].” “You gonna tell me how much change he had in his pocket?” “Sixty-three cents.” Ray is told that Jimmy has the power to shapeshift. The spectre of 1890’s Wounded Knee Massacre looms large. And as Ray starts to accept his Sioux heritage he is helped from beyond the veil by fragmentary dreams and images. Walter is pretty miffed when he hears of these :“You had yourself a Vision. A man waits a long time to have a Vision and he may go his whole life without having one. Then along comes some instant Indian with a fucking Rolex and a brand new pair of shoes – a goddam FBI to top it all off! – and he has himself a Vision.” Ray’s awareness of his heritage and the bad faith of the Givernment comes to a head when, in an ironic restatement of his earlier views, he tries to distance himself from what is clearly turning into a whitewash: These are not ‘my people’!” 

The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government – not just in the 1860s but up to the 1970s with the paranoia and protest of the Nixon era – is a shameful episode and kudos to Apted for bringing a real set of circumstances to the screen. It is clearly something he felt strongly about – the same year he released the documentary Incident at Oglala looking at the occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1973. The story is involving and the setting is unforgettable. The film is shot in amongst the hoodoos and mesas of the Badlands – but these are badlands studded with abandoned vehicles and interspersed with night-time roadblocks. The characters are given space to breathe. Grandpa is a wily old Indian trader with a love of Mr Magoo cartoons as well as a respected spiritual leader. Graham Greene’s Walter looks like something out of Easy Rider and snaffles all the best lines. In fact the only weak spot is Kilmer’s Ray. His initial briefing was the sort of thing I felt I had seen a hundred times before in The X-Files and elsewhere. It seemed a hackneyed introduction to the film. Likewise when he suddenly started spouting Maggie’s case file it just struck a little untrue to me. And his conversion seemed too rapid. In one scene we see him leaving Grandpa’s caravan angrily, frustrated with being – as he sees it – spun a line, and in the next he is turning up at the house of Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey) with gifts for her grandma to get her side of the story. He goes from suspicion to trust in five seconds and I felt that was dealt with too fast and simplistically. Yet other than this the film is an enjoyable watch and shines a light upon a dark period in American history.

What have I learnt about South Dakota?
Rather than roaming unchecked over the great plains the descendents of those Sioux featured in Dances with Wolves are now restricted to reservations. Frank tells Ray that the Sioux used to own the whole area right up to Canada. Now all they control is an area of “the third world” right in the heart of America. Thye reservation depicted is desperately poor; the population inhabit shacks and trailers and their surroundings are scattered with litter and abandoned cars. 

The Indians have their own police force, but their powers seem to be restricted to traffic violations. More serious crimes are reserved for the FBI – cue arguments about “jurisdiction” 

As shown in this movie the 1970s saw conflict between pro-Washington reservation authorities and traditionalists who resented American interference in their cultural affairs. These disputes turned violent, with American authorities backing the pro-Washington faction. This was a resumption of conflict going back to the era of Dances. One of the most infamous moments was the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. 

Can we go there?
It was a bit weird that the film depicted the events as occurring on the ‘Bear Creek Reservation’. From its position in the Badlands, its incorporation of Wounded Knee and the references to the Government of the Oglala Nation it is pretty clear that it could only have been the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation. The Wounded Knee Cemetery and Monument can still be found near the township of Porcupine. The Stronghold, to which Walter and Ray flee, is part of the Reservation, yet is also managed as part of the Badlands National Park.  

Overall Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Badlands (1973)

Dir. Terrence R. Malick
Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri 

The phrase ‘killing spree’ implies that there is a certain amount of enjoyment in the killings. That is not the case in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Here the killings are merely a regrettable consequence of two teenage runaways’ bid for freedom. Throughout the entire tale Kit and Holly (The Departed’s Martin Sheen and Coal Miner’s Daughter’s Sissy Spacek) seem numb to the consequence of their actions. They are having their “fun”, and anyone who looks likely to put a stop to it is eliminated. 

Kit is a small-town no one in 1950s South Dakota. His blessing and his curse is that he bears a resemblance to James Dean, the cinematic rebel par excellence. And Kit too is a rebel without a cause. He fixates on his relationship with 15-year-old Holly as his motivation. When her father (Warren Oates) forbids him to see her he shoots him. He then writes his own story, burning the house, leaving a suicide message, building a tree house so that they can live off the land. When asked why he did what he did he answers that he “always wanted to be a criminal”. As a criminal he has an inflated sense of his own importance. He says that he cannot face dying without having a girl there to scream his name. Without the girl he arranges to be captured wearing his stolen hat – it is a look he thinks suits him. He builds a cairn to commemorate the place where he was finally captured. He thinks people will care. And they do. As a captive he grows in stature, confidence and eloquence. He passes around his lighter, pen and comb as momentoes to the law-enforcement officers who brought him in. He has a cinematic vision of himself as rebel, as criminal, as fugitive. 
Something told the Straw Man that he was not on
the Yellow Brick Road anymore
For Holly it is all a game. She plays with makeup, she lives in a treehouse, she questions a dying man about the spider he keeps in a jar. It is like a child’s adventure story – but with murders and manslaughters along the way. She never participates in the killings… but she does nothing to stop them either. She does not engage but she watches. “I didn’t feel shame or fear”, she says, “just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” They are things that happen but she never seems to appreciate the consequences. Neither of them particularly think about what they are doing. They are blank individuals, motivated by primary sensations – hunger, excitement, ‘love’. The love they talk about does not seem particularly romantic; their sexual encounter is certainly not passionate; the fun they have does not actually seem overly enjoyable. Kit’s dialogue and Holly’s narration is based on clichés. They say what they think they ought to say, they behave how they believe they ought to behave. Raised on movies and music and gossip magazines they try and play a role despite never feeling the emotions they claim to experience. Badlands is Camus’ L’Etranger on celluloid.

And if L’Etranger is Camus’ most famous work, Badlands is Terrence Malick’s. His first feature, made with a then-unknown cast (including Malick himself in a small role when the actor origionally cast failed to turn up), on a budget of around $35,000 is now hailed as a classic. It is, in turn, fascinating, engrossing, frustrating, perplexing. No judgement is passed on the actions of Kit and Holly. In this it echoes the hapless killers of In Cold Blood. We follow them and watch their lives. We know they have done wrong, yet we are still willing them on, either to escape into the mountains of Montana or to die in a hail of bullets like Bonnie and Clyde. And in fact neither happens. Yet this is in no way an anticlimax.  

The direction is seemingly sparing – just an odd touch here and there as the two protagonists escape across the great plains leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. Music is also used lightly. Grand choral work by Orff and Satie provides a soundtrack to fires and flights; Nat ‘King’ Cole underscores a waltz in the desert. 

The film is based on a true story – the killings of Charles Starkweather and Caril-Anne Fugate in 1958. Yet this merely provides the original spark. What unfolds on screen, a tale of two dull, dispassionate people killing their way for no good reason across the dull, dispassionate desert of Dakota is a haunting vision with a life of its own. 

What have I learnt about South Dakota?
The landscape seen in Badlands is much less appealing than the sweeping vistas of Dances with Wolves. This landscape is not epic. It is dull: mile after mile of dull grey dust. The promise and excitement of Montana is signified by the shadow of mountains on the horizon, growing gradually larger. The route west takes them away from towns, away from the woods and rivers of their homes, across a seemingly never-ending Stygian plain. Gas pipes run alongside the roadway – Kit uses these to refill the car, referring to the run-off as “trip gas”. They later find someone drilling in the ground, presumably for more fossil fuels. 

The towns that Holly knows in South Dakota are not big ones. Cheyenne, Wyoming, is described as being “a city bigger and grander than I’d ever seen” (though Rapid City, where Kit wishes the Soviets would drop the bomb, is roughly the same size as Cheyenne and Sioux City is twice as big). The towns don’t seem too terrible though. The area where Holly and her father live is nice and neat in a pleasant Victoria style. They later on invide a rich man’s house – a large grand affair full of antiques and with sweeping grounds dotted with statuary. There must be money to be made in the towns of South Dakota, even if the countryside is bleak. Still, with a name like ‘Fort Dupree’ the area’s frontier past is alluded to. 

Can we go there?
The comments about the pleasant towns and the rich man’s house must be taken with a pinch of salt however, as the film was not shot in South Dakota. Instead Otero and Bent Counties on the eastern Colorado plains served as the principal shooting locations (the sheriff who captures Kit can be seen to have a Bent County badge on his uniform). The gas station where Kit was finally spotted by the police is in Delhi, Las Animas County. However, the rich man’s house was actually two separate Colorado dwellings further west. The interiors were the Rosemount Museum in Pueblo, south of Colorado Sprungs; exterior shots were of the Bloom Mansion in Trinidad, further south again.  

Fort Dupree, the town from which Holly and Kit flee doesn’t really exist. There is a town called Dupree, but it doesn’t sound much like the town depicted in the movie: the real Dupree is located on the territory of the Cheyenne River Indian Reserve, 70% of the population are native American, and its surrounding Ziebach County is the fourth poorest in the US based on per capita income. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Monday, 15 October 2012

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Dir. Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant

When you have very little free time Dances with Wolves is just what you don’t need: a three hour epic. It requires a not-inconsiderable commitment of time to watch it in one sitting. In fact I remember when it was shown on ITV in the ‘90s – the previous time I saw it – it had been split over two separate evenings. I found myself cursing the hubris of director / star Kevin Costner for putting together a three hour film for his first feature. However, while time-consuming, I thought Dances with Wolves was well worth the commitment. 

The film tells the story of Union officer Lt John J. Dunbar (Costner, back with a moustache even more impressive than that sported in American Flyers). After an act of conspicuous bravery in the American Civil War he is allowed to choose his next posting. He opts to head out west to “see the frontier… before it’s gone” 

In reality there is not much of a frontier. There is league after league of deserted prairie. The trek ends at Fort Sedgwick – little more than two dilapidated huts. The garrison is gone. Dunbar resolves to restore the fort and wait for reinforcements. However, the rider back is killed by Pawnee Indians. Although he doesn’t know it, Dunbar is alone. Well, not alone. He is spotted by a neighbouring tribe of Lakota Sioux who are unsure of how to deal with this white man. They fear encroachments onto their tribal lands. Led by the thoughtful holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and the impetuous warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) they attempt to make contact. Fro the other side Dunbar is also willing to establish a friendly rapport. With the intermediary of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonell) – a white child raised by the Lakota – a tentative dialogue is established. 

Much like Diodorus Siculus amongst the Celts, Dunbar comes to admire and love his new hosts. Their simple prairie life is one, to his eyes, of living in harmony with the land. This contrasts with the rapacious ‘sport’ of the white man. One of the most touching scenes is when Dunbar alerts the Lakota to the arrival of the buffalo, something for which they have been waiting with great anxiety. The tribe set off after the herd. Topping a rise, however, they witness a scene of desolation, dotted with the bleeding corpses of the buffalo. White hunters had got their first and slaughtered a good portion of the herd, taking only their hides and their tongues and leaving the meat upon which the Lakota depend to fester upon the plain. Whenever a white character – with the exceptions of Dunbar or Stands With A Fist – appears, they are mostly unpleasant individuals, be they the Confederate soldiers trying to pick off Dunbar during his suicide ride, the uncouth Timmons (Robert Pastorelli), or the unpleasant Union troopers who capture Dunbar and then take potshots at Two Socks, the wolf that has been accompanying him. 

It is because of this wolf that Dunbar was given his Lakota name – Dances With Wolves. Or something rather similar in Lakota anyway. I found it funny that Stands With A Fist would automatically translate the Lakota names into English: it’s like introducing yourself to someone as ‘Blessed of Jehovah’). His relationship with Two Socks is symptomatic of his relationship with the Lakota. The wolf is at home in this terrain, majestic and fierce yet curious. Kindness wins companionship, then loyalty. And then the magnificent creature is cruelly destroyed for sport by interlopers into its domain. And it has to be said: Two Socks’ experiences with Dunbar have contributed to his destruction. If Dunbar had not tamed out the wolf’s wild edges it would have fled the gunshots and survived. This probably contributes to Dunbar’s thinking towards the film’s end. By his presence among the tribe he has made them targets. A postscript notes that the last of the prairie tribes was crushed just thirteen years later. 

The message of the film comes across clearly – if maybe a little heavy-handedly. United States policy towards the native Indians was appalling. They were seen as the enemy without any real reason. Policy-makers never took the time to get to know or understand the people they were legislating against. This theme was touched on in another never-ending epic of roughly the same time, Legends of the Fall, but there Indians were bit-part players in a white man’s world. Here we see the native civilisation through the eyes of a white man. A culture that lived in harmony with the land and its resources was supplanted by an acquisitive and gluttonous one. There is a divide. Whites are bad. Lakota are good. The grey factor is the ancestral enemies of the Lakota, the Pawnee, who are characterised as blood-thirsty savages who later go across to the US side. But I’m sure if one were to interview a Pawnee they would have a different take on it. Having visited the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. it is notable that every tribe says that they were preyed on by their stronger neighbours. Let us not forget that the Lakota send out their own war party to attack the Pawnee. 

The question I found the film raising in my head was this: was the ‘victory’ of the expanding United States over the plains Indians inevitable? What was the quantative difference? Guns certainly played a part. Bad faith from Washington or on the ground from those in charge of expansion probably did. But in the end it was probably numbers. Numbers and an idea. The myth of the United States was enough to remake all whites, whether Union or Confederate, native born or immigrant, into ‘Americans’. For those willing to Go West the divisions of the Civil War were soon put behind them. Innovation, expansion and acquisition – views of the future – were more important than tradition, culture and history. Meanwhile the native tribes lived sustainable existences in marginal surroundings. They had no desire to head elsewhere other than their traditional homes. Their way of life did not support population booms. Their historic enmities and rivalries prevented a united front against the interlopers until it was too late. The idea of the future beat the idea of the past.

At three hours Dances with Wolves is a long film. Yet, unlike Legends of the Fall or The Deer Hunter there is very little flab. Perhaps some of the earlier scenes – such as his Apocalypse Now-esque encounter with Maury Chaykin’s mad major (“I have just pissed in my pants and nobody can do anything about it”) – could have been trimmed. But once Dunbar reaches Fort Sedgwick I think the journey he takes, and the lush cinematography is vital to the success of the movie. The camera lingers on the expansive contours of the terrain, it peeks almost anthropologically into the routines and rituals of the Lakota, it celebrates the culture and the attraction of the plains Indians. The native characters encountered by Dunbar are not cardboard cut-outs – they are drawn and portrayed more convincingly and in more depth than the white characters. Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird is just lovely. Always curious, often baffled, but always willing to extend the hand of toleration, it is one of the most charming depictions I have seen recently. There are issues with the film. As I have stated several times, I tend to dislike voice-overs, and Costner’s here is limp and dull. Apparently the natives speak the female form of Lakota (though I’m not sure how many people would pick up on this). And the white characters are, it has to be said, somewhat stereotyped. Yet this should not detract from the fact that the film is an astonishing achievement, one which touches upon real and uncomfortable issues, and one which never feels too long.

"No Dougal, those are not small - those are far away..."

The fact that Dances with Wolves was ever made in its current format shows just how far and how fast Kevin Costner’s star had rised in just a few short years. In 1983 his scenes were cut from The Big Chill. In 1985 he featured in American Flyers – a relatively minor flick. But then in 1987 he starred in The Untouchables. Just two years later and he could be found on the South Dakotan prairie outlining his plans for a mass stampede of buffalo with horsemen wheeling in and out of them. He refused to trim down his vision to less than three hours. I think he was right. 

What have I learnt about South Dakota?
In the 1860s the Dakotas were frontier territory. ‘Frontier’ needs to be defined however. The word conjures up images of fences and border posts. In reality the frontier was just a grey area where the authority of the United States government gradually petered out. Local rulers were military commanders several days travel back east, with only isolated sentry posts adrift in an empty landscape to prosecute policy. Communication between the two was intermittent. Likewise the notion of a frontier was alien to the native peoples who inhabited this land. They saw the entire continent as theirs to roam, changing location as the seasons or the buffalo herds dictated. 

The United States authorities defined the natives as ‘enemies’. However they were not the savages contemporary propaganda made them out to be. They were a civilised culture with respect for the environment and their interrelationship with it. Yet they were scared by the arrival of the white man and did not understand what impact these newcomers would have upon their way of life. Eventually the whites would supplant them totally. 

The landscape is majestic. We see the gorges and mesas of the cracked and broken Badlands, the epic sweep of prairies, and the forested and snow-bound valleys of the Dakotas. Wildlife includes deer, wolves, eagles and, of course, the buffalo upon which the native lifestyle depended. 

Can we go there?
Dances with Wolves was filmed on location in the magnificent natural setting of South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills. It is inspiring to see that such great swathes of prairie exist to this day. A visitor might even be lucky enough to spot a buffalo or two! 

Dunbar starts out from Fort Hays, Kansas. This was filmed in South Dakota, and the buildings of the fort can still be found at the Fort Hays Chuckwagon just south of Rapid City The wagon journey to Fort Segwick that Dunbar undertakes was filmed in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area of the awe-inspiring landscape of the Badlands National Park. The fort itself was constructed within the grounds of the Triple U Buffalo Ranch near Fort Pierre. This was also where the buffalo stampede was filmed. The ranch hosts the largest herd of buffalo in the U.S. Rather horrifically you can pay to go ‘hunting’ them there. The winter camp of the Lakota is Spearfish Canyon of the Black Hills, not far from the notorious Deadwood.

Lakota Sioux still hold lands in the area in the form of reservations. The nearest would be the Oglala Sioux Nation (Pine Ridge, south and east of Badlands National Park), the Rosebud Sioux tribe of the Sicangu Oyate (east of Oglala) and the Cheyenne River Sioux  (northwest of Lake Oahe). 

Overall Rating: 4/5