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

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