A MAN CALLED HORSE
(director/writer: Elliot Silverstein; screenwriters: Jack DeWitt/from the story by Dorothy M. Johnson; cinematographers: Robert Hauser/Gabriel Torres; editors: Philip Anderson/Michael Kahn; music: Lloyd One Star/Leonard Rosenman; cast: Richard Harris (John Morgan), Dame Judith Anderson (Buffalo Cow Head), Jean Gascon (Batise), Manu Tupou (Yellow Hand), Corinna Tsopei (Running Deer), Dub Taylor (Joe), James Gammon (Ed), William Jordan (Bent), Eddie Little Sky (Black Eagle); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Sandy Howard; Paramount Home Entertainment; 1970)
“A test to see how much pain its hero and the audience can take before yelling Uncle.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s based on a short story by Iowa-born writer Dorothy M. Johnson and written by Jack DeWitt. Elliot Silverstein (“Cat Ballou”/”Nightmare Honeymoon”/”The Car”) directs this sometimes impressive torture pic as if the film was a test to see how much pain its hero and the audience can take before yelling Uncle. The traditional Western genre in the 1970s was undergoing a change and films began to take the viewpoints of the Native American no matter how savage it showed them to be. It’s the first of four sadomasochistic Westerns British actor Richard Harris starred in. The others were Man in the Wilderness (1971), The Deadly Trackers (1973) and The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976). The harrowing film had little entertainment value but some anthropological value (it was a cross between being totally ridiculous and totally sublime); unfortunately too much of it looked like an exploitation film for its sublime worth to fully be established. It was a precursor by some 20 years to Dances With Wolves in its attempt to tell the Indian story from their point of view through a white man. “Horse” claims to be authentic in capturing the Dakota Sioux tribal life, manners and customs, and over 80 percent of the dialogue is in Sioux without subtitles. So it’s safe to say that the dialogue wasn’t the important thing about the film except to make a point about its accuracy. Though the unpleasant Sun Vow Initiation ceremony (something that was pure fiction and created by writer DeWitt), which seemed to go on forever, has the Sioux prisoner Harris suspended in mid-air from ropes with hooks and bone daggers inserted in his pectorals to prove he has the right stuff to be a warrior and chief. It’s a ritual the Sioux never used but was inserted here for its melodramatic effect and to enhance Harris’s over-the-top egocentric performance (so much for its self-proclaimed authenticity as being the pic’s main purpose; in fact, the respected Sioux nation historian Clyde Dollar kept a running list of the mounting inaccuracies and anachronisms). The torture sequence was supervised by John Wayne’s stunt man Yakima Canutt.
In 1825 English lord John Morgan (Richard Harris) is in the Dakotas on a hunting expedition shooting prairie chickens and is captured by a Sioux raiding party while his three guides are scalped. Getting a kick out of Morgan’s yellow hair the Indians drag him back to their camp and his captor, Chief Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou), enslaves him to an old squaw who is on her own, Buffalo Cow Head (Dame Judith Anderson). Morgan is tortured and ridiculed by the tribe on a daily basis and gets his name Horse because he serves as a beast of burden for the squaw. The only one in the camp who talks his language is a Frenchman named Batise (Jean Gascon), who was also captured by the Sioux and made a slave. For trying to escape, the Sioux cut both his legs so he shuffles around now with a decided limp and makes no more escape attempts.
Batise, who speaks the Indian’s language and understands their customs, acts as Morgan’s guide through his captivity. Morgan shrewdly plans to escape once he advances to chief, and is willing to abide by their customs and act as savagely as they do to advance his cause. To prove himself he kills and scalps two scouts of a Shoshone war party. Morgan is attracted to the daughter of Chief Yellow hand, Running Deer (Corinna Tsopei, former Miss Universe), and asks her dad for permission to marry her even though the marriage is opposed by Buffalo Cow Head because she doesn’t want to lose her slave. To get all his wishes Morgan must endure the torture of the Sun Vow and after successfully performing the ritual Morgan ties the knot with Running Deer. When Yellow Hand is killed in a Shoshone attack, Morgan kills the Shoshone chief in retaliation. During the fray, the pregnant Running Deer is slain by the enemy. Afterwards Morgan agrees to become Buffalo Cow Head’s son so she won’t become an outcast, as she would surely perish within a year without his help. For his bravery during battle, Morgan’s named tribal chief. When the old squaw dies, Morgan leaves the Sioux and sadly returns to England to resume being just a lord.
The Australian stage actress Anderson was 73 when she acted in this film, but the talented actress was miscast in a part where she spoke no English and acted like a raving crazy woman–a part a lesser actress could have handled with ease.
The revisionist Western is in the company of other such films in the 1970s that include Soldier Blue (1970) and Robert Aldrichs Ulzanas Raid (1972), and it seems to relish its uncompromising use of violence to establish its realism. I found it more gory than gripping.
REVIEWED ON 8/1/2008 GRADE: C+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/