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THUNDERHEART (director: Michael Apted; screenwriter: John Fusco; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Ian Crafford; music: James Horner; cast: Val Kilmer (Ray Levoi), Sam Shepard (Frank Coutelle), Graham Greene (Walter Crow Horse), Fred Ward (Jack Milton), Fred Dalton Thompson (William Dawes), Sheila Tousey (Maggie Eagle Bear), Chief Ted Thin Elk (Grandpa Sam Reaches), John Trudell (Jimmy Looks Twice), Julius Drum (Richard Yellow Hawk), Sarah Brave (Maisy Blue Legs); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert De Niro/Jane Rosenthal/John Fusco; Columbia TriStar Home Video; 1992)
A fascinating murder mystery story that at the same time brings to our attention the plight of the modern Indians living on the reservation.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Written by white man John Fusco as a liberal viewpoint on current Indian affairs. It was inspired by a few incidents that took place in the 1970s on Indian reservations in South Dakota that had to do with the activist civil rights movement, including the Wounded Knee siege in the 1970s and the conviction of AIM member Leonard Peltier for the murder of two FBI agents on evidence that remains fishy. Director Michael Apted (“35 Up”/”Coal Miner’s Daughter”/”Gorky Park”) helms this fictitious film with those incidents in the Badlands in mind as reference points, and creates a fascinating murder mystery story that at the same time brings to our attention the plight of the modern Indians living on the reservation, their traditional yearnings, the story of a buttoned-down FBI agent getting back in touch with his native roots when investigating a murder on the reservation, and the corruption and neglect of the federal government in dealing with Indian affairs. It’s a superior film that sets a proper authentic spiritual Indian mood, mixes in good action scenes with politically sharp informative scenes, and gets outstanding performances from everyone concerned.

In Washington D.C., young gung-ho sunglass Rayban wearing snarly FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer, part Cherokee), whose deceased father was part Sioux, is chosen to assist veteran FBI agent Frank ‘Cooch’ Coutelle (Sam Shepard) to investigate the murder of an Indian man on the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota only because of his Indian blood. Ray is in denial about his Indian blood and the assignment makes him feel ashamed of his roots, as the feeling superior to the Indians agent observes the poverty on the reservation and sighs with relief he escaped such a fate. The animated sharp-tongued dedicated tribal reservation cop Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene) and the mysterious elderly dedicated tribal medicine man Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk) believe the FBI is going after the wrong man in suspect Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell), someone part of the activist traditional movement on the reservation that opposes the tribal council headed by the belligerent swaggerer Jack Milton (Fred Ward) and his intimidating armed goons. Jimmy belongs to the Aboriginal Rights Movement, or ARM (a fictionalized version of the real-life American Indian Movement) that opposes Milton’s corrupt tribal council.

When Ray’s hard-boiled cynical boss partner Cooch could care less if the FBI got the right man or not, the young agent smells something wrong and begins to investigate on his own as he brings back his repressed Indian roots through ghostly visions thanks to the assistance of the dedicated full-blooded Indian activist teacher on the reservation Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey) and the visionary medicine man Sam Reaches. The Dartmouth educated single mom, Maggie, is concerned that the reservation water is contaminated and being covered up by the corrupt tribal council, while the medicine man has a vision that Ray is a descendant of the legendary warrior Thunderheart and that it’s through his spirit the agent will have a spiritual reawakening and fearlessly act to help his struggling people.

The story represents a strong indictment of the continual injustice in Indian affairs. Though it is overwritten in its plot and probably would have more impact if it were more subtle and written by an Indian who knew in his heart the language to use that would express better what was on the minds of activist Indians than a well-meaning white man could, nevertheless it’s an important film that is respectful in showing the traditions kept alive on the reservation and in exposing the questionable conditions on the reservation. It also tells a tense murder story, that holds our attention throughout.

Thunderheart was shot on location at Badlands National Park, Wounded Knee and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (called the Bear Creek Reservation in the film)in South Dakota.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”