The Western film can and does come in many forms and can be produced in the most unlikely countries and locations. For example, Turkish filmmakers made several so-called westerns as did the Greek film industry and there were the red westerns, even the British invaded the genre and at times produced memorable examples that aspired to the heights of and rivalled Hollywood productions.
Spain too was industrious in this genre with movies such as A Town Called Bastard or Hell depending where you saw it at the cinema, Paella westerns as they were nicknamed were probably the closest to the Italian or spaghetti, pasta, macaroni westerns that were to become so popular and ended up being revered rather than ridiculed, it is a genre that is still today well known throughout the generations.
Then there were the offbeat productions such as El Topo (1971), and the so called first electric western Zachariah from the same year, which has to be seen to be believed and had a score that was said to blow your mind by the likes of Jimmie Haskell, John Rubinstein, Michael Kamen and Mark Snow.
In the early 1970’s there were a number of movies that focused upon the native American Indian, most if not all being supposedly based upon true events, some were, others were questionable, however Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse and its sequels The Return of a Man Called Horse, The Triumph of a Man Called Horse, and the much publicised and hyped Ralph Nelson movie Soldier Blue, are what could be called or labelled prime examples of Native American Indians movies, the latter probably being the most notorious because of the final half an hour of the movie.
Back in the early days films such as They Died with Their Boots On, and other such glory movies depicted the red skins as savages and the white man as the hero of the day, the native American Indian was made to look a brutal and unforgiving race and depicted as a dumb character that would sell his soul for some of that firewater and a repeating action rifle to murder just women and children and runaway when the heroic cavalry came over the hill in their smart blue uniforms blowing the bugle and waving the flag. Totally untrue, it was the white man who invaded the lands of various tribes as in Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Apache. The natural thing to do is protect the homeland we as a global population and as humans instinctively do this, so why was it wrong for the Native American Indian to go down the same path? Well because the white man said it was and because the white man wanted those lands to plunder, something that we are still doing in recent years. Films pre-1970.s were primitive in this respect, with Natives of the prairies and plains being shown in a poor light.
Yes, there were probably some tribes or individuals amongst the Native American nations that had in mind to kill the white man, but it was to protect their people and their way of life and also in most cases in retaliation for what the white man had already done to them. It was probably not until 1964, in film and with the release of John Fords Cheyenne Autumn that things and attitudes began to alter slightly.
Anyway, I digress slightly, so back to the 1970’s when things began to look a little better in the way in which Indians were purveyed. I Will Fight No More Forever, is a thought-provoking example which was made for TV. Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack set in modern day scenarios too could be included within this more aware collection of movies, and going beyond the 1970’s there are numerous other movies that explored and based their stories on various Native American tribes and tales both fictitious and true.
Probably the most well-known motion picture in recent years to highlight the way of the Native American Indian is the epic directed by Kevin Costner Dances with Wolves (1991) which had it seems a profound effect upon audiences and upon the genre of the western, some say reviving it once again to audiences after its popularity had again slumped somewhat.
The musical score is one that is held in high esteem by collectors and critics, and it was not necessarily a western sounding work. John Barry’s eloquent and theme laden soundtrack played a major part in setting the mood and creating atmospheres for the movie and won the composer an Oscar for best original score.
Four years after Dances with Wolves came the lesser known but interesting The Last of the Dogmen, I suppose some would be tempted to argue that this is not a western in the true sense because of its contemporary setting and also the lack of gunslingers, shootouts in the street and saloon bars filled with cowboys, it did however retain something of an old west feel because of the native American community that was discovered hidden away in the forests and countryside, that knew very little of the modern-day life outside of their own environment.
The lost civilisation theme and the reluctance of the central character a twentieth century bounty hunter portrayed by Tom Berenger to comply to the ways of modern-day society made it an even more compelling story. We had seen this type of non-conformation to changing society in films such as The Wild Bunch with many of the central figures in that picture not wanting to leave the old ways behind and not being comfortable with more modern elements that were creeping into everyday life.
The Last of the Dogmen although being totally fictitious and bordering on fantasy for want of a better description, contained some interesting points and it was a movie that was affecting and one that became a firm favourite with many, when the movie started one thought this is ridiculous, but as it progressed and the story unfolded, those thoughts evaporated as one became more in tune with the ways of the American Natives that were involved, could this happen? Well, who knows? But the movie and its characters planted a seed in watching audience’s brains, and maybe they secretly hoped that it was something that could come to fruition, if only for the romanticism and the escapism aspects attached to it. Its again one of those movies where the audience are really on the side of the Native Americans, and the whites, in the form of on this occasion the law are despised for what they are doing.
The musical score is by David Arnold, who also scored Stargate in the same year, produced a very John Barry-esque opening theme for the movie. The score too in places it has to it those John Barry trademark sounds and evokes the composers work on Dances with Wolves, it also however contains a sound that can be identified with composer Trevor Jones, which manifests itself in some of the action cues and is somewhat reminiscent of Jones’s score for the Sly Stallone action thriller, Cliffhanger (1993). This maybe is due to the way in which the score was orchestrated. Arnolds lush and romantic theme becomes the core of the work, the composer returning to it in varying forms throughout. It oozes a richness and has a highly romantic and adventurous persona. This central theme is the foundation for the remainder of the work, it is haunting, emotive and at times harkens back to the days of the golden age of film music, filled with melancholy that is fully explored by the string section underlined and supported by the use of faraway sounding horns, the strings adding heroic and romantic notions to the proceedings and the faraway horns adding depth and creating an atmosphere that depicts and enhances the beauty and the harshness of the location.
Before returning to the 1970’s maybe a look at a Walt Disney movie which also had at its centre the Sioux Indians or at least one of them a young brave called White Bull played by Sal Mineo, who was probably an odd choice to play a native American Indian, because of his Italian/American roots, however he turned in a credible if not slightly sugary performance in the movie Tonka or A Horse called Comanche. Which I think led to him being cast in Cheyenne Autumn six years later. The movie was released in 1958, and although had a low budget was an entertaining piece of cinema which was typically Disney in that was something that all the family could sit and enjoy.
It involved a young brave (Mineo) who to prove his worth captures and tames a wild horse, only to have his older cousin take the horse away from him, the cousin beats the horse but White Bull releases it back to the prairies only to be captured again and sold to the 7thCavalry and given to non-other than General Custer. The story takes place at the time of the Sioux Indian wars and comes to its conclusion at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where Comanche or Tonka is the only survivor of the massacre. It is a rather far-fetched storyline but one that does command attention throughout. The musical score by Disney favourite Oliver Wallace, is serviceable and in my opinion works well within the movie. Although the composer is mainly associated with a studio that is considered American through and through as in Disney, Wallace was born in London, England on August 6th, 1887 and at the age of seventeen had already completed his musical training and it was in 1904 he decided to go to America, where he worked and lived for a decade before becoming an American citizen.
Wallace began his musical career in the theatre, and worked mainly in Seattle, as a conductor and then as an organist accompanying silent movies. Whilst doing this and gaining experience Wallace began to write songs and soon became known for his lyrics and accompanying music. In the 1930.s with the introduction of Talkies, Wallace began to work in Hollywood, and in the early part of 1936 he started to work for Disney studios. At first, he was given small assignments for shorts which were animated pictures, but it was not long before Disney noticed and appreciated his versatility both as a composer of scores for films and as a lyricist. His output in scoring short-animated films was at times unbelievable and he was said to have written the music for at least one hundred and thirty of these for the studio, his most famous being for the 1942 Donald Duck short, Der Fuehers Face which was a propaganda cartoon. Wallace was also assigned to full length features such as Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his music becoming as iconic and timeless as the movies themselves.
It was Wallace who also provided the April Showers cue for Bambi which too has gone down in film music history as a classic. In the same year as he scored Tonka, Wallace received four Oscar Nominations one of which was for the music to a documentary White Wilderness, which was unheard of at that time. But each time he lost out. Over a period of twenty-seven years, Wallace worked on over one hundred and fifty productions for Disney and created the soundtrack of many children’s lives via his infectious lyrics and delightful melodies. He passed away on September 15th, 1963.
As promised, we now return to the 1970’s and firstly to the incredibly entertaining Little Big Man, which had a cast that was notable to say the least, with Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam and the excellent Chief Dan George. Directed by Arthur Penn, (Bonnie and Clyde) the film was released on the 23rd of December 1970 in the United States. It opens with the one hundred- and twenty-one-year-old character Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) telling his story to a reporter, and the film is essentially his life story opening with the ten-year-old and his sister surviving an attack on their wagon train by Pawnee’s. They manage to hide away and escape the carnage in which they see their parents murdered, and are then found by the Cheyenne, who take them both in and raise them. The film takes the audience through the many adventures of Crabb being raised by Indians, and then returning to the world of the white man, after a fight with cavalry soldiers in which the Cheyenne are sent packing Crabb is captured and then taken in by the soldiers because they realise he is a white man, after this he is given into the care of the reverend Pendrake played by Thayer David and his wayward wife (Dunaway) who becomes Crabb’s Stepmother, tutor and temptress. After this Crabb meets Mr Merriweather, played by Martin Balsam.
Throughout the movie Crabb goes through various phases and stages one being that of a gunfighter, which is hilarious in places Hoffman turning in a magnificent performance as the soda pop kid, he meets and befriends Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) and is bounced back and forth between the world of the Native American Indian and the whites and ends up becoming a scout (Mule skinner) for General Custer, advising the deranged General played convincingly by Richard Mulligan (Bert in the tv comedy Soap) to go into the valley to face the Cheyenne and other tribes that are gathered there with the sole intention of killing him and his soldiers. Hoffman’s character says to the General “You go down there General”, Which Custer thinks is Crabb trying to convince him not to go into the valley as a kind of reverse psychology.
Crabb being raised as a Cheyenne married a girl from the tribe and is besotted with her, but she is killed by Custer when he orders an attack on the Cheyenne village. A village that is inhabited by women and children as the braves are off hunting or scouting.
The massacre is done in a similar way to that of the one depicted in the movie Soldier Blue alsofrom 1970, but even though it was shocking it was not as graphic as the Ralph Nelson directed movie. We do however see a blood lusting General Custer urging his soldiers to basically kill every living thing in the village. Which is something that would haunt Crabb who does try to take his revenge but is thwarted until later in the movie.
Jack and his adopted grandfather escape the carnage of the crazed and frenzied village massacre, because Crabb convinces his Grandfather that they are invisible to the soldiers because of a dream that the blind grandfather had. Crabb later becomes a scout for the 7th Cavalry and in the closing stages of the movie eventually leads the bluecoats and their power-crazy leader into the deadly massacre at Little Big Horn or Battle of the Greasy Grass as it was known by the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes.
Crabb himself is wounded by Cheyenne arrows and then almost killed by Custer who is his crazed state during the massacre decides that Crabb is the president and is drunk, just as Custer is about to pull the trigger, he himself is killed by two arrows from a Cheyenne brave, who then proceeds to knock Crabb unconscious and cover him in a blanket and carry him away from the battle. The movie contains both amusing and the dark elements of old west folklore, sometimes the historical correctness being a little sketchy, but it does have a powerful message regarding the cruel and relentless genocide carried out by the glorious U.S. army during this period. The battle scene at The Little Big Horn is obviously violent, but at the same time there is humour, with Custer becoming more and more psychotic as he realises that they are being wiped out and telling his troops that they are, whilst blaming everyone else for his mistake.
It remains to this day an entertaining piece of cinema and I think deserves the iconic or classic status/label that some do already refer to it as having when discussing the movie. It is a compelling and tragic story that many think of as the first neo-revisionist western. Hoffman may have seemed a little out of place and akward at times in the role of Jack Crabb, but maybe that is why the film and his performance were popular amongst audiences, with Chief Dan George also giving a magnificently memorable performance as Jack’s adopted Grandfather Old Lodge Skins. .
The film had a screenplay that was based on the novel by Thomas Berger and at times is a satire on the old American west having many comedic moments that are pure gold. In my humble opinion Little Big Man is a far superior movie to Soldier Blue, but there again these are two quite different movies that encompass similar themes. Little Big Man being the more polished of the two, because it succeeds in making a strong statement about the treatment of Native American Indians, but because the movie is so enjoyable this is something that audiences possibly will not realise until they have left the theatre or stopped watching the movie on DVD etc. It is then and only then that the images, events, and the words begin to come back to haunt them and the message and the true-life events hit home.
The musical score was written by John Hammond, or John P Hammond as he was sometimes known, he was the son of the well-known record producer John H. Hammond who was responsible for discovering the talents of Benny Goodman, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin. John P Hammond is probably better known for his guitar playing and performing with artists such as John Lee Hooker, Tom Watts and Charlie Musselwhite. Hammond was born on November 13th1942, in Grand Rapids Michigan, he is sometimes referred to as John Hammond Jnr. Although acclaimed by critics Hammond has not seen great commercial success but remains in the forefront of music to this day. The soundtrack from Little Big Man was released in 1971 on the Columbia record label in the U.S.A.
One could probably not look at 1970’s Native American movies without referring to A Man Called Horse (1970) and its two sequels, although it is probably true to state that the original move was the best in the trilogy, all three movies starred Richard Harris, but the first two like Little Big Man explored the ways of the Native American Indian to great depths. Harris’s character John Morgan is a British aristocrat who is captured and held prisoner by Sioux tribesman, who kill everyone else in his party. He is treated as a slave and called Horse because he is expected to work all day every day.
But eventually Morgan begins to understand the ways of the Sioux and they also start to accept him into the tribe as one of their own. He endures the agonising pain of the Sun Vow which is an initiation ritual where he is suspended on hooks that are placed in his chest to show his resilience, his bravery and dedication to the Chief. The exhaustive research that went into the dances and the songs of the Sioux nation for the movie is noticeable, with composer Leonard Rosenman’s score also being ethnically correct and never overwhelming or smothering the dialogue or action. The composer fusing Sioux voices at times with symphonic passages, which when combined add drama and support when required.The soundtrack was issued on the Columbia label on LP in the U.S.A. in 1970, and later there were a handful of compact disc re-issues.
It was not until 1976 that the sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse was released. Which saw John Morgan returning to his adopted tribe of Sioux to help them in their fight against extinction. This too was a brilliant movie with Harris again shining in the titular tole. Once again, enduring the trials and tests that the Sioux put him through including a variation of the Sun Vow before the Sioux fully accept him back into the tribe. The music was provided by Laurence Rosenthal, who penned a colourful and exciting soundtrack, which director Irvin Kershner said was the best score to any of his films. Describing it as a small-scale opera, it was this movie that brought George Lucas and Kershner together and ended up with Kershner helming Star Wars-The Empire Strikes Back for Lucas because Lucas felt that Kershner’s approach on this sequel was far superior to the original A Man Called Horse movie. I am not sure if I would agree with that, but nonetheless The Return of a Man Called Horse is most definitely a worthy addition to this sub-genre of films.
Triumphs of A Man Called Horse followed in 1983 but failed to have the impact of the first two movies, the score was by French Maestro, Georges Gavarentz, and I think I am correct when I say has never been issued on a recording.
In 1972, Ulzana’s Raid was released, directed by Robert Aldrich, the film tells the story of the Apache renegade Ulzana who leaves the reservation with a band of Apache braves with the sole intent of causing havoc and mayhem. The film starred veteran actor Burt Lancaster who had the year previous starred in Valdez is Coming and Bruce (Willard, The Strawberry Statement) Davidson as a rookie cavalry officer, who is determined to track down the Apaches his way, but eventually must turn to the more experienced Mcintosh (Lancaster) for help and advice. This is a classy western and a gripping tale that is handled well by filmmaker Aldrich, and with Lancaster giving a fine performance.
Music was by Frank De Vol who also scored The Dirty Dozen for Aldrich. The score has recently been released onto compact disc on the Intrada record label.
To 1980 for the next movie Windwalker, which starred Trevor Howard, in the title role. Originally Chief Dan George had been offered the role, but sadly became ill and the Director had very few actors to choose from, Howard may have been a little bit of a curious choice, but the veteran British actor gave a good performance. This is not a high adventure, movie, but is a true and illuminating account of the Native American Indian told via the story of a family. The film which was received well by Native Americans was subtitled because of it being spoken in Cheyenne and Crow apart from the narration.
The film is told in a series of flashbacks, with Howards character Windwalker who is deceased being awoken by the Spirits to take a spiritual journey to the afterlife. The film received limited distribution, but despite this became a popular movie, mostly because of recommendations from people who had managed to see it. It is a well-made motion picture, that was applauded for its stunning cinematography and for the sensitive way in which it depicted Native Americans.
I read that the movie was to be nominated for an Oscar, but because of technicalities regarding it having subtitles the nomination was not allowed. The music for the movie was the work of American composer and arranger Merrill Jenson, born Merrill Boyd Jenson on January 20th 1947, the composer worked on many films and projects for filmmaker Keith Merill who was the director of Windwalker. Jenson provided the film with an effective soundtrack which was supporting without being intrusive. The composer has written the scores for approx.; thirty movies and also has written for the concert hall and composed music for numerous commercials.
One of the common links between the movies I have highlighted is General Custer and the Battle at the Little Big Horn, and another such example was a TV mini-series that was produced in 1991 Son of The Morning Star, was I thought an interesting work, the story is told from two different outlooks on one side Libby Custer (Rossana Arquette) the wife of General Custer (Gary Cole), and on the other Kate Bighead (Buffy Saint Marie). It tells the story of the events that lead up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and gives a faithful account of what happened on the day of the battle.
The film succeeded where others failed because of its approach to the subject because it looked at both sides in the scenario. It looks at events that took place between 1866 and 1876, culminating in the now famous battle and the massacre of the 7th cavalry. The film runs for three hours but this is even far to brief to fully explain what happened in that ten-year period, nevertheless it is probably the best account of the life and times of General Custer and his relationship if that is the correct description with Crazy Horse. The film was directed by Mike Robe, with stunning cinematography and an impress script.
The inspired and driving musical score was by Craig Safan, who was known for a plethora of scores for TV projects and motion pictures, The Last Starfighter being one of his most popular for the big screen and his theme for the TV show Cheers enduring for so many years, still today being instantly recognisable. The soundtrack was issued on Intrada on a 2-disc set. In my humble opinion this is one of the composers best scores, during the battle scenes at the end of the movie the music is continuous and greatly supporting. The movie too is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection. I just hope that a better-quality DVD will be released at some point to highlight the stunning cinematography.
Hopefully. I have covered some of the films that are focused upon the Native American Indian and if I have neglected any my apologies.Other movies that I thought of include Major Dundee, Geronimo, and even a more recent modern dy set movie Wolfen, but then I suppose we could even turn to the Twilight movies which also featured Native American Indians. The list as they say is endless.