A Man Called Horse - Native American Movie Listing
If people thought Mel Gibson had it tough getting people to watch a movie that was fully in Aramaic, think back to 1970 when A Man Called Horse came out. This movie is almost entirely spoken in Lakota, and there aren't subtitles. This helps you to really get a sense of what it was like to be thrown into a foreign culture and to try to thrive there.
Richard Harris plays John Morgan, a nobleman from England who has gotten bored with life and has been romping around the plans of the American West to find something more interesting. This is back in the 1820s, before the civil war, when there were vast expanses of quiet. Suddenly, Morgan is captured by the Sioux Indians. They treat him like a pack animal, calling him horse. It's not necessarily that the natives were "excessively cruel" to their captured slaves, in an unusual way. They looked down on them just as the southerners looked down on their slaves. They treated them as functional possessions - to be fed and watered, but certainly not paid much concern to. Morgan has to do chores, eat what is given to him, and sleep outside in the cold.
Morgan learns to do what he must to stay alive, including defending his dignity. We get an "I am not a horse!" stand, very much reminding us of "I am not an animal!" from a certain other movie. Every person wants to be respected for their humanity. The chief's sister falls for his good looks and soon the two are making goo-goo eyes at each other. But there's a catch. For Morgan to get the girl, he needs scars on his chest.
In a scene which probably goes down as one of the most memorable in all movies featuring native american cultures, claws are inserted into Morgan's chest muscles and he is suspended by them, spinning in slow circles. It is of course agonizing. But it was also a rite of passage, a way for a boy to prove he had become a man. A tribal "tattoo" if you will. The ceremony was the Sun Dance, to celebrate the strength and power of life.
The wedding party walks the bride to Horse's home
I give the movie high marks for really striving to keep the situations authentic. We don't get translations of all the Lakota language, nor is the movie "dubbed" in English. Instead, you have to listen to the native language and try to learn as you go what they are saying. There are of course English sections where Morgan is talking to himself or to another captive in the group. The clothing, the homes, the ceremonial lodge are all quite fascinating to see. Many of the actors were from the Sioux reservation and knew how to do these things properly.
That being said, there is also a bit of "English dude saves backwards natives" as well. It's Morgan's skilled tactics that save the day when a battle ensues - even though this tribe has been fighting wars their entire lives, while Morgan has been off lazing in the sun. The chief's daughter could marry whoever she wanted and choose the "best of the best" - and she goes for Morgan. In very little time - and without really learning the language - Morgan goes from looked down on slave to most exulted leader.
I am also a bit embarassed that they had such trouble finding real native americans to play the lead roles. I realize if we watch a movie about the Roman Empire we tend to have Americans, not 100% Romans, playing those parts. They put Americans into all the parts in a Robin Hood movie, too. However, Native Americans *are* Americans and they were right there in the areas that the movies were being filmed. Instead, they took actors who did not look Native American at all, painted them red, and made it seem that it was good enough. I certainly understand that a good actor can submerge himself into the part, but if the movie is about a captured male African slave and his traumas coming to America, it wouldn't do well to have that played by Gwyneth Paltrow and filmed in Siberia. As good as an actress as she is, the visual mismatch would interfere with the story.
Still, in all, it is definitely a movie to watch at least one, and appreciate the parts that were done well. At one point, Morgan's fellow slave crows over a bad thing which has happened to one of the Sioux. Morgan turns and snarls at him, asking him if he has learned nothing in the five years he has been with the tribe. I certainly appreciate that sense that we can all learn from other cultures, if we would just open our ears and listen.
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