A Man Called Horse (1970)
(Release Date: May, 1970)

Go West, Young Man!Go West, Young Man!Go West, Young Man!Go West, Young Man!

Dances with Horses

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J.C. Maçek III
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When the creative filmic renaissance of the 1970s dawned a great many genres were revised and/ or challenged by the new wave of director-as-author. Many of these films have become some of the most influential of all time. Gangster flicks, war flicks, science fiction flicks... all kinds of subjects that weren't necessarily considered "high-minded" before the 1970s were given new life by the artists who re-crafted them.
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And, of course, one of the new old genres was the Western. And one of the more influential examples from this genre was A Man Called Horse. This disturbing, action packed and deep film is often buried in the filmic archives by the very movies it influenced. On the high end you've got Academy Award Winner Dances With Wolves. On the lower end you've got The Man from Deep River. One rung below that are films that have borrowed liberally from Dances With Wolves. On the lowest rung are those films that ripped off even The Man from Deep River.

The original film itself, however is really quite good. Looking back after this many decades it's not easy to see how unique and impactful A Man Called Horse really was. To a large (but not exclusive) degree Native Americans were portrayed as the generic bad guy in westerns, scalping and stealing from the "noble" cowboys as they braved the savage frontier. In fact, A Man Called Horse starts out not too differently from that motif. A bored British Aristocrat called John Morgan (Richard Harris) travels to the United States for some excitement, but instead finds himself unable to escape his boredom as if all his travel was, as he put it, "simply to kill a different kind of bird."

Well, he needn't be bored much longer as a tribe of Sioux raid his camp, kill his scouts and take him hostage. Through the broken translations of the tribe's jester Batise (a captured Frenchman played by Jean Gascon) John begins to understand the tribe a bit better than he did before. At first this is only as a means of escape. And why not? The tribe does put him through absolute hell.

And this is one of the things that makes A Man Called Horse memorable and complex. This isn't the stereotypical red-and-white morality of the early Westerns, but at the same time, this is not your standard feel-good flower basket of a movie showing how ALL Native Americans were good guys and ALL White Eyes were devilish land thieves. Director Elliot Silverstein and writer Jack DeWitt (working from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson) take great pains to show each individual as complex and flawed and each culture represented here as deep and multi-faceted.

The fascinating part here is watching John assimilate as much as he can of the Sioux culture in order to escape them, only to find himself understanding them more and more. Soon the insulting name of "Horse" becomes a name he can identify with and Horse becomes a brave warrior for the tribe.

Even this isn't a simple feat, however. There are no true easy answers here and the complexity of the film never really lets up. John and Horse are two sides of the same man, but aren't always necessarily in perfect harmony. No switch is flipped to show Harris playing John one day and Horse the next. It's never an easy ride and it's never succinctly shorn up. But, I will tell you this, predictably, there's a woman involved. And what a woman! Dame Judith Anderson gives a striking performance as the (less than beautifully named) Buffalo Cow Head!

The complexity and depth of A Man Called Horse doesn't drop it squarely into the field of "Art Film", though Silverstein and Cinematographers Robert Hauser and Gabriel Torres do manage to capture some amazing beauty for some silver screen art. At core, A Man Called Horse is still an adventure film with a love story. It's a high-mined Western, but a Western nonetheless. Why do I bring this up? Well, this film might not be for everybody. There are scenes of war, murders, scalpings and frank descriptions of unnecessary surgery. Those who have a hard time with watching scenes of intense pain might want to be aware of Horse's "initiation" sequence, during which his chest is pierced and he is hung (and spun) for a long, long time suspended only by the hooks in his flesh. The scene is tremendous and memorable, even awe inspiring. But it's also inspired a few Exploitation flicks, some of which have earned the title "Video Nasty".

For fans of high minded Westerns with a stomach for shock, a heart for adventure and a mind ready to be challenged, A Man Called Horse is calling you. Four Stars out of Five for A Man Called Horse, the influential and inspirational thinking person's Western. It stays, as it should, high on the list that includes Once Upon A Time in the West, Unforgiven and The Magnificent Seven. What's the best? That lies in the eyes of the beholder, but it's quite a list to work through! Next week we'll discuss my innate fear of being scalped. Thank you and God Bless... see you in the next reel.

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A Man Called Horse (1970) Reviewed by J.C. Maçek III
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