Monday, November 29, 2010

WINDWALKER (1980): The Magic of the Cheyenne

Mormons can be commended for a couple of quaint ideas.  They believe that revelation is continuous, and they hold that the American Indian is a member of a lost tribe from Israel.  Mainstream Christians have criticized the “strangeness” of Mormon beliefs, but I don’t think doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection or the Apocalypse are any less peculiar.  Whether Joseph Smith did or did not translate some tablets into English while authoring the Book of Mormon will always be a matter of controversy.  Yet the point of Smith that religious magic, if it indeed exists, should not be confined to a period of two to three thousand years ago seems valid.  And if it’s farfetched that the ancestors of Jacob somehow ended up on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean, at least it prompted some Mormons in the west to treat the American Indian with decency.  That’s more than can be said of most Americans.*
The author of the novel, Windwalker, is Blaine M. Yorgason, and the director is Keith Merrill, who happens to be a Mormon.  Merrill’s Mormonism, however, rather than impart the typical puerile message that the American Indian is little more than a child of nature without the depth (or even vices) of contemporary man, helped present a fictional elderly Cheyenne Warrior in some of his glory.  Mounted on a pyre and attended to by one of his twin sons (Nick Ramus) and family, Windwalker (Trevor Howard) lays down to die.  “It is a good day to die,” he says to himself quoting a Cheyenne saying.  However, it wasn’t such a good day to die.  Lying on the pyre while his family left to head south, he cannot leave this life yet because he’s still haunted by the existence of his second twin son.  The Crow Indians kidnapped the lost son (also played by Nick Ramus) while the son was still a child, and Windwalker’s wife Tashina (Serene Hedin) was at that same time murdered by the Crows.
Windwalker, instead of dying, arises from the pyre and also wanders south.  He finds his daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren fleeing from the Crow.  (Windwalker’s first son has been wounded and is now also separated from his family.)  Windwalker then guides the three through many adventures and does what he can to keep them out of danger.  He prevents the rape of his daughter-in-law at the hands of the Crow, and he kills a bear that is stalking them – the same bear which years before killed another one of Windwalker’s infant sons.  And all along, the elderly Windwalker sees visions of his young bride signaling for him to join her at the top of a hill.  When they have time to rest, Windwalker tells his grandchildren and daughter-in-law about his life.  (In the flashback sequences the young Windwalker is played by James Remar.)
One of the Crow warriors they encounter is somehow familiar to Windwalker.  Though disguised by feathers and war paint, Windwalker intuitively understands this to be his long lost son.  When the son is made to understand his connection with Windwalker, a heartfelt reunion takes place.  Windwalker then returns his grandchildren and daughter-in-law to his first son, and with nothing left undone Windwalker joins his deceased bride on the top of the hill and once again is a young man.
There are many people who dislike this movie.  Some individuals place incredible stress upon the fact that Trevor Howard, an Englishman, was not well suited to play a Cheyenne Warrior.  Considering what has gone down in the past as Hollywood depictions of the American Indian, I don’t consider this to be much of an objection.  At one time, it was not atypical to see Indians in movies played by Italian actors such as Ricardo Montalban.  And remember that as late as 1990 in Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner, who wanted so much to honor the American Indian, did not dare depict a romantic relationship between a white man and an Indian woman.  (The woman his character instead falls in love with is a white woman taken in by Indians.)  Howard, in my opinion, plays the part of Windwalker convincingly, and actual Indians played almost every other member of the cast.
Like the movie, The Bear, filmed in Canada and released in 1989, or March of the Penguins, filmed in Antarctica and released just a couple of years ago, Windwalker, which first came out in the theatres in 1980, does at times seem too “adorable.”  Though all three of these movies come very close to being children’s movies, the departure from conventional storytelling add a dimension to these movies that Disney films never have.  Windwalker is filmed in the Cheyenne and Crow dialects and is shown with English subtitles.  There are enough adult themes to make the movie unsuitable for some children and to make it satisfying viewing for intelligent adults.  Probably, elements of sentiment were added in hopes that it would pull in more of an audience.  (Unfortunately, that never happened.  I first watched this in college with three or four friends while there was nobody else in the theatre.)  However, the sentiment of the movie never overwhelms us.  The mysterious beauty of the story along with the striking scenery was more than enough to impress the moviegoer.  The depth of the character of Windwalker made what otherwise would have appeared a fable into a story of realism.
The most troubling criticism of Windwalker comes from those who see in this movie a sinister liberal agenda brought forth by Indian lobbying groups.  This actually speaks more to these individuals than it does to the merits of the movie.**  This movie is not a romanticizing of the American Indian, and it never decries the treatment of the American Indian by white Americans.  What it does do is tell a story without cynicism.  If anything, the movie is too innocent.  Yes, it tells a story about an astonishing man, but it does not tell it while at the same time trying to create the impression that this man was living in a paradise that would no longer exist for his ancestors.  It probably does tell of a mysterious world that no longer can exist with property fenced off and with people no longer free to roam the earth.  Windwalker was a deeply religious man in the best sense of the word.  Like all great religious man, he never quit searching for answers.  At most, the movie suggests that his quest would have been limited if he was forced to live in current society.
It’s difficult to believe that a people who fought so hard to hold onto a land that was taken away from them and who are now seeing such hard times did not at one time possess something better.  But if the movie Windwalker seems to make that suggestion, it does not at the same time claim that the American Indian never struggled before the white man arrived.  Windwalker never even addresses the onslaught of the white man.  (Outside of the movie, Little Big Man, to the best of my recollection, the relationship of the American Indian to the white man has never been addressed intelligently in Hollywood.)  Windwalker was never intended to tell the entire story.  However, it is one of the few movies with the American Indian as a subject that tells an authentic story.  Whether we quibble over Trevor Howard not actually being a full-blooded Indian in his role, only the most narrow minded of viewers would dismiss his character as a fraud.
* Mel Brooks spoofs the Mormon belief about the American Indian in Blazing Saddles when he has the Indian characters out west speaking in Yiddish.  That was a joke that probably has gone over the head of most moviegoers.
** A number of years ago I took a vacation in Alaska.  The airplane in which I was a passenger was flown by a white pilot and hosted by white stewardesses.  When the plane landed in Anchorage, I had the opportunity to observe the cleaning crew coming on board before I had a chance to leave the plane.  The cleaning crew was made up completely of Native Americans.  There’s some truth in it when people suggest that sympathy is caused by distance.  People who live far away both literally and figuratively from a situation often are the first to condemn others for the way they treated a suffering people.  Nobody living was actually there in the 1800s when the wars against the Indians took place.  And many now who comment upon our great shame for the way the American Indian was treated are so far removed from the Indian reservations that their sympathy rings extremely hollow.  But paradoxically, the condemnation by some individuals that the American Indian brought many of its problems upon itself generally also comes from a great distance.  The suggestion is that discrimination against the American Indian, if it ever occurred at all (which many still deny), was in the distant past and the native people need to now bring themselves into the present.  Unfortunately, when you see more than half of the Indian people not receiving a proper education, when you see many of the older adults ravaged by alcoholism, and when you see many of the reservations located in the poorest counties in the United States, a problem that so many deny responsibility for still very much exists.
July 17, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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