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From Tonto to Thomas Builds-the-Fire: Native American Representation

by Assessor

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Before he became Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies, Richard Harris played the lead role in the 1970 film “A Man Called Horse.” The movie tells the story of John Morgan, an English aristocrat who gets captured by the Sioux. While the film claims to offer an accurate portrayal of Sioux culture, it falls short in certain areas. Let’s delve into the complexities of Native American representation and the need for more authentic storytelling.

A Flawed Portrayal

In “A Man Called Horse,” the main characters are played by actors ranging from Greek to Mexican to Fijian, instead of Native American actors. This casting decision undermines the credibility of the film’s attempt at portraying Sioux culture accurately. Although the extras were played by actors from a nearby Sioux reservation, it is essential to have genuine representation in leading roles to truly capture the nuances of a culture.

The Plight of John Morgan

The film unfolds with John Morgan and his fellow white companions traveling in America. Unfortunately, their camp is attacked by the Sioux, resulting in the deaths of the other men. John, in the midst of taking a bath, encounters a narrow escape while being pursued by his attackers, spending a significant portion of the film completely naked. While this fact may be intriguing, it does not contribute to the discussion on Native American representation.

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Lost in Translation

John is eventually captured by the Sioux, who treat him as little more than an animal. Much of the dialogue in the film is spoken in Sioux, without translations provided, leaving the viewer as bewildered as John when it comes to understanding the conversations. This narrative choice, although challenging for the audience, adds to the authenticity of the film, showcasing John’s struggle to adapt and communicate.

The Violence Predicament

Violence and brutality are prevalent throughout the film, particularly in its depiction of the Sioux tribe. While it is commendable to confront the harsh realities of history, the film’s fixation on the brutality of the Sioux can overshadow a more nuanced portrayal. It is crucial to strike a balance between portraying historical accuracy and avoiding the perpetuation of stereotypes.

The Shoshone and John’s Transformation

The film introduces the Shoshone, an antagonistic tribe against the Sioux. John earns the trust and respect of the Sioux by killing and scalping two Shoshone men. This act of violence elevates John from a slave to a warrior within the Sioux tribe. However, it reinforces the trope of a white savior, undermining the agency and strength of Native American characters.

John’s Love Story

John’s newfound status allows him to interact freely with the Sioux tribe, leading to his romantic involvement with Running Deer, a Greek model portraying a Native woman. Unfortunately, the film overlooks the need for genuine connection and understanding before John decides to marry her, reducing Running Deer to nothing more than a superficial object of desire.

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The Sensationalized Vow to the Sun

To marry Running Deer, John must undergo the Vow to the Sun, a ritual that involves painful body modifications. The film sensationalizes this scene, emphasizing the gruesome details for shock value. While striving for accuracy, it is essential to consider the line between authenticity and gratuitousness, ensuring respectful depictions of cultural practices.

Inevitable Tragedy

John’s leadership and happiness within the Sioux tribe are short-lived due to societal prejudices of the time. The film succumbs to racial anxieties, as an audience from the 1970s would perceive a white man being involved with a Native woman as controversial. The storyline takes a tragic turn when a Shoshone attack results in the deaths of both Batise and Running Deer, prompting John to reconsider his place within the Sioux tribe.

The Quest for Authentic Representation

“A Man Called Horse” strives to deliver an accurate portrayal of Sioux culture, surpassing some previous attempts. However, it becomes entangled in its pursuit of authenticity through violence. This film serves as a reminder that Hollywood should continuously strive for more genuine and inclusive storytelling, offering a platform for Native American voices to shape their own narratives.

Image from amazon.com

Note: The image used in this article is sourced from amazon.com and is for visual representation purposes only.

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