Friday, March 15, 2013

Windwalker (1981)

Director: Kieth Merrill                                     Writer: Ray Goldrup
Film Score: Merrill B. Jenson                         Cinematography: Reed Smoot
Starring: Trevor Howard, Nick Ramus, James Remar and Serene Hedin

Ever since Dances with Wolves, it’s almost painful to watch films about Native Americans with Caucasians done up in “redface.” Older black and white films are a little easier to forgive, I guess, but those from the seventies and eighties are almost unwatchable. Windwalker is no exception. In the first place you have Trevor Howard in the role of the aging Indian chief. Really? Howard looks less like a Native American than almost anyone I can think of. And ever since his role in Mutiny on the Bounty, it’s difficult to see him as anything else but British. And speaking of typecasting, his younger alter ego is played by James Remar of The Warriors fame, another vision difficult to get out of the mind when watching the film.

The film tries for authenticity a few ways. First, except for the voice over narration, of which there is little, the actors on screen use the Native American Cheyenne and Crow language exclusively, but again, coming from white actors it almost makes it more insulting than authentic. Secondly, it also tries for a feeling of other-worldliness, in the same way that The New World would attempt decades later, but it isn’t any more successful in that respect than the later film. The problem is with the outdoor settings. While they are pretty good, the low-budget production values drag the whole thing down and make it look like a television movie. The Native American flute in some scenes is a nice touch, but during any action sequence the score reverts to standard film score language and instrumentation. All of which would lead one to believe that it’s a bad film. And it is. Still . . .

There’s something about the film that makes me loathe to dismiss it. It’s a rather intricate family drama that begins in the present with the death of an elderly Cheyenne chief, Howard, who tells his grandchildren the story of his own marriage and the birth of his twin boys, one of whom was stolen by the Crow. After Howard’s death, the Crow run across his family, who stayed behind the rest of the tribe to perform the funeral rites, and attempt to kill and capture them--only to find the job more difficult than they had imagined. One nice symbolic touch is that the scenes from the present, at the end of the Howard’s life, are filmed in the winter, while the flashbacks of his younger self, Remar, are filmed in the summer.

To be fair, all of the cast is Native American with the exception of Howard and Remar, and they are pretty good. Nick Ramus does a terrific job in multiple roles, and the children in the cast are terrific. While I can’t heartily recommend the film, there are things to recommend. Like The New World, the pace is slow and the dialog minimal in order to capture the essence of the Native American way of life at the time. There is no combat with whites, and the story benefits a great deal from that. And the ending is incredibly satisfying. So, if you’re prepared for the dated nature of the film, and understand the other limitations, Windwalker can be a rewarding experience.

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