Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007)

This weekend I watched the 2007 HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, starring Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, Anna Paquin and August Schellenberg. The film chronicles the waning days of the Plains Indians in the latter part of the 19th century, beginning at Little Big Horn (1876) and ending at the massacre of Wounded Knee (1890). The story is told primarily through the eyes of the protagonist Charles Eastmen (played by Adam Beach), and Americanized Sioux doctor based on the historical Charles Eastman (1858-1939).

Overall this film was pretty good, and that is saying a lot for a traditionally minded Catholic who is extraordinarily picky about his movies. The film is mostly accurate to history - the role of the main character in certain historical events is exaggerated, but this is done thematically so that we see the film unfold through the lens of a single man's experiences. But as far as I can tell, most of the events portrayed and the characters involved in them are true to history. Last year I spent a month or so doing some in depth study of Native American culture in the plains and of the Indian Wars in particular (my great-great grandfather was in the Indian Wars) and found this film to be pretty true to what I read. Although you never can be sure in modern depictions of the Native Americans since the establishment has a vested interest in exalting the Indians and making the Americans look barbaric. Maybe that's really the way it was, but you have to be wary of anything coming out of Hollywood on this subject.

Presumably because this was originally an HBO made for TV movie, it carries no rating. It would be PG, but for the unfortunate fact that the very first line of the movie contains an "F-bomb." Other than this F-bomb in the first line, there is no other profanity in the film and no sexuality. It's rather unfortunate that the writers thought this was necessary - it isn't even a substantive line. If you are watching it with your kids, perhaps turn the volume down until after you see the characters speaking for a moment. But other than the F-bomb, I'd say this film was certainly acceptable for children 12 and up, though the thematic elements may be a bit troubling.

There was a good deal of violence, none of it very graphic. However, the nature of the violence was somewhat troublesome - army shooting unarmed Indian women and whatnot. There's also several scenes of young children dying from smallpox, whooping cough, etc.

The most problematic aspect of this film for a young viewer might just be the tragic and disturbing nature of the whole tale: at the beginning of the film, the Sioux are healthy and plentiful living in the Black Hills in the traditional manner; by the end, we see them drunk and sick, wearing American clothes and confined to a pitiable welfare-state reservation where their most minute activities (like whether or not to plant crops) are regulated. The film ends with the brutal massacre of Wounded Knee (1890), and I can see some young kids being disturbed at this whole plot development. The Indians are consistently portrayed as the "good guys" in the film, and if so, this is one film where the good guys definitely do not win.

Christianity is portrayed ambiguously. The good motives of the Christian characters in the film are evident, as well as the ideals of the teachings of Jesus; but as is now done ad nauseam in these type of films, there is several pointed contrasts made between the teachings of Christ and the poor way in which the Americans involved in Indian affairs put them into practice. Christianity at least comes off much better than the followers of the bizarre Ghost Dance cult, who are portrayed as desperate and gullible.

The plot is simply the history of the decline of the Sioux in the west. The historical narrative is told through the lives of four characters: Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), who is in charge of Indian Affairs, Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin), a poet and eventual spouse of the main character, Charles Eastman.

The plot can be broken up into four distinct segments: (1) Little Bighorn and its aftermath, (2) the flight of Sitting Bull and the Sioux to Canada (3) the education and return of Charles Eastman to the west to work on the reservations (4) the Ghost Dance movement and the events leading up to Little Big Horn.

Charles Eastman is meant to be the main character; Eastman is a Sioux boy who is sent east to be trained as an American and is taken under the patronage of Senator Henry Dawes, the originator of the Dawes Plan, which established the reservation system in the Dakotas and paved the way for their incorporation into the Union. Eastman, educated in the east and and erudite scholar and doctor, is sent back west as an example of what an "educated" Indian can be. At first he is a supporter of Dawes' vision of Americanizing the Sioux as a means of saving them, but when he sees the poverty and injustice rampant on the Sioux reservation he becomes a bitter critic of the government's treatment of the Indians. In the end, he winds up as an unwitting spectator and witness to the atrocity of Wounded Knee.

This is the overall plot, but though Eastman is meant to be the main protagonist, the character of Sitting Bull tends to dominate and overshadow that of Eastman, and significant portions of the movie focus on him. This does not detract from the enjoyability of the film, but it makes the plot kind of jumpy in some places (as it alternates between Sitting Bull and Eastman), and kind of dragging in others, when it focuses for long stretches on Sitting Bull apart from Eastman.

Those who enjoy films like the X-Men and the Sam Raimi Spider Man movies will recognize Anna Paquin (Rogue from X-Men) and a brief appearance by the memorable JK Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson from Spider Man). There is also a cameo appearance from Wes Studi, ubiquitous villain of many Indian movies, remembered especially as Magua in Last of the Mohicans. He has a brief role as Wovoka/Jack Wilson, the Paiute Indian who started the Ghost Dance movement.

The costumes and sets are alright, but they look a tad bit Hollywoodish. Some of the Indians look like they are played by Italians, and the main Indian character of Sitting Bull is played by August Werner Schellenberg, a Swiss-German who is only partially Mohawk. In this it lacks some degree of realism. Also odd is the way in which some of the Sioux characters speak Sioux when talking to white people (Eastman greets a white audience in Sioux early in the film), but when the Sioux are shown speaking among themselves, they speak English. In my opinion, it only detracts from the realism to have speakers of another language speaking English - kind of like when we see Tom Cruise in his absurd Valkyrie movie attempting to play Count Stauffenberg but speaking American English. Don't get me started on that stupid movie.

Anyhow, this is a pretty good film is you see it and want to watch something educational and entertaining for the evening. The real problem isn't that it was done bad, but that it could have been done better. I give it two out of three papal tiaras.