IN the old Hollywood, native Americans were portrayed as noble or ferocious savages, but almost never as fully developed human beings. In recent years, movies about native Americans have been few: The funny, bright little picture "Powwow Highway" garnered less notice than it deserved, and "Dances with Wolves" was, after all, a 19th-century plains romance. Contemporary Indians get short shrift. So the appearance of a mass entertainment like the mystery-thriller "Thunderheart" is welcomed by many audiences
- including some Indian viewers.
It is a Hollywood movie, no mistake, and the viewer is free to take issue with the whole formulaic constructs of Hollywood film.
Inspiration for the story was taken from incidents at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota during the mid 1970s. The story places young FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), who is part Indian and ashamed of his heritage, in the position of having to find himself as well as solve the crime. Sent to investigate a murder, he discovers that the reservation is a hotbed of unrest with a corrupt tribal council, FBI-instigated exploitation of natural resources, and persecution of Indian activists.
Michael Apted came to make "Thunderheart" while directing a serious documentary called "Incident at Oglala" for Robert Redford. Mr. Redford's film, which opened in New York last week, attempts to shed light on what Indian activists and a judge say was an unfair trial in the case of Leonard Peltier, a native American who is serving two life sentences connected to the deaths of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975.
Intensely interested in native American issues, Mr. Apted liked the "Thunderheart" script and the strong relationships between the characters.
The events were complicated, Apted explained in a telephone interview, and he had to try to be honorable to the events while, at the same time, making them understandable. He found the political storytelling as well as the tribal religious element quite difficult to film honestly.
All during the shooting, Apted had to earn cooperation on the reservation. Of major concern to tribal elders was the film's treatment of religious rituals. Then, too, some families were pretty hostile to the politics of the film, he says. So he had to tread carefully. He kept the tribal council abreast of every day's shoot. The council also insisted that the reservation be portrayed honestly - neither more poverty-stricken than it really is, nor less.
One thing Apted had going for him was strong characterization. Tribal policeman Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene), an aging medicine man (Chief Ted Thin Elk), and an activist school teacher are interesting, fully realized individuals. Mr. Greene's portrayal is particularly fine; he gives a layered, disciplined performance. One of the most appealing aspects of the film, in fact, is the Indian humor Greene and Chief Thin Elk bring to the story.
"I told Graham, 'I want you to make this part as funny as you can,' " says Apted. "I realized the film was pretty heavy going, and there was some humor in the script. I told him, m looking to you to get as much humor as you can in it.' He was good. We rehearsed for a long time and he's great at making up stuff and doesn't get put out when it doesn't work. He's very, very skillful."
While "Thunderheart" is quite popular among many native Americans (the Lakota Times interviews were positive), some activists have expressed indignation over what they consider to be the "Hollywoodization" of a very painful incident in recent history.
Glenn Morris, a member of the Shawnee nation, an activist in the American Indian movement, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver, says, "There are a few positive roles in the film - particularly that of the medicine man played by Ted Thin Elk. The humor and the spirit were good. We don't often see a correct idea of Indian humor in film. But the problem I had with it is that, while it wasn't supposed to be historically accurate, it did try to represent what happened at P ine Ridge between 1972 and 1976. And like 'Mississippi Burning,' it presented a severely revisionist history...."
"I don't offer any solutions," Apted says, "I just want to raise consciousness. I don't want to harangue people. I tried to avoid hysterical buzz words like 'genocide.' I'd like to make people aware of things in an entertaining manner.
"I do feel movies and television are very powerful.... I do believe in their power to influence and inform.... So I do want my films to have that quality of good citizenship: Without turning everybody into a goody-goody, you do take notice of other people, you do treat people decently."