Are you ready to be sermonized?
BURY MY HEART
AT WOUNDED KNEE
By Virginia Heffernan, May 25, 2007
This project was doomed to overreach and to sermonize. To begin with, it’s about American Indians, who ever since Sacheen Littlefeather declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973 have scared the chutzpah out of Hollywood, forcing the showoffs who invented westerns into defensive crouches and sorry offerings that look more like cut-and-paste Sunday school atonement projects than filmmaking.
Second, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is a television movie. The red carpet premiere and credible stars (Aidan Quinn, Anna Paquin) that HBO supplied can’t conceal that this is a movie of the week — a form as eternal, indigenous and sacrosanct as the Black Hills of South Dakota. Simple-minded, blocky, smug, uplifting, always in a major key. Easy to sing along with.
From the opening scenes, for example, all television watchers will know that Grant is bad — with reservations on his mind — because he wields a brandy snifter in daylight and smokes a cigar, just as they will know that Aidan Quinn is good because he’s, well, Aidan Quinn, with that broad face and those Santa eyes.
And anyway, he expositorily tells us that he cares about American Indians and even sympathizes, somewhat, with the Sioux insurgency at Little Bighorn — or is that their “resistance”? Their “war”?
Not that anyone worries about anachronisms here. That’s part of keeping the tune hummable. (The character of Charles Eastman, played by Adam Beach, was virtually invented “to carry a contemporary white audience,” Daniel Giat, who wrote the movie for HBO Films, has said.)
The freighted and modern words atrocity and celebrity can be heard here, though the time is the 1870s. The white men in the film also wear what must be wedding bands on their left hands; this is a convention of the Second World War. What’s more, Grant’s obscenities seem to come from the David Milch lexicography theater, where the vocabulary of the Wild West is played by the vocabulary of South Central.
But this is trivia. The real problem with “Bury My Heart” is that it’s a movie. In the twisted and complex “Deadwood” Mr. Milch created a serialized masterwork to rival Dickens’s. He and the other HBO series auteurs have so far outstripped moviemakers in creating morally ambiguous epics that this meager entry, “based on Dee Brown’s best seller,” seems, apart from its cinematic glamour, provincial, amateurish — high school stuff.
So prepared are you — by the subject matter, by the insistently maudlin soundtrack, by the overly telegraphed performances — for a primer in how to feel good and bad that it’s almost a surprise to hear the handful of swear words in “Bury My Heart” and be reminded that this is HBO, home of moral shadows.
One speech, early in the movie, does stand out. The speaker is Col. Nelson Miles (Shaun Johnston), a hardhearted white man, speaking to Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), who is crowing about the divinity that shaped his triumph over Custer at Little Bighorn. Colonel Miles is angry and determined not to let himself be what Tom Wolfe would call “mau-maued” by a general trying to sell his army as simply children of the earth.
“How very convenient to cloak your claims in spiritualism. And what would you say to the Mormons and others who believe that their God has given to them Indian lands in the West?
“No matter what your legends say, you didn’t sprout from the plains like the spring grasses and you didn’t coalesce out of the ether. You came out of the Minnesota woodlands armed to the teeth and set upon your fellow man. You massacred the Kiowa, the Omaha, the Ponca, the Oto and the Pawnee without mercy. And yet you claim the Black Hills as a private preserve bequeathed to you by the Great Spirit.”
Sitting Bull shoots back: “And who gave us the guns and powder to kill our enemies? And who traded guns to the Chippewa and others who drove us from our home?”
Colonel Miles replies: “Chief Sitting Bull, the proposition that you were a peaceable people before the appearance of the white man is the most fanciful legend of all! You were killing each other for hundreds of moons before the first white stepped foot on this continent. You conquered those tribes, lusting for their game and their lands. Just as we have now conquered you for no less noble a cause.”
In a film that is seamlessly acted and produced, this exchange is noteworthy for its incongruities and rough patches. (“Coalesce out of the ether”? “Stepped foot”?) Mr. Johnston plays it skillfully, and he’s evidently directed, by Yves Simoneau, to “win” the scene. That may be a first. Characters who argue for original sin — for the pre-existing state of war, for the impossibility of innocence, for the silliness of sweet, self-aggrandizing myths about people who “sprout from the plains like spring grasses” — are rarely anything but stone-cold villains in Hollywood movies.
In “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” of course, that cynicism is the entire narrative voice. The skeptic, the historian, the anti-mythmaker: he is not just a character who gets a fleeting hearing; he’s the whole story.
And yet. In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” the realist view — the one that any thinking person who does not live by Hollywood myths accepts and even lives by in ordinary life — is so unusual that it comes through in this speech like a stroke of genius, a great insight into the Middle East and American history.
But let’s leave aside the war in Iraq and the grievous history of American Indians: we’ll never resolve them here. Instead, it’s worth wondering: Did it take good television to point up what’s wrong with American movies?
BURY MY HEART at Wounded Knee
Written by Daniel Giat, based on the book by Dee Alexander Brown; directed by Yves Simoneau; executive producers, Dick Wolf and Tom Thayer; Mr. Simoneau, co-executive producer; Clara George, producer. Produced by Wolf Films/Traveler’s Rest Films.
WITH: Aidan Quinn (Henry Dawes), Adam Beach (Charles Eastman), August Schellenberg (Sitting Bull), J. K. Simmons (McLaughlin), Eric Schweig (Gall), Wes Studi (Wovoka), Colm Feore (General Sherman), Gordon Tootoosis (Red Cloud), Fred Thompson (President Ulysses S. Grant), Anna Paquin (Elaine Goodale) and Shaun Johnston (Col. Nelson Miles).