Bury Judge Adam Arseneau at Wounded Groin.
The epic fall of the American Indian.
"It is easy to be brave from a distance. Easy, and often quite
Nominated for an impressive seventeen Emmy Awards and winning six, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee brings the decline of the American Indian in an elaborate, lush adaptation of the 1970s book of the same name. A powerful and moving tale, this is one of the finest television movies put to screen in recent memory.
Facts of the Case
During the Battle of Little Bighorn, Sioux warriors managed an amazing defeat of General Custer in Montana, exacerbating an already tense situation between the Americans, looking to expand their land ever westward, and the American Indians, struggling to preserve their way of life. Noted war chiefs like Red Cloud had already surrendered their rifles and agreed to life on reservations, but Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg, The New World) refuses to subjugate. Life on a reservation is no life for him or his people, and he acts to preserve his tribe at all costs, refusing to compromise, eventually fleeing his land in the face of American troops. After being driven north into Canada, Sitting Bull and his people try to adapt to the new location, but thoughts of home haunt his days and nights. His people are unhappy and want to return to their lands and, after many cruel winters and hardships, Sitting Bull begrudgingly comes back to the Dakotas, surrendering his rifle, to find that life has changed dramatically for his people.
Meanwhile, Ohiyesa, a young Indian man and a survivor of the Battle at Little Bighorn is taken from his tribe by his father, a Christian convert, and schooled in the East. Years later, now known as Charles Eastman (Adam Beach, Flags Of Our Fathers), trained as a doctor, and taken as a shining example of American Indian integration into America, helps a senator construct a plan to change the face of the American Indian landscape forever. After corresponding with a young schoolteacher on the Sioux reservations, Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin, The Piano), he decides to lend his medical skills to his people on the government-run reservations. There, he finds life there to be a drab, depressing, and dejected affair, rife with disease and starvation.
In Washington, Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn, Legends Of The Fall) constructs a solution to ease tensions in Washington and assist American Indian integration. The proposed solution: the Dawes Commission, a fiendishly complex division of land in the Dakotas into regions designated for specific tribes, with lots to be divvied up to individual members of a tribe. In exchange for this land, American citizenship and the right to sell said land for a pittance back to the U.S. government, the Commission effectively annexed the vast majority of the territory into the United States, allowing railway expansion into the Pacific, gold mining in the profitable Black Hills, and eventual colonization of the Dakotas by the white man.
An ambitious and emotional experience, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a soul-searching affair. With a deft combination of romanticized imagery and brutal honesty, the downfall of the American Indian is reconstructed on-screen in painful detail, cumulating around the events following and leading up to two seminal incidents: the Battle at Little Bighorn and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Every misstep, every broken promise, every good intention, and every disaster is brought to the forefront with ominous foreboding. The film starts with a battle and ends with a battle. Whether you know the history or not, the film evokes a powerful melancholy about it; you can feel the despair in your gut.
As for the historical accuracy of the film, I cannot say. Being Canadian, this particular chapter in North American history exists outside my sphere of educational reference, so any observations made by me on the validity of the historical events portrayed here are purely subjective. Regardless, this is an ugly time in the history of North America as a whole (as Canada is hardly blameless in our treatment of Native folk). Regardless of historical accuracy, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee offers up neither heroes or villains, only complex and morally ambiguous character portrayals of three key individuals surrounding the events transcribed—Senator Henry Dawes, Charles Eastman, and Sitting Bull—and the inexorable combination of good intentions and mistakes that cumulate in disaster for all. It is a complicated affair to say the least, full of missteps and misfortunes, bad decisions and exploitation by all parties, with both good and bad deeds alike captured on screen for all to see in heart-wrenching agony, finally cumulating in the disastrous slaughter at Wounded Knee.
As one of the primary architects behind the American policy on Indian Affairs, Senator Henry Dawes is given a surprisingly sympathetic persona. Like everyone else, Dawes views the Indian way of life as savage, but he believes that the key to the "Indian problem" is through total cultural assimilation into the United States, as with Irish and German settlers in generations before. His intentions are good, if tragically misguided; he fails to fully appreciate why the Indians cling so strongly to their way of life, which is so diametrically opposed to being assimilated. The film seems to suggest that the Dawes Commission, however unfortunate the outcome, was crafted on good intentions, and that Dawes devotes most of his adult life to the cause. By putting the land into the names of individual American Indians, it would guarantee citizenship in the Americas and entitled them to a piece of land that no rancher, settler, or person could take away from them. Not a lot of land, mind you; certainly nothing compared to the tens of millions of acres forcibly annexed by the government, but it was something. The Sioux resisted the idea, horrified at the notion of "owning land," a fundamental undoing to Dawes's grand vision, directly contributing to a poorer state of affairs for American Indians, even today. Aidan Quinn does a remarkable turn in the role, and brings a moral complexity to the character struggling to do well by both America and its Native people alike, and failing utterly in his task.
On the other hand, the Sioux-turned-white man, Charles Eastman, faces struggles that are mostly internal. His dichotic nature eventually becomes his undoing, bouncing painfully between both worlds. Dawes uses Eastman as a shining example of how integration is possible for the American Indian, but Eastman himself begins to fall apart as he surveys the abysmal conditions set forth on reservations, his loyalty in constant disarray. He tries in vain to balance both aspects of his own being, but his unique upbringing has effectively stripped him of any identity. As a white-educated doctor, he is no longer Sioux, but as an American Indian, he can never truly be a part of white America. Played by Adam Beach, his performance is good, but a bit overacted for my tastes. He is outshined by his co-star Quinn in most scenes.
As for Sitting Bull, you could not ask for a more tragic character on screen or in real life. So entrenched in his ways, unable to reconcile the changing reality of his people, his pride ultimately sets his people free and condemns them simultaneously. Venerable Canadian Métis actor August Schellenberg owns the film in his performance of Sitting Bull, and takes it home with him. His stony face and booming voice are perfectly suited for the role, and the silent range of expression in his eyes speaks volumes. Also, now that Walter Matthau has passed on, he may be the jowliest man alive. His performance is superb, and he fills the romanticized big shoes of Sitting Bull perfectly. The depiction of Sitting Bull is not that of a mythological folk hero, but rather of an old man struggling to come to terms with his own fierce pride and the well-being of his people, often at the expense of one another.
Surprisingly visceral and graphic, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee does not shy away from its subject matter, thematically or visually. When the film sets out to transcribe hundreds of American Indians being methodically slaughtered by bullets and hatchets, this is exactly what you get on-screen, in all its agonizing intensity. This is HBO, after all, and they have standards to keep. The level of historical accuracy and research done on the part of the filmmakers seems authentic (they certainly say as much in the supplementary features), and I did notice some small details, like the preservation of minor historical details like the infamous photograph taken of the frozen corpse of chief Big Foot, dead in the snow after Wounded Knee, re-created on the screen. The overall production values, in costume, makeup, and special effects are second to none, on par with that of a feature film. The film makes excellent use of some stunning CGI-enhanced camerawork and aerial photography, bringing battles to life in impressive fashion.
My absolute favorite scene in the film is a parlay sequence between Sitting Bull and Colonel Miles, both sides tearing large holes in each other's ideology prior to meeting on the battlefield. It is a frank and brutally honest exchange where neither side seems particularly righteous, which pretty much sums up the film perfectly in a mere two minutes. Both men respected leaders of their people, the American Indian and white sides laying their respective cards out on the table for all to see, good and bad.
Presented in a handsome two-disc set, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has a stunning technical presentation, one of the best I've seen for a television movie. The gorgeous cinematography and beautiful location shots (mostly shot in Alberta) are brought vividly to life in anamorphic widescreen, with an incredibly sharp and detailed transfer. No artifacts or edge issues are present, black levels are fantastically deep, and colors are balanced throughout. The level of detail, the complete absence of any print or transfer damage and the resolution all speak to the outstanding quality HBO put into this set.
Both an English 5.1 surround track and a 2.0 stereo Spanish-language track are included. The surround track is fantastic, with superb fidelity, clarity of dialogue, and attention to detail. During the battles, bullets reverberate and horse hoofs echo convincingly through all five channels with perfect immersion. When buffalo storm across the field, the subwoofer jumps, jives, and purrs with excitement. The score is an elaborate soulful rendition of native-styled instruments, full of pounding drums, wind instruments, and mournful strings. Top notch all around.
The main supplementary feature comes in the form of two commentary tracks are included, one with director Yves Simoneau (Ignition) and one with actors Aidan Quinn and Adam Beach. The director's track is the best of the two, going into conceptual detail and behind-the-scenes information about the shoot in a nicely balanced recording. The actor's track is nice to have, but a bit superfluous—some interesting anecdotes and shooting details are included, but the director's track touches on larger issues. Also included on the first disc is a particularly neat feature: an interactive on-screen historical guide that pops up a little red feather icon on the screen during playback, allowing viewers to click their remotes and access historical factoids relating to on-screen events. A nice feature, but darned if those pesky icons move fast. More times than not, by the time I saw the pop-up, located my remote from under the couch cushion where it slipped into a dark crevice of spare change and popcorn kernels, and went to click, the icon had vanished.
The second disc contains, well, not much, surprisingly. "Making History," a twelve-minute production diary, a six-minute featurette, "The Heart of the People" and a three-minute feature, "Telling The Story," interviewing cast and crew on their respective subjects, with behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the film. A photo gallery rounds out the feature. Always nice to have a second disc for extra material, but this amounts to what, twenty-five minutes? Tops? It would have been nice to see more material on this big, practically empty second disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The narrative leapfrogs about quite badly, rarely staying in the same place for too long. There is a lot of story to be told in a two-hour film, hurtling across months and years as if they were inconsequential abstract things, which can get a bit confusing, unless you have a mind for historical dates and places. More to this point, on first viewing, some of the subtext was lost on such an ignorant Canadian; details about Sitting Bull, the Sioux people, and other small niggling factoids any American educated to the fourth grade would be aware of. Heck, I didn't even know who Buffalo Bill was. I know, I know. For shame.
A crash course in American history and geography on Wikipedia helped embiggen such details into my brain, but for anyone else lacking in such contextual knowledge (or too apathetic to do the homework), the subtleties of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee may elude.
"We will be known forever by the tracks we leave behind."
Intense, grim, and sobering, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee faithfully recreates one of the more tumultuous times in American history, of us whupping the pants off those pesky American Indians. Not our proudest moment as North Americans, but one that translates into impressive dramatic storytelling nonetheless. What makes the film so memorable is the unshakable sense of discomfort expressed by its tale, a story of two people irrecoverably changed by their coming in contact with one another. The American Indians ended up worse than the Americans, of course, but neither side really gets what they want, and it hurts to dwell on it.
All told, HBO did a fantastic job adapting the material into a television event, and an even better job bringing it to DVD. Made-for-TV movies rarely get any better than this.
Kind of a downer, but definitely not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Yves Simoneau
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