A secret lost in time for over 130 years is about to be discovered.
I'm going to begin by getting something off my chest. One of the reasons I am glad to now work in film reviews is that I get to set the record straight. I'm glad I'm a mere internet reviewer if by "growing up" to be a big newspaper reviewer I become as cynical, pretentious, elitist, and full of self importance as some of the newspaper reviewers who wrote about Last of the Dogmen. For a film that itself is not pretentious, just trying to tell a nice historical fantasy amidst beautiful scenery with an emotional, evocative score and fine performances, there are some reviewers out there who feel they are by far more important. And try to let you know just how much more important they are. After reading some of the scathing reviews for this fine film, I'll be a bit more careful in how I describe something I don't like or understand in the future. Just so you don't think that I'm going to gush about a film that no one else liked, my opinions of this picture are nearly identical to Roger Ebert's and James Berardinelli's. The latter is a highly respected Internet reviewer himself, who has been described as one of the great ones by Ebert.
I don't think this film is perfect, and some of the criticisms made by even those less than kind to it have good points. But so often I read reviews from people who simply don't get it. They miss obvious points and then do their best to make sure a film goes nowhere. I won't tell you every film is great, but at least I'll try to be fair to it. And I believe you get a fair analysis about films from our judges here at the Verdict. Much more fair than some other sites I could name but won't. We don't love every film, regardless of how bad it is like some do to stay in the studio's good graces, but we don't trash a film just because someone else has and it's fashionable to do so. I'll get off my soapbox now, and proceed to tell you about this Savoy films production released by HBO home video.
In September '95 a little studio called Savoy films released Last of the Dogmen, a modern day Western with a premise based in fantasy; that somewhere in the American wilds of northwest Montana there could be a small group of Indians who have remained hidden from the white men and live in the ways of their ancestors. While there are a few similarities between this film and Dances with Wolves, this film does not try to match it or be as pretentious. I thought it a very nice tale and liked it enough to pre-order it on DVD as soon as I heard it was being released, but many of the newspaper reviews at the time, with the notable exceptions of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's, trashed it completely. Coming from a small studio as it did, the reviewers felt they could badmouth it with impunity. The movie didn't last long. The film did win a new life of it's own on HBO, enough so that this DVD was recently released.
I've always been a fan of Tom Berenger (Shoot to Kill, Major League, A Murder of Crows, Platoon). Put this actor in any role that has to do with the outdoors, and he especially shines. In Last of the Dogmen he plays Lewis Gates, a wilderness expert and tracker who is now drunk more often than sober, after the drowning death of his wife two years before. His only companion is his dog Zip, who provides some comic relief and plays a very intelligent canine. He is estranged from his ex-father in law Sheriff Deegan (Kurtwood Smith, Deep Impact, A Bright Shining Lie, TV's That '70s Show), who still blames him for his daughter's death. But when three convicts escape into the wild Oxbow region of Montana, the Sheriff calls on him, because he is the only one handy that knows the country and has the skills to bring them back. After several days tracking them, and about to swoop in for the capture, they suddenly disappear, leaving only a ragged shirt, a lot of blood, and a broken arrow behind. The only other evidence is the tracks of several unshod horses leading farther into the mountains than even he has ever gone.
Gates returns to town, but is still unsatisfied and tries to learn more. He finds out about an anthropologist specializing in Indians doing a dig nearby, and visits her to get her opinion on the arrow. Barbara Hershey (Falling Down, The Pallbearer, TV's Chicago Hope) plays Lillian Sloan, the anthropologist who informs Gates that the arrow is an authentic reproduction of a Cheyenne arrow ("$15 at any trading post"). But he feels she isn't telling him everything, and returns that night to press for answers. She then tells him the true account of the Massacre of Sand Creek, when many Cheyenne were promised protection just to line them up for slaughter. The way she tells it, and the fact that this really did happen, would bring a chill to anyone. But this historical event is built on for our story, in that twenty "Dog Soldiers" or their elite warriors, escaped with some women and children from the massacre. Chased into the mountains, a blizzard turned back the army who left them for dead. When Gates thinks this is the evidence that Indians are still living up there, Lillian doesn't buy it, saying "Look, Elvis is dead, the government is not hiding UFOs, and there are no Indians in the Oxbow."
Evidence that such a tribe might exist after all mounts up when Gates does some more research, finding out that some 17 people have disappeared in the region over the years, and a story about an Indian boy who couldn't speak English being found up there far from any town back in the 1930s. The boy disappeared again without a trace. After bringing this evidence back to Lillian Sloan, along with an impassioned plea, she decides to go with him for a look. She speaks Cheyenne and he needs someone like that so he doesn't become another disappearing person on the list. He never intended for her to go along though, just one of her students, preferably male. In Hawksian cowboy fashion, he thinks the country is too tough for a woman. But she does come along, and in the film's defining scene, finds the lost Dog Soldiers' descendants. Only the fact that Lillian can speak Cheyenne saves them from the fate of all other whites who have ventured too close. Instead they are taken captive and led through a cave in a waterfall to a hidden valley. These vistas are amongst the most beautiful scenery you will ever see in a film.
Here the Cheyenne live in peace and harmony, which brought cries of political correctness from critics. However, I don't believe political correctness or incorrectness is the issue in a film that is simply taking a "what if" look at a historical event. At first the two worlds are completely alien to each other, but trust and understanding build with time, and the two whites are finally welcomed into the group. They are determined to protect the secret of the tribe, and Gates puts his life and future on the line to make that happen. His willingness to sacrifice for the Cheyenne is a redemption; allowing him to forgive himself over his wife's death. There are a few other threads left untold, but see the film and all will be made whole.
That account may sound overly serious, and some critics certainly panned it as such, but I don't believe it is. The way the film moves takes away that pretentiousness, and those critics couldn't see it. The characters are not so serious they cannot have fun poked at them. As you might guess, there is a romantic thread to the story, but it is kept very low-key and develops believably. I commend any film for not using the one-minute montage to show a couple falling in love. There are other strong points worth noting. The costuming is wonderfully authentic, and as fine quillwork as I've ever seen done. The Indian language is also authentic Cheyenne throughout, and real Cheyenne were used as much as possible for the Indian roles. One exception was the strong visual performance of Northern Blackfoot Indian Steve Reevis (Geronimo) as the Dog Soldier leader Yellow Foot.
Now, about the disc itself. The review here is both good and bad. First off, the 2.35:1 transfer is not anamorphic. While long shots, and in fact the second half of the film are without artifact, some medium shots in the first half show various shimmering, moire patterns, and edge enhancement issues. Of particular note is when Gates visits an archaeological dig. The ropes that cordon off parts of it break up with artifacts, and Lillian's hat has noticeable shimmering. Ironically close-ups fare far better, and the long panoramic shots are simply breathtaking, with no artifact even when looking at trees with all their leaves. While slightly distracting when the artifacts are there, it still looks better than my VHS copy and isn't enough to stop my recommendation.
There are two audio tracks on the disc; the original theatrical track in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the director's track, which omits the dreadful narration by Wilford Brimley the studio added after the film was finished. The original track, Brimley and all is quite well done. The soundstage is wide enough, with ambient sounds going to the discrete surrounds. The subwoofer isn't intrusive, but the score does have good bass extension, along with a few places where the LFE channel is used. The director's track, as noted by the Verdict a few days ago, has an audio error though. The center channel and the right channel are transposed, which means all the dialogue comes from the right speaker. That is such a shame since this was the track that truly represented the director's vision for how the film should sound.
HBO is reportedly doing a re-pressing now to correct the issue, but a recall does not appear to be in the works. If you, like me got a disc from the first pressing, you'll have to return it and try to get one from the second. More news on that front is upcoming, but I've been told that the new discs should be hitting the retailers any day now. In a sad bit of irony, this comes on the heels of the audio error on Tarzan, which was also written by Tab Murphy (Gorillas in the Mist, Hunchback of Notre Dame).
Fortunately the disc is redeemed in the extra department, which are extensive. The best is the commentary track by director Murphy, who is very informative about the production and vision of the film, and gives some nice behind the scenes anecdotes. Three featurettes, each fairly short, go into the story, the building of the Cheyenne village, and behind the scenes footage. A sketch gallery of the costuming used in the film, the theatrical trailer, two TV spots, and cast and crew bios round out the special features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alright, so the film isn't perfect. This was Tab Murphy's first attempt at directing, and perhaps he was too busy being a screenwriter, and vice versa, trying to do both. Some of the dialogue could have been better, and a little more thought ahead of time could have allowed more shots that would have improved the ending. To be fair to Tab, the ending was changed several times by the studio that forced him to abandon his own concept and try for a more explicitly upbeat ending. From what I hear there were a number of extra scenes that probably should have been spliced in to better explain some relationships, such as between Tom Berenger's character and the deputy. You know there is some friendship there, but it's just assumed with this cut of the film. Since this is likely to be the only DVD release of the film, a director's cut of the video as well as audio would have been nice. There are a couple holes in the plot left that also would be closed by such a cut. Here is another of my pet peeves; studio execs forced cuts for the sake of meeting an arbitrary runtime. In the paraphrased words of Roger Ebert, no good film can be too long, and no bad film can be short enough.
My biggest complaint about the theatrical release of the film was as noted above, the narration. Critics panned the film on this issue, and I definitely agreed that was valid criticism; except for when they blamed the director for it, when it went in explicitly against his wishes. Fortunately they did add the director's audio track to correct this, and when I get the replacement disc with the corrected audio problem, it will be the only one I listen to.
On the disc front, as you'll learn in my interview with Tab Murphy, the transfer is the same one done for the laserdisc, without any of the filmmaker's involvement. That is just sad. I'm happy to get the disc at all, but oh, if Columbia or New Line could have had the rights for the DVD instead of HBO! Hopefully they'll learn better, and do a new transfer in the future.
Don't think too hard and you'll enjoy this film as much as I did. The story is sweet, and the characters are people I'd like to know. For any history buff who, like me, loves to play "what if" games, this is a must buy. Those who can appreciate a sensitive portrayal of Native Americans are also recommended to add this to their collection. Add in the fantastic scenery and the great score and you get a couple hours that you won't think are wasted, and maybe even smile a bit afterwards. The film doesn't try for more than that, and that's enough for me. I highly recommend the disc despite a few problems, but you might want to contact HBO about ensuring you get the corrected second pressing.
Tab Murphy is directed (pun intended) to get back in the saddle for another Tom Berenger film. The other actors are commended, and the few plot holes excused. HBO is commended for giving this film a new life, and releasing it on DVD, but is directed (no pun intended) to look at the techniques used by New Line and Columbia for making artifact-free transfers, which are also anamorphic. And to some certain critics who vindictively panned this film to death, I have your names. Since many fans, new and old, of the film and I think differently, your credibility here is gone.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director Tab Murphy
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