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Case Number 06850

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A Man Called Horse

Paramount // 1970 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // May 23rd, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Brett Cullum is a man called Brett.

Editor's Note

Our review of A Man Called Horse (Blu-ray), published June 13th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

A man called "Horse" becomes an Indian warrior in the most electrifying ritual ever seen!

Opening Statement

Do you need anything more than a DVD copy of Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse to convince you Kevin "Dances With Wolves" Costner is not as creative as you thought? Here's the original "white man runs off to live with Indians" story told in all it's loinclothed glory. Long before Richard Harris stumbled into Hogwart's to be Harry Potter's headmaster in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harris gave a stirring performance as John Morgan in this film. He wasn't even nominated for an Oscar, yet here is one of his strongest roles in a career that spanned seventy movies over four and a half decades. A Man Called Horse is his legacy, a brave, new type of Western that ushered in a wonderful era of film making in the '70s.

Facts of the Case

Richard Harris plays John Morgan, an English lord who is captured by savage Sioux warriors, dragged naked through the wilderness, and given to the chief's mother (Dame Judith Anderson, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) as a "horse," or servant. Despite some pretty harsh treatment, he comes to respect the tribe, and even longs to rise in their ranks. His love for the chief's sister compounds his desire to become a part of their community, even though ultimately his goal is to lead a war party to get him out of Indian territory and back to his cushy life as a lord. He has to pass many tests and trials to prove himself, and eventually becomes a leader of the tribe that formerly was his captors. He realizes his life suddenly has meaning, and that the "savages" are actually his saviors.

The Evidence

Richard St. John Harris was a true character in real life. He was a thin, feisty actor from Limerick when he started out. As a struggling young actor he slept for six weeks in London in a coal cellar after he had sunk his life savings into a play to get him noticed. He was drinking buddies with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton for a good long time, right up until Burton passed away. He was a long-time member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, sticking with them from the early '60s until the mid '90s. He probably had a thing for Bo Derek, considering he co-starred with her in Orca and played her father in Tarzan, The Ape Man. He was twice nominated for an Oscar: for 1963's This Sporting Life, and then later in 1990 for his "comeback" role in The Field. He took the role of Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone after his eleven year-old granddaughter threatened she would never speak to him again if he turned it down. He died in 2002 of Hodgkin's disease mere weeks after the second Harry Potter film was released. He was an immense talent with a wide acting range—yet most people will always remember him for his work in A Man Called Horse.

The movie's creative team desperately wanted to get the details of Sioux life right, and did a lot of anthropological research to make sure everything was factually based. Unfortunately, A Man Called Horse is also a Hollywood picture, so don't expect a documentary. It's more stylized visions of some pretty solid efforts at research. Some members of the Sioux tribe complain about their depiction in the film, and, truth be told, this is still a movie about Indians as seen through "the white man's" eyes. Still, it was a departure from the stereotypical Hollywood treatment of Indians. They're pretty savage, and the story is hardly flattering with its depictions of cruelty and torture. But A Man Called Horse marks a shift in how Hollywood portrayed Indians in general. They were given a grace and a spiritual wisdom that elevated them beyond the stock villains they had been in most westerns.

The story relies on a lot of unspoken communication. Here is an example where letterboxing is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also crucial. To add to the disorientation of the audience, there are no subtitles provided for the Indian language used in the film. Non-verbal cues are the only way for John to relate to the Sioux, at least until another captive-turned-tribe member is brought in to translate. If you've only seen A Man Called Horse on television or on VHS, then you haven't seen half the movie. Because hand motions are used quite often by characters to communicate, the old pan-and-scan method often gave you only half of the conversation.

A Man Called Horse was so popular it spawned a sequel aptly named Return of a Man Called Horse in 1976, and another one in 1982 entitled Triumphs of a Man Called Horse. Neither film was as popular as the original, but the sequels stand as a testament to how deeply A Man Called Horse captured imaginations in 1970. It was an unlikely hit, because it was considered a brutal and gory film in its day. People are scalped, there's lots of violence, and the movie climaxes with a horrific ritual known as the "Vow of the Sun." Nobody can really explain why the movie did so well, but it obviously came at the right time. It can be seen in a historical context, addressing a period when America was questioning its treatment of other societies. Contemporary parallels like Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement loomed large in the collective minds of the filmmakers. Audiences responded to the dark tone and some graphic sequences because they were ready for the questions the movie threw at them. Could we find nobility and grace in a savage nation we once looked down upon?

The transfer is a step up from previous laserdisc editions of the movie. The colors are much improved, even though they do seem slightly washed out at times thanks to the soft early-'70s color palette. Grain is apparent in some dark sequences, but on the whole this 2003 release is pretty strong. I've never seen the film look this good; it's a remarkable transfer for a film this old. A Man Called Horse has never been released in a true stereo mix, but here we get a choice of a full five speaker treatment or a Pro Logic surround mix. Paramount took a lot of care with this transfer.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

There are no extras on this disc, and A Man Called Horse is a movie that needs them. Commentary could have been provided by any number of people involved with the production. It stars an actor who recently passed away, and could be honored with a tribute. I would have been interested in hearing real Indians talking about what they found to be correct, and where Hollywood took liberties with the story.

The infamous "Vow of the Sun" ritual scenes are certainly still the most impressive, and remain disturbing, but the movie's special effects date it here. The make-up is visible to our trained eyes, and the psychedelic montage that follows the ritual makes it a painfully obvious product of its time. The nice thing about that is had the movie been made today it probably would be too painful to watch, but modern audiences will see the seams. It doesn't lessen A Man Called Horse's impact, but it does date it.

Closing Statement

A Man Called Horse is a film well worth revisiting. It redefined the Western for the '70s, and contains a great performance by Richard Harris. It's a fascinating film that looks a little dated, but still packs a powerful punch. I wish it had some special features to give it context, but this edition is beautifully rendered with a great anamorphic widescreen presentation and a rich 5.1 surround mix. It remains a disturbing and fascinating film.

The Verdict

A Man Called Horse is free…wildly free to roam with the Sioux warriors.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 92
Extras: 0
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• English
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Western

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb
• Official Sioux Site

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