Judge Patrick Rogers hopes Richard Harris' legacy will be defined by this instead of those boy wizard movies.
Our review of A Man Called Horse, published May 23rd, 2005, is also available.
"It just occurred to me…I've traveled halfway around the world, at great expense, simply to kill a different kind of bird."
A Man Called Horse is a film I had seen amongst the many VHS tapes in my grandmother's vast collection. The plain white cover of the VHS with its simple yet bold lettering always made this film stand out to me. The fact that she had 2 copies of it and that the film was called A Man Called Horse probably also piqued my interest as a child. Strangely though, I had never seen the film up to this point even though I had pulled it off my grandmother's shelf countless times to wonder what a film about a half man, half horse creature would be like. Disappointingly to my childhood imagination, the film has nothing to do with that. On the positive side, this film is a forgotten little product of early '70s cinema that combines the feel of a classically filmed and told Western with more avant garde, counterculture elements of the decade. Though sometimes the mixing of these elements makes the whole affair volatile.
Facts of the Case
English dandy Morgan (Richard Harris) is searching for something. He attempts to find himself in the American West while killing small fury animals with big, loud guns. Yet he feels dissatisfied even in this ritualistic act of killing because these are the same animals he could be killing in England. Before he can ruminate on his dissatisfaction with life and his inner existential turmoil, his party is ambushed by a Sioux tribe. Morgan is stripped naked and paraded around like a horse before he's brought back to camp as a captive. It is during this degradation that Morgan begins to open his eyes and see this culture around him for what it is. How far is he willing to go to indoctrinate himself into this culture and prove himself as a part of the tribe and as a man in general?
How is it that I hadn't seen more Richard Harris (Mutiny on the Bounty) films where he's not called Professor Dumbledore by pre-teen twits or being shouted at by Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up) from his director's chair? This is a film that is so completely on the lead character's shoulders, not just because a lot of it demands a silent performance, but also because he has to try to make us care about a pampered, condescending and egotistical English fop. And Harris pulls it off beautifully.
It might be that the first hour of the film is dedicated to showing Harris' character being degraded and humiliated by his Native American captors, or the fact that he's naked and exposed for much of it. Or it could be that Harris creates an incredibly organic narrative arc for this man called Horse. The evolution of this character from dandy to warrior is believable and compelling. Harris feels like a fish out of water, and the decision not to subtitle the communication of the tribe is an amazingly clever one that places us firmly behind Harris and his struggle with this tribe and understanding the human condition in general. It may seem like a no brainer to not give the audience a clue as to how a foreign culture communicates until the lead character himself becomes acclimated but you'd be shocked at how many films are too lazy or think too little of their audience to try and go that road. This film should be commended for not taking the easy way, and I'm sure the overwhelming feeling of cultural isolation, existential crisis and spiritual enlightenment that act as thematic motifs lent themselves pretty handily to the '70s LSD crowd looking to explore the human condition through the medium of film.
Now the narrative of a Westerner who is taken up by an alien culture and is slowly brought in and accepted for their grit and determination is certainly not an original story to tell, even before this film, let alone after Costner's Dances With Wolves. But I think that this film's heavy '70s existentialism and desire to show a realist, unbiased take on both Western and Sioux culture is what makes it stand out and strike you as an admirable attempt to try and highlight an underlying current of humanism and crisis in all cultures. This film is very much a '70s film in the way that it questions tradition and attempts to make you think outside yourself.
Despite this, there are obvious squabbles with the film. The direction by Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou) takes on that Golden Age Western feel to it in the sumptuous framing and vivid clarity of the landscape. While it looks great it does make the film a bit boring and stale when we consider that Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch had come out the year before and not only shattered our expectations of the genre but also narratively and stylistically recapitulated the genre to such a level that the Western was seemingly dead. Silverstein has that same desire to screw around with the conventions of the genre when it comes to the narrative and he is not against attempting to experiment stylistically speaking…I mean this is the '70s after all. Mostly he attempts this through montage editing and seemingly LSD laced hallucinatory segments. This experimentation is so rough around the edges that it comes off as a rigid WASPish man attempting to seem edgy. It just doesn't work but Silverstein tries admirably enough at trying to infuse something new into an incredibly stale genre so he should be applauded for that at least, even if it doesn't work.
Another complaint is that many of the "Native Americans" in the tribe are obviously white actors with darkened faces, a wig and a horribly forced attempt to speak the language. It's distracting and readily apparent to the point of frustration especially within the forced narrative romance between this man called Horse and one of the females of the tribe.
At times the film also feels like it's a one trick pony where the Sun Vow ritual is the entire build up and overall point to the narrative. This desire to focus on shocking ritual touted as authenticity instead of true and encompassing tradition gives the entire film a disingenuous and exploitative feel. The scene itself of the ritual is shocking in its graphicness and it's incredibly interesting to see it on screen, but again, the film can't escape that feeling of novelty or shock factor. It's still a film worth seeing however because of how it attempts to redefine its own genre.
Surprisingly, the 1080p transfer for this Blu-ray is incredibly vibrant and vivid. The harsh yet beautiful landscape is injected with a contemplative sense of scope and the arid browns and sun choked greens are showcased to a degree that can, at times, stager you. There are more than a few scenes that are blown out and soft but it's not enough to spoil it on the whole. The grain levels on this release are almost perfect, to the point where it reproduces what it must have felt like to have seen this film in theaters.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is a little more erratic with a good chunk of the dialogue being too soft and frequently overwhelmed by the score and the ambient sound, but on the whole there's not much to complain about here. The fact that there's not a single special feature on this Blu-ray is a giant detractor for this release however. Not containing a featurette or interview about the Sun Vow ritual is a blatant oversight.
It should be said as a final note that this Blu-ray release has some of the best artwork I've ever seen that isn't put out by Criterion…especially when we consider Paramount's earlier DVD release of this film that has some of the worst cover art that man has ever glimpsed. It's pitch perfect in its simplicity and originality. It's the kind of cover art that makes you proud to put it on your shelf. This may seem like a small, insignificant aspect but bad or cliche cover art on an otherwise great film or DVD/Blu-ray release always makes me shed a tear.
Ultimately, A Man Called Horse is an admirable attempt to create an existential Western very much in line, ideologically, with late '60s counterculture. A stronger New Hollywood touch to the whole affair would have made the themes and motifs of the picture stronger and more stable within the narrative but it's still a film that's mostly on point.
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