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Steven Seagal's Box-Office Smash Scorned in Alaska : Movies: Native Americans and oil executives agree, 'On Deadly Ground' got everything dead wrong.

March 04, 1994|ANTHONY NEWMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANCHORAGE — While the rest of the country has been stuck in an endless winter of frigid temperatures, record snowfalls, earthquakes and flooding, Alaska residents are enduring a disaster of a different sort: the latest from Steven Seagal.

"On Deadly Ground" is the movie that's offending just about everybody here. While that, in itself, may not be unusual for a Hollywood picture, what is interesting is that this film, which has been No. 1 and No. 2 the last two weekends at the box office, earns a spontaneous raspberry from Alaskans who often find themselves diametrically opposed to one another: massive oil corporations, Native cultures and headstrong environmentalists.

In the Warner Bros. release, Seagal plays Forrest Taft, a cigarillo-chomping maverick who apparently works as an oil-rig trouble-shooter. When Forrest learns that his boss is cutting ethical corners to build, in Alaska, "the biggest oil rig and refinery on the face of the planet," oil-company goons are dispatched to kill him.

Forrest thwarts their attempt and is rescued by a group of primitive Eskimos. A few disjointed spiritual discussions and visions unfold, followed by many explosions, fistfights and shootings, until Forrest finally punts his boss into a tub of crude. Then, in a bewildering coda, he travels to the Alaska State Capitol to lecture on alternative energy sources to a group who appears to include not only Alaska Natives but Africans and Norwegian sammis as well.

"On Deadly Ground," which Seagal also directed, was universally panned by critics (the New York Times called it "sludge"), but has nonetheless taken in $21.3 million so far at the box office.

What audiences are seeing, in the words of Anchorage columnist Mike Doogan, is a film that "gets absolutely everything wrong."

The oil industry has obvious reasons to dislike "On Deadly Ground." Michael Caine's corporate exec is as slippery as Prince William Sound, and will do anything--lie, murder, swear a lot--to maximize his profits.

Tom Gallagher, a spokesman for British Petroleum, decried the portrayal in the film. "Any conception of the oil industry as having no regard for the Natives, their beliefs, or the environment, and being only profit-motivated . . . is clearly a misconception," said Gallagher, who is assistant director of local government and community affairs for BP in Anchorage. Other oil company representatives declined to comment.

You might think the movie's drubbing of Big Oil would make the film a big hit among Alaska's environmental groups. But phone calls to the state's conservation groups revealed that hardly anyone had seen the film, perhaps, suggested one environmentalist, because conservationists tend to be pacifist types who don't approve of Seagal's brand of bone-splintering violence. Those who have seen the film have been turned off by its oversimplification.

Pam Miller, a staff biologist for Greenpeace, said she, for one, didn't like the film. "It was so simplified and hokey. In real life, the industry is much more subtle and slippery," she said.

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But Native Alaskans may be the most justified in their criticism. Apanguluk Charlie Kairaiuak, a Yup'ik Indian actor in Anchorage who was hired as a "cultural adviser" for the film, said, " 'On Deadly Ground' is loaded with inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Alaskan native culture."

The term Eskimo has fallen out of favor among indigenous Alaskans, who now prefer to be known as Inuits or, better yet, by their tribal names--Yup'ik, for tribes from the Bering Seacoast, and Inupiat, for those living along the Arctic Coast, where the Natives that rescue Seagal in the movie supposedly live.

Kairaiuak was able to correct some details, such as when the filmmakers began building a village of igloo homes: Kairaiuak told them that if they insisted on building a primitive village (most Native Alaskans now live in modern homes and cabins), the homes should be constructed of sod, not snow and ice.

They listened to this suggestion, but ignored many others. What's left is a conglomeration of anthropology from the past and present, taken from indigenous cultures all over the Arctic and the Lower 48. The Natives--most played by Japanese and Korean American actors--wear furs and skins and carry spears, even though most inhabitants today wear coats of modern materials and hunt with high-powered rifles. The native village is set in the middle of Inupiat territory, but the actors are speaking the Yup'ik language.

The filmmakers also decorated their tribespeople with jewelry that belongs on Native Americans from the Great Plains, borrowed raven mythology from the Tligits of Southeast Alaska, and included generic Mother Earth spiritualism from who knows where.

At one point, Steven Seagal's native love interest, played by Chinese American Joan Chen, jumps on a horse. "You ride good?" Seagal's character asks.

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