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How the West was really won

HBO's `Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' is more dutiful than inspired, but there's always the book.

May 26, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

To say that you should not mistake HBO's dramatic adaptation of Dee Brown's great book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" for actual history is to say only what must be said about nearly every film that dresses actors as real people and gives them a script to read. In all but the deftest hands, such movies are basically just pageants, episodic stagings of great moments from the past, sometimes strung together on what is usually a not very convincing through-line -- a "personal journey."

But even a bad historical film on a good subject may make you want to learn more, if only by getting you to ask yourself, "Could it possibly have happened that way?" If HBO's version of "Wounded Knee" -- which is not really a bad film, just an average one of its kind, earnest, dutiful, oversimplified, underdeveloped, weighted down in exposition and by turns intriguing, melodramatic and dull -- does nothing more than send a few more people to Brown's book, that may be all the credit in heaven it needs.

First published in 1970 -- at the height of the Vietnam War, when questions of cultural, economic and territorial imperialism were in the air -- "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" reconceived the "conquering of the West" from the Native American point of view. Based largely on mostly overlooked contemporary documents, it is coolly and clearly written, without false editorial drama, and is a shattering read.

Where the book covers the experience of all the many Indian nations as they were moved off their land and onto reservations by fraud or force, the film -- directed by Yves Simoneau and written by Daniel Giat ("Path to War") -- concentrates on the experience of the Sioux, from Little Big Horn to the Wounded Knee massacre. It's a logical enough choice and one that allows the dramatic participation of Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), as iconic a figure as lives in American memory, and whose shooting preceded and perhaps precipitated Wounded Knee.

Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), an Indian advocate and sponsor of the disastrous General Allotment Act of 1887, is the other major historical figure here; we are meant to regard him as tragic, caught between the enemies of the Indian and the Indians themselves, whom he saw more as redeemable potential Christians, and as assimilated American capitalists, than as the people they already were.

The film may also get you interested in the works of Charles Eastman, also known as Ohiyesa, or "the winner," for his childhood success in a lacrosse match -- and not at the Battle of Little Big Horn, as the movie has it, a battle he was nowhere near. One-quarter white on his mother's side, Eastman -- who does not appear in Brown's book -- grew up among the Sioux until his mid-teens, when his Christianized father returned from prison to claim him. Educated in the East, he was the doctor at the Pine Ridge station when the Wounded Knee massacre took place, and the fact that he lived between two worlds obviously makes him a useful character. To read his lively, incisive autobiographical writings, or his writings on his people -- most if not all of his 11 books are still in print and some are available online -- you might not connect him to the fretful character played here by Adam Beach ("Flags of Our Fathers"), trapped in a welter of standard movie moments and manufactured ironies. (As when he finds his old war feather stuck in a book of Christian names -- he had been forced to take one as a child, and now has been hired to assign them to others -- and he travels back to his boyhood home to drop it into a stream, then decides not to.)

Much of the rest of the film, when not concentrating on the beautiful (Canadian) scenery, is given over to confrontations between one character and another, contests of wills and philosophy designed to represent the bigger picture -- Sitting Bull and station agent James McLaughlin (J.K. Simmons); Sitting Bull and Col. Nelson Miles (Shaun Johnston), who is made to point out that the Sioux did not always live in the Dakotas and that they have other enemies besides the white men; Dawes and Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis, in a quietly persuasive performance).

Wes Studi gets a short monologue as the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who initiated the millennial Ghost Dance movement. Anna Paquin plays Eastman's white wife and helpmate. None has a chance to do much more than suggest a point of view.


`Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'

Where: HBO

When: 9 to 11:15 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-VL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for violence and coarse language).

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