Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) / Drama-Western

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence and language
Running time: 135 min.

Cast: Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, August Schellenburg, Anna Paquin, J.K. Simmons, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, Colm Feore, Gordon Tootoosis, Fred Dalton Thompson, Wayne Charles Baker, Chevez Ezaneh, Shaun Johnston
Director: Yves Simoneau
Screenplay: Daniel Giat (Based on the book by Dee Alexander Brown)

Review published May 30, 2007

Based on the seminal 1971 book of the same name by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells the story of Indians of the West and their dealings with the reservation system devised by the government, which displaced many of them from their physical and spiritual connections with the lands, as well as the means of living they came to know their entire lives. Although the book features several tribes, such as the Apaches, Navajos, and others, this film version solely concentrates on the last part of the book, telling the plight of the Lakota Sioux, bookended by two notable massacres, from the US cavalry defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 to the slaughter of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890. In between, it also deals with the shifting treaties and broken promises made to the Sioux by representatives of the government, who wished desperately to mine gold from the Black Hills that fell under their allotted reservations on the early draw-ups of the territory.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ranks as yet another fine made-for-HBO production that continues the cable giant's quest to give theater-quality productions for stories that normally wouldn't play in wide release. With top-notch production credits, and a fine cast, it tells a complex story in very simple terms, ultimately emerging as one of the finer releases of 2007. Skillfully directed by Canadian director Yves Simoneau (Nuremberg, 44 Minutes)), with screenplay by Daniel Giat, who wrote a pervious acclaimed HBO film in 2002, Path to War, this is a speculative piece, loosely based on the information from Brown's book, that puts a human face on the tragedies that resulted on the failure of the government to address the needs and wishes of the Native Americans, who found assimilation into "White society" too contrary to their beliefs and teachings.

Although the events at the core of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are certainly heartbreaking, the film doesn't quite deliver the emotional climax you might be thinking it should, given the solemn and contemplative set up. Rather, it does push certain buttons as to the uselessness of the continued efforts to try to come up with a solution to the problem, and a frustration that a better resolution couldn't have been sought before people took up guns and headed to Sioux country for what would obviously end up in a powder keg showdown.

Several intertwining storylines take place, including one true-life historical figure not explored in Brown's book (probably because he wasn't actually a part of the story told in the film), featuring the education of a young Sioux boy, Ohiyesa, into a man, changing his name and religion to that of Christian origins, eventually growing up to become Dr. Charles Eastman (Beach, Flags of Our Fathers)  -- even taking a White wife, Elaine (Paquin, X-Men: The Last Stand). In the film, he is completely conflicted in trying to find a solution for his afflicted people, but soon realizes that all that he works for is lopsided on the side of the whites, who are merely trying to appease them to avoid a costly war among the peoples. Meanwhile, he is also frustrated at the lack of government support for the various diseases that are ravaging the tribe, who are not immune to the germs carried by those of European descent, and this especially is killing off the youngest, further putting the future for the indigenous people in doubt.

There is also the story of Sitting Bull, who emerged from Little Bighorn as one of the most fierce and proud of the Indian warriors, but ends up distant and aloof once he is forced to take the White men's offers. The tribe is literally offered millions in exchange for their lands, but they cannot put a price on ground they consider sacred, in addition to not understanding the whole subject of land ownership or farming. It's just not the sort of life they would ever want to live. Schellenburg (Eight Below, The New World) delivers perhaps the best performance of the film.

Interestingly, though both conflicts end up in a massacre, Giat's treatment doesn't paint any particular person as the villain. The Sioux aren't perfect, but they know what their needs are. The government agents, represented as the kindly, but woefully naive pro-Indian politician, Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes (Quinn, In Dreams), keeps trying to appease both sides of the table by giving the Lakota nation an alternative to extinction by giving them equal rights to farm their lands, while also giving the government access to the gold in the Black Hills the Sioux view as sacred territory, although he doesn't realize that they would rather die now than agonizing through assimilation to the point of losing everything they come to hold dear.

With solid performances all around, and with subject matter that offers a great deal to ruminate about, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee gives us a deeper understanding of how the Native Americans were continuously threatened by enemies who would not relent, while also offered little but well-meaning, but very condescending directions by liberal politicians who tried to be their friends. While it may not substitute the breadth, scope and lasting impact of Dee Brown's best-selling book (it's not a very faithful adaptation anyway, or even historically accurate), by putting a more personal face on the tragedies, it does deliver the message home that the repercussions of the events from over a century ago still have not been adequately resolved to this day.

Looking beyond the on-screen drama, as the American government seeks to assimilate the Iraqi people into the ways of democracy "for their own good", and they end up fighting us every step of the way, it's perhaps no coincidence that the story of the Lakota Sioux has been finally brought to light in a more mass appeal format.  What were once called attempts to "civilize" a people are now called "liberating" them, though in both cases, it is basically just taking away their culture to impose our own, emanating out of our fear of their perceived hatred.  We think they hate us because they don't know us, so we make every effort for them to be just like us.  Ironically, because of these strong-arm efforts to make them assimilate, those who have never asked for our assistance, and who do not jump at the chance of being just like us despite every opportunity afforded, end up hating us infinitely more for these actions that we naively think are meant to help them.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo