Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
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Inspired by Dee Brown's acclaimed bestseller, the HBO Films event begins powerfully with the Sioux triumph over General Custer at Little Big Horn. The action centers on the struggles of three characters: Charles Eastman (Adam Beach, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS), a young, Dartmouth-educated Sioux doctor; Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg, THE NEW WORLD), the proud Lakota chief who refuses to submit to U.S. government policies designed to strip his people of their identity, dignity and sacred land; and Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn, EMPIRE FALLS), one of the men responsible for the government policy on Indian affairs. While Eastman and schoolteacher Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND), work to improve life for the Sioux on the reservation, Senator Dawes lobbies President Grant for kinder Indian treatment. Epic in scope, BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE is a new Western classic called "...insightful...deeply affecting...visually striking" by The Washington Post.
With an acceptable balance of strengths and weaknesses, HBO's revisionist rendition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee can be recommended as a very basic (if slightly inaccurate) history lesson for younger viewers. It doesn't flinch from the harsh realities that were so passionately chronicled in author Dee Alexander Brown's enduring 1970 classic of Native American history, nor does it soften the brutality of violence between the U.S. federal forces and the doomed Native American tribes who fought to preserve their native territories, from the legendary battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 (depicted in the opening scenes) to the shameful slaughter of Sioux warriors at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. Originally broadcast on May 27, 2007, and running slightly over two hours, this U.S./Canadian coproduction struggles to tell a story that would've been better served by a full-length miniseries (and will surely disappoint anyone familiar with Brown's important book), and the screenplay is so busy giving us a Cliff's Notes version of history that it lacks any particular focus or consistent point of view. Instead, we get a sobering, noble, and heartbreaking tale of territorial injustice, with forced parallels to the war in Iraq, full of admirable performances yet riddled with clichés and anachronistic details.
If you look closer, however, you'll find much to admire: Although his character was dubiously conceived to appeal to a contemporary white audience, Adam Beach (from Flags of Our Fathers) gives a fine performance as Charles Eastman, a Sioux doctor integrated into white society, who grows increasingly conflicted by the plight of his people. He's the tragic embodiment of the faulty ideals of Senator Dawes (Aidan Quinn), whose governmental effort to assimilate Native Americans leads to disastrous outbreaks of violence, depicted here with blunt-force realism. As Eastman's sympathetic and upright wife (a white schoolteacher with a strong sense of conscience), Anna Paquin makes the most of an underwritten role, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is an impressive showcase for outstanding native American actors like August Schellenberg (as Sitting Bull) and Gordon Tootoosis (as Red Cloud), who bring obvious authority and conviction to their roles. The film is most effective when addressing the inevitable failure of the white man's well-meaning but ultimately misguided policies toward Native Americans. To the extent that we still struggle with the historical legacy of those policies, this flawed but instructional rendition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee can be viewed as a compact precursor to deeper historical study. --Jeff Shannon
- Commentary by director Yves Simoneau
- Commentary by actors Aidan Quinn and Adam Beach
- Behind-the-scenes featurettes: Making History, The Heart of a People, Telling the Story
- Interactive on-screen historical guide prepared by the films screenwriter
- Photo gallery
- Production notes
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Top Customer Reviews
There are many historical inaccuracies in this film; some are big, and some are small. Director Yves Simoneau recounts the story of reservation life, the taking of Indian lands and the debate that ensued. Choosing drama, as opposed to a documentary style, to recount these subjects is most challenging. When one looks past the inaccuracies in "Wounded Knee", one will discover many moments of brilliance.
So, let us undo some of the most important snafus first:
* The film opens with a young Ohiyesa -- Charles Eastman living in the village at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Eastman was never there.
* Sitting Bull physically lashes his men for attempting to flee Canada for their old homeland. This was never the case. Sitting Bull did use the akicita (similar to law enforcement officers) to keep people from leaving Canada. The film accurately portrays why Sitting Bull took the actions he did.
* Sitting Bull surrenders at Standing Rock instead of Ft. Buford.
* Charles Eastman was not the right-hand man to Dawes in developing what would later become the Dawes Act.
"Wounded Knee" indeed seems to be two films. The first covers the latter years of Sitting Bull's (August Schellenberg) life which are filled with triumph and defeat, greatness and loneliness. The second involves the rescue of a culture gasping its last breath. Trying to resuscitate it are Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) and Charles Eastman (Adam Beach) through the building of the Dawes Act that ensures every Indian family would own 160 acres of land.
The first film centers on Sitting Bull, a defeated chief of the Lakota, and one of the most convincing American Indian characters ever shaped for a film. He is a complete enigma. He fights to protect his people, yet he lashes warriors for fleeing Canada to their homeland in the Dakotas. He criticizes other Indian leaders for accepting the white man's way of life, yet he sells his autograph and photo. Sitting Bull's redemption is intended to be shown in one dramatic scene where he confronts the Dawe Commission. "You may say they wish to give us land. But, here is the truth. Each patch is for a man and all generations that follow. They know that this land cannot feed but one generation, not even so much as that..." He continues his speech which will shock and surprise many viewers. In the end, Sitting Bull's oration becomes his death warrant.
Film two follows the life of Eastman. When he is 15 years old, his father Jacob (Wayne Charles Baker) takes Eastman back from the roaming Santee bands. Eastman is confused from his father's acceptance of Christianity and his singing of hymns. For me, one of the most notable scenes occurs when Eastman must leave his father to begin yet another new life. As Eastman looks out the window of his slowly moving train, his father waves goodbye and begins to sing a hymn. The emotions are exceedingly powerful; the hymn develops into an Indian strong-heart song as he waves goodbye to his son for the last time. Eastman eventually becomes the agency physician at Pine Ridge where he meets Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin) and they become fast friends. However, the Beach character is filled with conflict in one of his best performances. Living again among his people, Eastman questions what he has become.
From these doubts, the film chronicles perfectly Eastman and Dawe's collapsing relationship. Through the first two acts, they share the enthusiasm of great dreams and aspirations on how they intend to save the American Indian. They become like father and son. But, they finally reach an impasse in a scene that exudes much sadness.
In the middle of this complex storyline comes a moment of elegance in the only scene involving Wovoka (Studi). With ballet like movements, the Studi character brings his message of the Ghost Dance to the Lakota people. As he articulates his vision in words, he accompanies them with Plains Indian sign language while his body gracefully moves before the crowd. Wovoka's message is simple: If the Lakota people believe his vision and learn the Ghost Dance, the Great Spirit will rid the earth of the white man, return the buffalo to their full glory, and give back to the Lakota their old way of life. It is the strangest irony of this film: from such promise the Lakota people feel happiness again, but all they receive is death.
"Wounded Knee" gives us two great scenes that connect the two films together. The first is the death of Sitting Bull never told before with such accuracy in any other film. This scene over any other still haunts me. The film then transports us to the second climatic scene, which is the Battle of Wounded Knee. Yes, it was a battle; there was fierce hand-to-hand combat, and it ended in a slaughter. The movie vividly portrays the tension leading up to the battle, its fight, and its massacre, but fails in its explanation why. The movie attempts to explain as when Col. James Forsyth (Marty Antonini) says to Eastman, "We didn't fire first. I swear to all-mighty God, we did not fire first." I still wish the film explained further.
That lack of explanation does not diminish from the greatness of this movie. It is truly courageous in the tale movie producers have, until now, been afraid to touch. For the first time we have a Western movie that is concerned with both sides. With its intelligent script, strong direction, and powerful acting, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" grasps the concept of the last days of the Lakota nation wholly; at times brutal, but the movie still exhibits warmth and passion.