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Featured Blu-ray Review: A Man Called Horse

May 30th, 2011

A Man Called Horse - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

A Man Called Horse was made during a time when the movie industry was starting to change the way Native Americans were portrayed in westerns. Screenwriters were starting to create Native American charactors that were more than simple bad guys and were trying to paint a more authentic picture of their way of life. Or at the very least, pretended to do so. It's hard to take the claim of authenticity seriously when the most memorable scene, the scene depicted on the poster, was completely made up. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The Movie

Richard Harris stars as Lord John Morgan, an Englishman who has traveled halfway across the world to the Northwest Territory after becoming disillusioned with his inherited wealth and status. For five years he's traveled looking for something he could call his own, but so far all he has done is hunt birds. That changes when he and he three guides are ambushed by Sioux. His guides are quickly killed, but he's spared, for reasons we don't quite understand at the time. He becomes a slave and is given to Buffalo Cow Head, one of the elders of the tribe.

John, or as he is now called, Horse, has great difficulty understanding the Sioux people, their culture and their language. In fact, there's only one person in the entire village that speaks English, Batise, a fellow slave whose mother was Flathead Indian and whose father was French. He was captured in a raid five years ago, and was maimed after he tried to escape to prevent further attempts. Now he acts like a crazy man to avoid work. Horse decides to take a different approach, he's going to learn the ways of the Sioux and gain his freedom by first gaining their respect. Trying to learn their ways without knowing their language does prove difficult. For instance, he accidentally propositions Buffalo Cow Head, which the tribe find very humorous. Horse instead has eyes for Running Deer, the sister of the tribal chief.

But for Horse to be with Running Deer, he will have too prove himself a warrior. And that doesn't just mean fight with honor in combat, but survive the Sun Vow initiation rite.

The Sun Vow is the most controversial aspect of A Man Called Horse. Not only is it so brutal that some critics today have used the term, "Torture Porn" to describe it, it is also made up, which greatly reduces the film's credibility when it comes to its earlier claims of realism. Nor is this claim of realism bolstered by the, well, let's say international cast. (Buffalo Cow Head was played by Judith Anderson, who was Australian. Running Deer was played by Corinna Tsopei, who was Greek. Chief Yellow Hand was played by Manu Tupou, who was Fijian. The Medicine Man was played by Iron Eyes Cody, who was actually Corsican.) That said, the film is still far more authentic than most westerns of the day and at least tries to show Native American life from their perspective, or at least from those of an outsider getting a first-hand look. Too many other westerns showed Native Americans as the nameless bad guys, or at best, the good guy might have a lone Indian friend.

It is a laudable film for trying to give a voice to a mostly silent people, while the acting from Richard Harris and others is very strong. The cinematography highlights the natural wonder, and even with the flaws, it is certainly worth checking out.

On a side note, I don't think the Sun Vow is that bad. Sure it looks bad, but we don't linger on it as the scene transitions quickly to his spirit trip. It is certainly not a pleasant scene to watch, but doesn't feel exploitative, at least it doesn't to me.

The Extras

There are absolutely no extras on the Blu-ray. But there wasn't even a trailer on the previously released DVD either, so this isn't a big surprise. The film's video transfer is spotty. There are times when the level of detail is amazing, especially for a film that's 40 years old. The colors truly pop, the blacks are incredibly deep, etc. It's everything you could want for a film this old. Other times it looks awful. There are a few stock footage shots, which never seem to age well, while the special effects are also showing their age, as expected. But there are also times where certain shots within the same scene are very noticeably weaker than those around them and you can't excuse those with stock footage or dated special effects. The audio is good, but not great. The dialogue is clear, for the most part. But the surround sound speakers are mostly ignored.

The Verdict

A Man Called Horse is an excellent movie, even with its flaws, but the Blu-ray is rather weak. There are absolutely no extras, while the video transfer is erratic in quality and the audio is uncomplicated. On the other hand, unless there's a special edition released that uses a remastered print, this is likely the best it will look. Likewise, unless there's a special edition that includes brand new extras, this is the best we can hope for. I think the quality of the movie makes it worth picking up, but I can't be enthusiastic about that recommendation.

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