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Scratch the surface of an Elliot Silverstein film and you're likely to find a decent but untested protagonist having his or her mettle tested, if not forged outright, by an especially grueling trial by fire. This is true of the long-time TV director's 1965 feature film debut, Cat Ballou (1965), his 1973 rape-revenge drama Nightmare Honeymoon (a project picked up by Silverstein when original director Nicolas Roeg dropped out in the first week of shooting) and the 1977 cult favorite The Car, in which sleepy small town sheriff James Brolin must rise to the occasion of a killer automobile mowing down slow-moving members of his community. Never was this character arc more fully and brutally realized than in the controversial 1970 western A Man Called Horse.
The project originated with a short story by Iowa-born writer Dorothy M. Johnson, whose tales of frontier life also inspired Delmer Daves' The Hanging Tree (1959) and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The story had first been published in Colliers in 1950 and was later collected in the 1953 anthology Indian Country, reprinted in 1968.
The film belongs to a revisionist subgenre of the movie western, where it sits in the company of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue (1970) and Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972). At the time of its release, critics short-listed A Man Called Horse with several films by Peckinpah (particularly 1971's Straw Dogs), as well as with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) for the unflinching quality of its onscreen violence.
A precursor to Dances with Wolves (1990) in the way it invites viewers into the mysterious and seemingly cruel world of tribal Native Americans, A Man Called Horse follows the plight of British dandy John Morgan (Richard Harris) after being abducted by prairie aboriginals. Kept at first as a beast of burden but surviving every indignity heaped upon him, Morgan slowly wins the hearts and minds of his captors (in particular, former "Miss Universe" Corinna Tsopei as an alluring Sioux squaw), proving his bravery by defending the camp against a Shoshone attack and by undergoing the torturous "Vow to the Sun" - an initiation rite in which Morgan is suspended from bone daggers stuck through his pectorals and left to hang over night. Images from this set piece figured prominently in the film's advertising and fueled debates about the permissiveness of the so-called "New Hollywood," where depictions of sexuality and brutality were thought to be given free rein. In truth, westerns had long accommodated a high level of sadism and suffering. Vignettes of sickness and recovery were common in the novels of Zane Grey and in films the physical destruction of a hero or anti-hero (the public floggings of James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Charlton Heston's knifing/burning in Will Penny (1968), Franco Nero's broken hands in Django, 1966) was a necessary step toward his Christ-like rebirth. After the public taste shifted away from oaters in the 1980s, the torture torch was carried forward by such hard-bodied action stars as Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson, who as a director brought a Peckinpah-like hyperstylization to his Biblical blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Thirty-five years ago, few A-list movie stars had the unbridled chutzpah of Richard Harris. One of eight children born to a Limerick, Ireland flour miller, Harris made a splash in the United Kingdom (and was nominated for an Academy Award®) for playing the angry young leading man of Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963) but it was as the mercurial costar of Charlton Heston in Major Dundee (1965), Doris Day in Caprice (1967), Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot (1967) and Sean Connery in The Molly Maguires (1970) that his stardom reached meteoric heights. (Whether these projects exceeded studio expectations or tanked at the box office hardly mattered.)
By 1970, Harris was an in-demand actor and an award-winning recording artist... and his film choices just got weirder and weirder. Starring as "Old Ironsides" in Cromwell (1970) and playing Richard the Lionheart to Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn's Robin and Marian (1976) brought prestige to his resume but the decade was largely taken up with offbeat projects such as the snowbound survival tale Man in the Wilderness (1971), the downbeat revenge western The Deadly Trackers (1973), the comic book gangster romp 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), the plague-on-a-train thriller The Cassandra Crossing (1976) and the killer whale box office flop Orca (1977). Poised somewhere between the ridiculous and the sublime was A Man Called Horse. Despite his high star wattage, Harris was not at the top of producer Sandy Howard's wish list. First choice Robert Redford declined the role and went on to star in the somewhat similar Jeremiah Johnson (1972).
Bronx-born independent producer Sandy Howard had happened upon Dorothy Johnson's collection of prairie tales while recuperating in Tokyo from dysentery he had contracted in India. In agony and unable to understand the Japanese doctors treating him, Howard lay in bed for three days reading any books he could find that were written in English. Acquiring the rights from Johnson for $250 and selling the deal to the CBS subsidiary Cinema Center Films, Howard assigned the adaptation to Jack DeWitt (who dreamed up the Sun Vow ceremony, not present in the original story) and direction to Elliot Silverstein. On location in Durango, Mexico, Richard Harris quarreled often with his director, who had really wanted Tom Courtenay to play John Morgan (with Buffy Saint-Marie as Morgan's Sioux love interest). For his part, Silverstein clashed with Sioux nation historian Clyde Dollar (who kept a running list of the mounting inaccuracies and anachronisms) and Sandy Howard. After a disastrous test screening in Oakland, Howard spent nearly a year and another $2 million to recut the film an investment in time and sweat that paid off in a sizeable success on par with Camelot. Howard and Harris subsequently formed a friendly partnership, resulting in two sequels to A Man Called Horse, the similarly grueling Man in the Wilderness and the bittersweet Echoes of a Summer (1976), which featured Jodie Foster as a dying child and inspired John Hinckley to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
Despite the greater degree of artistic control and profit-sharing written into his subsequent films, Harris' career faltered mid-decade, forcing him to take jobs abroad and in Canada while his outsized acting style became fodder for comedians and impressionists (most notably in the Second City TV sketch "The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes," which skewered Harris alongside Richard Burton and Sean Connery). Late life redemption came with choice supporting roles in Jim Sheridan's The Field (1990), which netted Harris his second Oscar® nomination, and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). Shortly before his death, Harris was cast as warlock mentor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and its first sequel. Richard Harris died from complications of Hodgkin's lymphoma in October of 2002. After backing a string of disparate but memorable films, among them The Devil's Rain (1975), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), Vice Squad (1982) and The Boys Next Door (1985), Howard succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer's disease in May of 2008.
Producer: Sandy Howard
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt; Dorothy M. Johnson (story)
Cinematography: Robert Hauser, Gabriel Torres
Art Direction: Phil Barber
Music: Lloyd One Star, Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Philip Anderson, Michael Kahn
Cast: Richard Harris (John Morgan), Dame Judith Anderson (Buffalo Cow Head), Jean Gascon (Batise), Manu Tupou (Yellow Hand), Corinna Tsopei (Running Deer), Dub Taylor (Joe), James Gammon (Ed), William Jordan (Bent), Eddie Little Sky (Black Eagle).
by Richard Harland Smith
Richard Harris: Sex, Death and the Movies by Michael Feeney Callan
Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film by Lee Clark Mitchell
Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies by Angela Aleiss