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Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me


In Windwalker (1981), Trevor Howard plays the title character, an elderly Cheyenne warrior who recounts his remarkable life of adventure from his deathbed. As a young man, Windwalker suffered the devastating loss of his wife (Serene Hedin) and one of his twin sons at the hands of an enemy Crow tribe. On the brink of death, Windwalker is mysteriously resuscitated by the "Great Spirit." In order to reach a peaceful afterlife, he must embark on a spiritual journey to discover the mystery of what happened to his missing son. Based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Blaine Yorgason, Windwalker is a unique story set against the majestic natural beauty of the Utah mountains.

The production company behind Windwalker was Pacific International Enterprises (PIE), the same organization behind the popular Wilderness Family films. Based in Medford, Oregon, PIE was an operation dedicated to making wholesome family entertainment operating well outside the city limits of Hollywood.

Windwalker represented a highly ambitious project for PIE with its sweeping locations and dangerous stunts. The producers secured Kieth Merrill, who had previously won an Academy Award for his 1973 documentary The Great American Cowboy, to direct.

With the vast majority of the Windwalker cast being Native American, having British actor Trevor Howard portray the title character seemed to some an odd choice. However, director Merrill wanted "the best actor he could think of" for the part, and Howard immediately came to mind. Howard saw the film's story as akin to Shakespeare's King Lear and took the role believing it would provide a new and unique challenge for him.

The location shooting of Windwalker in the Utah mountains proved to be physically demanding for Howard, who was in his 60s at the time. To play Windwalker, he was required to wear brown tinted contact lenses. On the very first day of shooting, however, he was forced to abandon the lenses when they started to cut into his corneas as he shot a scene in the blazing sun. During the course of filming, Howard was also required to ride horses through the snowy mountains, wade through icy rivers, get chased by wolves and wrestle a grizzly bear. While it could be grueling at times, he admirably rose to the challenge. "It was pure hell," said Howard according to Michael Munn's book Trevor Howard – The Man and His Films, "but I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

In striving for authenticity, all dialogue in Windwalker is spoken in native Cheyenne and Crow languages with the exception of a sporadic English language voice over. To meet this challenge, Trevor Howard received coaching from a Cheyenne professor of Native American languages and was eventually able to deliver his Cheyenne dialogue perfectly.

When filming on Windwalker was completed, PIE was extremely proud of the film and hoped it could find a broad distribution for worldwide audiences. Because it was not the usual Hollywood fare, Windwalker was a tough sell. PIE worked tirelessly to promote their film in hopes that it might be rewarded with an Oscar&erg; nomination, which would certainly help its chances for worldwide distribution. Critical response was extremely positive, but Windwalker failed to qualify as a foreign film - the category in which PIE hoped it would compete at the Academy Awards. It was released after the cut-off date for foreign language entrants, and it subsequently failed to classify as an American film because of an Academy rule stating that any film with a mostly non-English dialogue soundtrack would be classified as a foreign film. As a result, Windwalker was shut out of the Academy Awards and was ultimately unable to secure wide distribution. It was a great disappointment to everyone involved.

Windwalker found its audience through word of mouth. It was praised for its visual beauty and heartfelt story as well as its positive and respectful depiction of Native Americans.

Producer: Thomas E. Ballard, Arthur R. Dubs
Director: Kieth Merrill
Screenplay: Ray Goldrup (screenplay); Blaine Yorgason (additional writing and novel)
Cinematography: Reed Smoot
Music: Merrill Jenson
Film Editing: Janice Hampton, Stephen L. Johnson, Peter L. McCrea
Cast: Trevor Howard (Windwalker), Nick Ramus (Smiling Wolf/Crow Brother/Narrator), James Remar (Windwalker as a young man), Serene Hedin (Tashina), Dusty 'Iron Wing' McCrea (Dancing Moon), Silvana Gallardo (Little Feather), Emerson John (Spotted Deer), Jason Stevens (Horse That Follows), Roberta Deherrera (Happy Wind), Ivan Naranjo (Crooked Leg).
C-108m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Andrea Passafiume



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