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Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me
,The Return Of A Man Called Horse

The Return of a Man Called Horse

British actor Richard Harris had a major hit with A Man Called Horse (1970), playing John Morgan, an Englishman on a hunting expedition in the remote American West who is captured by the Yellow Hand Sioux. Nicknamed "Horse" by his captors, he undergoes a brutal ritual initiation to become accepted into the tribe, eventually leading them into victory over their enemies. Years later, Morgan is living in England again but feeling disconnected and empty inside. He returns to the West only to find his beloved tribe has been pushed off its land by vicious white trappers, backed by the U.S. government. Isolated and barely surviving, the remaining Yellow Hand are reinvigorated by Morgan's return. Once again, he undergoes the torturous initiation and emerges as a warrior to lead them into battle to regain their sacred land.

Critics weren't universally enthralled by the sequel, The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), and questioned its epic pace and some shaky plot elements, such as the need for Morgan to be initiated once again, an obvious attempt to get more mileage out of the original film's most sensational scene. Some also noted that, in spite of its pro-Indian theme, the film exhibited considerable white chauvinism in depicting the tribe helpless and demoralized until the Englishman restores their spirit and teaches them, once again, how to fight for themselves. Nevertheless, other critics and audiences found the movie visually stunning and exciting. Reportedly, George Lucas was so impressed with Irvin Kershner's handling of the picture that he hired Kershner to direct Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Credit must also go to cinematographer Owen Roizman for the acclaimed look of the film. Roizman earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1997 for his work on such films as The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Tootsie (1982), and Wyatt Earp (1994).

Jack DeWitt took on screenwriting chores, as he did on the original A Man Called Horse, which was based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson previously filmed in 1958 as an episode of the television Western series Wagon Train. Kershner has said that The Return of a Man Called Horse had the best music of any film he ever directed. He felt Laurence Rosenthal's score played like grand opera. Lucas must have been impressed by the composer's work, too; he was hired years later to write music for various television and made-for-video incarnations of Young Indiana Jones, produced by Lucas and based on his famous character.

The "white bias" that critic Roger Ebert and others noted in the story arc of The Return of a Man Called Horse was also reflected in the casting. Following a longtime Hollywood practice, many members of the Sioux tribe are played by Hispanic actors. Danish-American actress Gale Sondergaard was cast in the role of the Sioux matriarch Elk Woman. The first winner of a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (for Anthony Adverse, 1936), Sondergaard had been blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her husband, director Herbert Biberman, was one of the Hollywood Ten, and his career was destroyed after being accused of being communist. She found work on the stage for many years until returning to film and television in the late 1960s. Despite her Scandinavian heritage, Sondergaard was dark and exotic looking, which often led to her being cast in various ethnic roles, notably as the deadly Eurasian in The Letter (1940). Sondergaard was initially set to play the role of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but producers thought she was too beautiful. Director Mervyn Leroy, who very much wanted her for the part, retested her in ugly make-up, but her natural good looks were still considered unsuitable, and at any rate, she refused to look so unattractive on screen and turned down the role.

The Return of a Man Called Horse was the result of a partnership Harris had formed with Sandy Howard, who produced the original A Man Called Horse. Ironically, Harris was not Howard's preferred choice to play John Morgan in the first movie; he wanted Robert Redford, who went on to make the similar Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Howard and Harris teamed again for another, poorly received, sequel, Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1982), in which a not very robust Harris appears in only a few scenes, with the bulk of the movie centering on Morgan's son, Koda (Michael Beck).

Director: Irvin Kershner
Producer: Terry Morse, Jr.
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt, based on characters created by Dorothy M. Johnson
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Editing: Michael Kahn
Production Design: Stewart Campbell
Original Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cast: Richard Harris (John Morgan), Gale Sondergaard (Elk Woman), Geoffrey Lewis (Zenas), Bill Lucking (Tom Gryce), Jorge Luke (Running Bull), Jorge Russek (Blacksmith).
C-126m. Letterboxed.

By Rob Nixon


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