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Thunderheart
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Thunderheart

"The story was inspired on events that took place on Indian Reservations in the 1970s," reads the opening titles of Thunderheart (1992). On the surface, the film plays out as a classic mystery thriller dropped into the South Dakota Badlands and tangled up in the politics of the increasingly militant Indian Rights movement. Behind the fiction, however, is a very real history of conflict between Indian activists and the FBI, which culminated in the Wounded Knee siege of 1973 and the conviction of AIM member Leonard Peltier for the murder of two FBI agents (based on evidence that remains controversial to this day); all of that real history informs the fiction of this film.

Val Kilmer puts on the Raybans to play taciturn and loyal FBI agent Ray Levoi, whose Indian ancestry (Levoi's father was part Sioux) are all the qualifications the feds care about when they send him to investigate a murder on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The young, handsome Kilmer had attained the status of movie star the previous year playing Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991). While make-up adds just a hint of duskiness to his complexion, Kilmer's own ancestry includes Cherokee blood. Levoi, however, has spent his life denying his Indian blood and the assignment only rouses his resentments (one local dubs him the "Washington redskin"). It, of course, makes him a prime candidate for a spiritual reawakening, guided by dedicated tribal cop Walter Crow Horse (the dryly witty Graham Greene, who was previously an Academy Award® nominee for his supporting role in Dances with Wolves [1990]) and the tribal medicine man Grandpa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk). As Ray digs into the murder case, he discovers the evidence doesn't support the FBI's theory, which has blamed the murder on the local leader of the militant Aboriginal Rights Movement, or ARM (a fictionalized version of the real-life American Indian Movement, aka AIM). More telling, Ray's new boss Frank "Cooch" Coutelle (Sam Shepard) doesn't even care, which sends Ray digging even deeper into a conspiracy that challenges his allegiance to the FBI ("the Federal Bureau of Intimidation," as Walter dubs them).

Screenwriter John Fusco spent years visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and drew the story from his experiences, fictionalizing the history but preserving the issues and conflicts. Michael Apted, a director with a solid career in both Hollywood (Coal Miner's Daughter [1980]) and documentary (7 Up and its sequels [1970-2005]) filmmaking, was well prepared to bring the script to the screen: He was finishing up the documentary Incident at Oglala (1992), which explored and exposed the events at Wounded Knee that inspired Fusco's script, when he was offered Thunderheart.

With the support of producers Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, Apted and Fusco used the fiction not only to expose the history but to make a provocative and political statement about the plight of the American Indian in modern America. "The Third World smack in the middle of America," comments Cooch as he drives his new junior partner through the dirt roads and ramshackle housing of the reservation. Sheila Tousey gives voice to the problems faced by the reservations Indians, including poverty, substandard schools and medical care and polluted water, as Maggie Eagle Bear, a Dartmouth-educated Sioux woman who returned to the reservation to fight for her people in the political arena. Actor/musician John Trudell, who was the National Chairman of the American Indian Movement during the era represented in Thunderheart, takes a more urgent and angry tack as wanted activist Jimmy Looks Twice (the film's stand-in for Leonard Peltier).

Just as alarming is the presence of the self-appointed Guardians of the Oglala Nation (or GOON, appropriately enough), an armed and oppressive militia that mans roadblocks and rides through the reservation dispensing their own justice with the support of the FBI. In the film the GOON squads take their marching orders from Jack Milton (Fred Ward), who controls the Tribal councils and the money coming in to the reservation and sees ARM as a challenge to his power. (The acronym is so evocative that it may surprise you that Apted and Fusco didn't fictionalize it.) With their terrorist tactics and campaign of intimidation (tacitly backed by the American government to suppress the growing activist movement), they make the reservation look less like a sovereign nation than an occupied country.

Apart from the opening scenes in Washington D.C. (where Ray drives around listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands," a wry anticipation of his next assignment), Thunderheart was shot on location at Badlands National Park, Wounded Knee and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the locations of the real life incidents of the seventies; all of this was done with the support of the Oglala Sioux people, who trusted Apted and Fusco to tell their story. Their trust was well founded. Apart from a few visions and suggestions of spiritual magic, Thunderheart dispenses with clich├ęs of Indian culture while respectfully showing the traditions kept alive on the reservation and exposing conditions on the reservation, all within the conventions of an entertaining and involving Hollywood murder mystery with a message.

Producer: Robert De Niro, John Fusco, Jane Rosenthal
Director: Michael Apted
Screenplay: John Fusco
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Art Direction: Bill Ballou
Music: James Horner
Film Editing: Ian Crafford
Cast: Val Kilmer (Ray Levoi), Sam Shepard (Frank Coutelle), Graham Greene (Walter Crow Horse), Fred Ward (Jack Milton), Fred Dalton Thompson (William Dawes), Sheila Tousey (Maggie Eagle Bear), Chief Ted Thin Elk (Grandpa Sam Reaches), John Trudell (Jimmy Looks Twice), Julius Drum (Richard Yellow Hawk), Sarah Brave (Maisy Blue Legs).
C-119m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Sean Axmaker VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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