Sunday 24 May 2015

Winterhawk [1975]

WINTERHAWK is an American western that was written, produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce and originally released in November 1975.  It stars Leif Erickson, Michael Dante, Dawn Wells, Denver Pyle, Woody Strode, L. Q. Jones and Elisha Cook Jr.  It tells the story of a semi-legendary Blackfoot chief who after being double-crossed by two white traders kidnaps a young woman and her brother.  He is tracked by a band of grizzled mountain men and the girl’s preacher uncle.

This is an example of two sub-genres of the western: the mountain man movie, which is self-explanatory, and the pro-Indian movie which seeks to revise the stereotypical depiction of cowboys and injuns in favour of a more balanced view which generally presents the native American as more sinned against than sinning.  An honourable sentiment then, and no doubt, influenced by the civil rights movement of the 60s, the increased awareness of ecological issues, the wholesale sluaghter of the Vietnam war and, frankly, hippy culture.  However, there’s still cussin’, brawlin’, fartin’ and getting food stuck in your beard and, it has to be said, a white man playing the Indian chief.

What it does have in spades is the achingly beautiful Montana landscape which almost makes you wish pine for the (insert your dime in the cliché box now) rugged individualism of the 19th century, when white men were relatively few and the land unspoiled.  Not that Montana is spoiled now but the US must have been heaven on earth before urbanisation.  I'm not going to deal with the plight of the indigenous peoples here because it is well-documented elsewhere; suffice it to say that country was founded on genocide or, to put it another way, ethnic cleansing.  No wonder the westerns of the first half of the 20th century rewrote history.

I do love these mountain man movies and Sydney Pollack’s JEREMIAH JOHNSON [1972] is for me the definitive example.  I suppose it’s the combination of the landscape, the isolation, the living off the land, the exploration and the sheer adventure of it all.  The mountains, the forests, the waterfalls and the rivers are in my eyes among the most beautiful things the natural world has to offer.  It would take a complete dunce to shoot in Montana and not produce a visually stunning film and Charles B. Pierce was far from that.  I've written about him before (here): his many qualities included a real affinity for American soil and that which lies just beyond the next ridge. 

The locations look great of course and amid the browns, greens, and whites of nature there are brief flashes of red – as in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN – and the multicoloured splendour of L. Q. Jones’s poncho.  If I'm honest while I could watch these location shots all day long there are probably too many of them for the purposes of a narrative film.  Pierce can't seem to resist sunsets, long sweeping vistas and majestic tracking shots for their own sake.

Not that the narrative is much to write home about: it's essentially one long chase with intermittent skirmishes which wear down both sides, and the grand finale is at once anti-climactic and strangely satisfying.  The obvious comparator is John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS [1952] which is extremely highly regarded, although not by me I must confess.  Yes, John Wayne’s character is shown to be a psychotic, racist savage but the focus is still on the white man.  Ford, by all accounts an irascible bully, didn't make a native American focussed picture until right at the end of his career in CHEYENNE AUTUMN [1964] but you have to go an awful long way down the cast list until you get to a genuine Native American actor.  Hollywood still a long way to go in that respect.

Michael Dante as Winterhawk

It’s not Michael Dante’s fault that he was cast though and he does a decent job of depicting the (insert second dime in the cliché box now) nobility of the chief.  He does drift in and out of the English language, which is a bit odd, but that’s a quibble really.  I’ll be honest and say it’s not much of a part: Dante is given little to do other than stare impassively.  The more eye-catching parts of course go to the white guys, L. Q. Jones in particular as the main villain Gates; in Jones’s long career of playing deadbeats and snivelling wretches, Gates has to be one of the most repulsive.

L. Q. Jones as Gates

As with a lot of the films I write about the supporting players are more interesting that the ostensible star (although there is a thesis to be written about films whose title characters are not the star).  Leif Erickson and Denver Pyle play two grizzled old mountain men which is about as close to ‘money for old rope’ as you can get in professional acting.  Both are known more for their TV work than for films – indeed both would be remembered here in the UK for the imported shows THE HIGH CHAPARRAL and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD respectively.  Erickson’s career goes back much further than that though, to the early 30s in fact when he appeared (under his more prosaic given name of Glenn) in Zane Grey oaters, often with Buster Crabbe.  To give him his due he did work in other genres too: he’s in an excellent noirish thriller called SORRY, WRONG NUMBER [1948] which my father recommended to me; he’s also in the classic INVADERS FROM MARS [1953] and Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT the following year.

Leif Erickson as Guthrie

Denver Pyle started about 15 years later than Erickson and consequently paid his dues more on TV than he did in films; he was still appearing unbilled in films well into the 50s.  He’s in Arthur Penn’s THE LEFT HANDED GUN [1958] which stars Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, a film which is often described as being the first western in which Method acting is used (and it is, but only by Newman and in bizarre contrast to the performances of everyone else).  Almost twenty years later Pyle was in another Newman western called BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS [1976]; this one however was directed by Robert Aldrich and is a marked departure from how John Ford would have defined the genre.

Denver Pyle as Arkansas

Elisha Cook Jr plays against type as a preacher and it’s probably the most ‘normal’ character I’ve seen him play.  He’s still a snivelling wretch of course but at least he’s not deranged.  Woody Strode was a monumental presence in virtually every film he made and that’s very much the case here even though he was in his 60s.  In fact, Strode, Cook and L. Q. Jones are three of my favourite actors of all time and it’s a real treat to see them all here together in the same production.

(L-R) Dawns Wells, Charles B. Pierce Jr, Elisha Cook Jr

Woody Strode as Big Rude.  The man is 61 here, for goodness' sake.

As a film tragic I can't omit mention of Sacheen Littlefeather who plays Erickson's squaw / wife.  Not a name you'd forget in a hurry is it?  Far more memorable than Maria Cruz, as she was known to her parents.  I'm being mean to her there: countless actors and actresses in film history changed their names; she is genuinely of Native American heritage.  Which is probably why Marlon Brando chose her to publicly reject his Academy Award for his performance in THE GODFATHER in protest at Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans.

Sacheen Littlefeather as Pale Flower

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