The Gateway Arch,  Saint Louis on and unclear day

The Gateway Arch, Saint Louis
on an unclear day

The Gateway Arch sits on the western shore of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Dedicated in 1968, it crowns the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial complex on the spot where the Louisiana Purchase was concluded in 1803 and the Louis and Clark expedition commenced in 1804. Visitors can climb into tram capsules, five to a car, and ascend to the top of the Arch where there is a windowed gallery. It feels something like the fuselage of a large airplane with the seats removed. Looking east, the Cahokia Mounds are visible just across the river and the fertile fields of Illinois stretch to the horizon. On the frontier side, the Missouri River makes it’s way to the north and west, marking the route taken by Louis and Clark. In the Museum of Westward Expansion, which lies under the pavement between the two uprights of the Arch, it is possible to stand next to a statue of Thomas Jefferson and follow his gaze to the West. Out there lie the Great Plains, the epicenter of the American psychodrama. This grand monument is said to symbolize the optimism of those who were setting out to take possession of an infant America, but that is only one way to look at it.

The Far Horizons  (1955)

Based on the adventures of the Lewis and Clark expedition, this film features Fred MacMurray as Captain Lewis, and Charlton Heston as his fellow officer, Bill Clark.  Barbara Hale is the girl that Clark left behind and Donna Reed plays Sacajawea (say Sack-ah-ja-wee-ah), the Indian woman that Clark comes to truly love.  Almost every one of these actors is a bad choice for the roles they play and the drama has elements of travesty.  Lewis and Clark do not get along well, and Lewis is very opposed to Clark’s relationship with Sacajawea, whom he calls Janey.  The journey to the edge of the West ends inconclusively and suddenly they are back at the White House enjoying the appreciation of President Jefferson.  Sacajawea realizes she does not belong in this world and arranges for a coach to take her back to her people.  The Indians in the film are played by white actors.  What authenticity is on view can be found almost entirely in the nicely photographed Western landscapes.

The Squaw Man  (1914)

TCM ran this film as part of its series on American Indians in the movies in May 2010. The fame of this work, however, derives from its being the first important directorial effort by Cecil B. DeMille. It sparked the foundation of Paramount Pictures. He would remake this film twice, once in 1918 and again in 1931. This last one had sound but did poorly at the box office. It is not a movie to make Native Americans proud, but it does have the distinction of being the first Hollywood film to feature a Native American actress in a major role. Wikipedia says the interracial love story made it a success and “put Hollywood on the map.”

The silent film follows the misadventures of an English aristocrat named Jim who makes his way to America in hope of a fresh start. Lured by tales of the frontier, he travels west. The ensuing Wild West scenes are so ridiculous that they look like comedy sketches.  The Indian woman is first seen among her own people where braves are dancing around a fire in a display of silliness that would make the Indians of the original Peter Pan look like serous anthropology.

Jim buys a ranch in Wyoming, I think, and becomes powerful in the nearby town. There is a local man trying to cheat the Indians by feeding them liquor. The Indian woman shoots the desperado dead and Jim conceals the crime. She moves to the center of the story in a protracted sequence where she saves Jim from near-death in the snow.  She puts him on a horse sledge and drags him to her village where a stereotype medicine man dances around the unconscious white man. As he recovers, they sit by the fire in his home and become companionable. He discovers that she is pregnant and elects to marry her. The justice of the peace refuses to do the job until somebody pulls a gun on him. Suddenly, there is a little half-breed who has joined the family. Back in England, Jim’s name has been cleared of his misdemeanors and his people set out to bring him home. But Jim is in trouble. His ranch has gone bust and the sheriff has discovered that his wife killed the desperado. There are a great many complications. The Brits arrive to inform Jim that he is inherited an estate. They want to take Jim’s son back to England for a proper education. The boy’s mother, whose name is Nat-u-ritch, fears that she is losing her son and going to jail. She walks out into a field and shoots herself.

There are two films that have risen to the top of my North America movie list for their ability to bring the issues of confrontation and reconciliation between indigenous Americans and white settlers back onto the imaginative landscape after a long absence. Both are presented as straightforward dramas, without irony or cynicism, though both are categorized as “revisionist Westerns.” Both films strive to give equal screen time to each side and to balance their opposing points of view. It can be noticed, however, that white actors occupy the foreground position most of the time. Both are notable for their extended running time, so I will encapsulate them for those who want to get the whole story in ten minutes.

Dances with Wolves  (1990)

I am including my full report on this movie because it encapsulates the Plains experience.

 This was a film that demanded something of its audience in 1990. People had to turn off their TV sets, get in the car, and drive to the cineplex. It was a widescreen experience. Kevin Costner made his directorial debut with this ambitious effort and also starred as the film’s central character. It was a role for which he would be forever remembered. Running at three hours, or four hours for the director’s cut, it also demanded stamina.

The story begins with Costner, called John Dunbar, fighting in the Civil War on the Union side and things are going badly.  He attempts a dramatic form of suicide by riding into enemy lines and ends up a hero.  He is rewarded with the post of his choice and elects to travel to a fort on the frontier and then take an assignment deep in Indian territory.  The panoramic scenes in South Dakota are spectacular.  His foul traveling companion says “the damn Indians ain’t nothin’ but thieves and beggars.”

Dunbar decides to dig in alone at a deserted outpost where he will wait for reinforcements that will be slow in coming.  He keeps a journal, which is read in voiceovers.  There is a curious wolf that hovers at the edge of his compound. Dunbar finds a dead animal in his water supply and burns it.  The smoke is observed by hostile Indians.  As they ride toward the smoke, they encounter the mule driver who transported Dunbar and savagely murder him.  They ride off.  Later a lone Indian finds Dunbar’s homestead and attempts to steal his horse.  Costner drives him off.

There is an interesting and respectful scene where the Indians are in council discussing what to do about this intruder.  They are concerned that if they kill him more will come.  The Indian who found the homestead is called Kicking Bird (Graham Green).  After repeated Indian attempts to steal his horse, Dunbar decides to stop being a target and ride out to meet the Indians.  On the way, he finds Mary McDonnell, called Stands With a Fist, who is injured.  He carries her to the camp of the Lakota Sioux, who are wary of him. Kicking Bird, a holy man, stops them from attacking.  The wise old chief, in that night’s council, decides it would be good to send a party to meet with the white man.  It is a tense encounter. Dunbar establishes communication by mimicking a buffalo.  All Indian dialogue is done with subtitles.

Back in the Lakota village, Kicking Bird takes Stands With a Fist into his teepee to persuade her to remember her English words so they can talk to the white soldier.  She is very much afraid and has flashback memories of the Pawnees who killed her family of settlers.  Kicking Bird brings Dunbar a gift of a buffalo skin.  The white man is learning respect for his Indian neighbors.  Visiting the village, he sits in Kicking Bird’s teepee as Stands With a Fist struggles to communicate with him in English.  Things are improving.

One evening he wakes up to what feels like an earthquake; he discovers it is a buffalo herd.  Riding to the Lakota village to notify them, he finds them in ritual dance and they attack him as an intruder.  He manages to tell them about the buffalo and the nomads quickly pack up all their possessions to set off on the trail of the buffalo.  Eventually, they come upon a killing field where buffalo lie in bloody heaps without their skins.  Wagon tracks lead away from the area.  Dunbar is ashamed of his race.

In the next day or so, they find the massive herd and prepare for the hunt.  The buffalo stampede as they approach.  Dunbar rides among the hunters using his rifle.  This thunderous buffalo hunt is the centerpiece of the movie, and the fulfillment of the widescreen promise.  Dunbar rescues a child menaced by a bull.  Braves cut out the heart of the dead animal and command him to eat a piece of it.  There is feasting in the village and Dunbar must tell the story of rescuing the child over and over.  There is some tension around Indians appropriating parts of his uniform.  He sleeps in the village and is aware of Stands With a Fist sleeping nearby.

The nomads are on the move again against a dawning sky.  Dunbar is much impressed with the “harmony” of this community.  Back at his home, he dances alone around a fire with the lone wolf watching; the wolf is called “Two Socks.”  War is brewing with the Pawnee but Dunbar is not allowed to participate.  Stands With a Fist mediates and love begins to grow between them.  He learns that she is mourning for a dead husband.  They end up making love in a teepee but are interrupted by news of a Pawnee raid.  The Lakota are afraid and Dunbar offers them his supply of guns.  When the attack comes, it is sad to see the white man in his glory shooting Indians, and teaching his allies how to do likewise.  The fighting is savage.  Dunbar says, “It was hard to know how to feel …”  on reflection, he feels that in helping his friends he has come to know who he really is for the first time.

That night there is dancing by the fire.  Dunbar and Stands With a Fist steal away.  The next day, Kicking Bird, who is her adoptive father, announces that her period of mourning is over.  A wedding is arranged and the newlyweds retire to a teepee as the women ululate.  Dunbar tells the Indians that the white men will come in ever increasing numbers.

The people are on the move again but Costner must ride back to retrieve his journal.  He finds soldiers at his small fort.  They take him for an Indian and shoot his horse out from under him.  He is knocked out with a rifle butt and taken captive. The Army officers do not believe his story and he is badly beaten.  His captors talk of taking him back to headquarters for hanging.  As he is being transported under harsh treatment, a Lakota war party rides to his rescue, killing all the soldiers.  It’s a fascinating turnabout to watch a white audience cheering for the rescuers as they kill the bluecoats of the Cavalry.

It is winter by the time Dunbar returns to his ecstatic wife.  He feels that now the soldiers will be seeking him and that he is a danger to the tribe.  He makes plans to leave.  There are tributes and farewells as Dunbar and his wife ride off through the snow.  A legend says that thirteen years later the Sioux surrendered to the American Army and the great horse culture of the plains disappeared forever.  Cinemania calls this a “revisionist western,” and has a fairly low opinion of the film.  Ebert takes the interesting approach of speaking of the encounter of Dunbar and the Indians as the meeting of two forms of civilization. This film took home seven Academy Awards.

Into the West  (2005)

Produced by Steven Spielberg, this six-episode made-for-TV miniseries ran on TNT in June 2005. Each episode lasts for two hours. Opening in 1825, it concentrates almost entirely on the clashes between the Indians on the Plains and the pioneers making their way from Independence, Missouri to the California shore. There are episodes that touch on the discoveries of gold in California and elsewhere, as well as the completion of the transcontinental telegraph and railroad lines. Much of the day-to-day human drama is set in the villages or encampments of the settlers or the Indians. It concludes strongly with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Clearly there is a different mindset at work in the first decade of the new millennium than there was fifty or so years ago in the prime of American Westerns. There is an imagery at work in this miniseries, beginning under the opening credits, where the wagon wheels from the East crush the stone markers for the Medicine Wheels revered by the Indians.

If it would be permissible to imagine a large conference table with Steven Spielberg presiding over the creative team responsible for the making of this epic project, it might have opened as follows. This is an opportunity to cover the entire span of the westward migration during the 19th century. It can begin with quaint scenes of peaceful village life in the East during the years before the Civil War, then follow the caravans of covered wagons making their way across the Mississippi and into the promise of the West.

As the conversation at the table broadens, deeper issues begin to rise up. Because this filming is being done early in the 21st century, it will be necessary to engage the reversals of perspective that characterize this time. Equal weight will need to be given to the lives of the Indians, especially the nomadic tribes of the Plains, who faced dislocation as the wagon wheels rolled into their territories. The lives of ordinary people can be valorized over the big names in history. There can be time for love stories along the trails and scenes of domestic life in the Indian encampments. The Indian roles should, at last, be played by Native American actors. Indian spirituality might even get more screen time than Protestant services – except for funerals. Women’s roles can be given more substance, and attention can be paid to a view of the world as more than a hunting ground or an arena for battle. Historical accuracy should get adequate respect though certainly it will not be allowed to stand in the way of good storytelling. And then, the maker of Schindler’s List might observe, there is the matter of the atrocities that lurk in the shadows of the Western adventure.

The 19th century in North American history was punctuated by massacres committed with equal ferocity on both sides. The justifications would always reduce to the primal impulse for vengeance. It was a more natural argument for the Indians but a weaker position for the new Americans who saw the need to defend their country against the savages. There were heavy losses and great sacrifices for all concerned, but in the end it was the Indians who were herded onto desolate reservations in the Southwest where they were forced into the indignity of begging for food and shelter.

Into the West has been classified as a “revisionist Western” joining those that began to appear in the early 1960s. The difference with this project is that it employs Spielberg’s trademark mainstream sensibility and raises aggravated issues under the guise of home entertainment. I read an interesting review online by John Leonard, written for New York magazine. He questioned the need for yet another rehash of these issues that had played out in movies over the 20th century, and he concluded that, yes, it was important to revisit this territory and look at it through a different lens.

 Trailers for Into the West have been disappointing. See YouTube.

Ken Burns Presents The West  (1996)

Directed by Steven Ives, this PBS miniseries have the benefit of Ken Burns’ name in the title and his services as executive producer. It partakes very fully of the Burns style of documentary history. The nine episodes begin with early explorations by the Spaniards and in the American expedition by Louis and Clark, beginning in 1804. The plight of the American Indians who watched white settlers move to their sacred lands and make themselves at home is well accounted for. The pioneer caravans made slow progress at first. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 greatly accelerated the process. Mark Twain went west at the start of the Civil War. After the war, soldiers and settlers came in search of new opportunities. Those who had no use for law and order had the upper hand. Native Americans were forced further and further onto lands that were deemed useless. When they fought back, they were vanquished. The two iconic massacres committed by American military are well covered. They are Sand Creek, 1864; and Wounded Knee, 1890. The 1876 Indian massacre of General Custer and his men is also fully recorded. The Americans brought their prejudices with them. The Indians got the worst of it, but the Chinese, Mexicans, and former slaves also came in for a bad time. As the 20th century dawned, there was a sense that the Americans had won the West and pushed all others aside. A time of healing and accommodating was now at hand, but this documentary does not go that far.

Patricia Nelson Limerick is one of the many historians and folklorists who comment on these events. Her book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987), is considered a landmark of modern scholarship on the West.

Mounds & Plains Related Posts:

Return to North America Overview