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When it comes to portraying Native Americans on screen, let's face it, Hollywood has botched it for decades. In the 30s and 40s, Native Americans were one-dimensional bad guys, anonymous, bloodthirsty savages out to murder innocent white men as in John Ford's STAGECOACH. But by the Vietnam-era, Americans weren't only questioning authority, they were questioning the mythology of their past as well. So in movies like SOLDIER BLUE and LITTLE BIG MAN (both 1970), the image of the Native American was revised, making them one-dimensional good guys, innocent angels who were massacred by the white man, who ironically now became the bloodthirsty savage this time around. Hollywood's been missing a nuanced, three-dimensional movie about America's treatment of the Indian for a while now, and though HBO Films' BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE doesn't quite fill the gap, it's at least a step in the right direction.

Written by Daniel Giat, based on the seminal book by Dee Brown, and directed by Yves Simoneau, BURY MY HEART tells the history of the Sioux from their victory over George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876 to their massacre by US Army troops at Wounded Knee in 1890 where scores of unarmed women and children were shot like dogs. In between, the Sioux and their leader Sitting Bull (played by a commanding yet sorrowful August Schellenberg) are forced onto reservations by Washington to take up the more "civilized" life of farming. Unfortunately, since the Sioux are hunter-warriors by heart, and the land they're forced to farm is an arid dust bowl, they soon fail at raising crops, leading not only to their physical starvation and death by disease, but because they need government handouts to survive, their moral and spiritual debilitation as well. Sitting Bull is later shot to death in an altercation with the Indian police the white man set up to govern the reservations.

BURY MY HEART is a more realistic, less caricatured view of this chapter of our history than we've seen before. Senator Dawes (Aidan Quinn) seems less evil than misguided in his attempts to force the Sioux onto reservations, since he wants to assimilate them into white society for what he thinks are good reasons - to allow them to function more effectively in that society - not realizing that by "civilizing" them this way he fatally strips them of their hope and self-esteem. And though Army Colonel Miles (Shaun Johnston) is hard-hearted and vengeful, he does have a point when he tells Sitting Bull that the Sioux were never innocent angels - they butchered other Indian tribes in the past for power, glory and resources, just like the white man is doing to them now, so they have no real moral superiority as a result. Only J.K. Simmons as the reservation agent McLaughlin comes off as a one-note bad guy, a petty bureaucrat seemingly making it his life's work to make Sitting Bull's stay on the reservation one long humiliation. The Native Americans are depicted in a more accurate fashion as well, neither all good nor all bad. Sitting Bull certainly demonstrates his bravery and steadfastness in battle, but he also demonstrates his harshness and cruelty as well, as the brutality he uses to keep his people in line causes many of them to desert him while they're in exile in Canada. And when Sitting Bull returns to America and decides to make a quick buck selling his picture and autograph to whites, earning the contempt of his own people, it shows how far the despair of reservation life has corrupted this once-great leader.

If there's a major drawback to BURY MY HEART it's the lack of focus. The movie spends too much time on the story of Charles Eastman, a Sioux who leaves his people to grow up amongst the white man, and though Eastman becomes an esteemed doctor, he ultimately feels at home in neither white nor Indian culture. Adam Beach certainly gives a heartfelt performance as Eastman, but this particular plot doesn't seem as fresh or compelling as Sitting Bull's heroic battle with, and tragic capitulation to, the United States Government, giving the over two-hour picture a dramatically uneven feel.

Still, BURY MY HEART deserves to be seen because at least it attempts to show both sides of this bloody, still-resonating conflict as flesh-and-blood human beings, not tired, one-dimensional cliches.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finishing up (finally!) his first novel.


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