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In the War Wagon, Howard Keel who plays Levi Walking Bear, derides his
fellow Indians constantly saying how he's learned to live in the white
man's world and beat him at his own game. When the Legends Die is a
film about a contemporary Ute Indian who tries to do just that and the
effect it has on him.
Fredric Forrest plays Thomas Black Bull, a young Ute who we first meet as a really backward kid, no education or social skills. After he sees him riding a bucking horse, old rodeo hand Richard Widmark takes him on as a protégé and young Mr. Black Bull becomes a champion saddle bronco rider.
It's a profession and skill that he is beating the white man at his own game and making some good money in the process. It offends his sense of honor though, when Widmark now asks him to lose a few contests to make the odds better when he rides for real. It's the start of a break in their relationship.
Fredric Forrest has had a strange career. When the Legends Die was his third film after two bit roles, this one gave him the billing of "introducing Fredric Forrest." This was the start of a whole bunch of times when good reviews prompted critics to say that Forrest was about to break out and become a big star. It never really happened for him though. Nevertheless his stoic performance as Thomas Black Bull turning into Killer Tom Black is accomplished a lot with some very good closeups on facial expressions. They say more than dialog with a good player.
Richard Widmark plays Red Dillon, the old rodeo cowboy who becomes Forrest's manager/trainer. A whole lot like the way Robert Mitchum takes on young Arthur Kennedy in The Lusty Men. But we have a far bigger cultural and generational gap than there was in The Lusty Men. Despite his good old boy upbringing, Widmark develops a real affection for Forrest so their break up is pretty painful on both sides. Widmark in his performance as Dillon shows a seamier side of rodeo than other films about the sport never have. Of course Mr. Widmark shows it with style.
The film is about how Thomas Black Bull resolves all the conflicts within him. If you see the film I think you'll agree he does it in the best way any of us could.
This review is dedicated to young Ryan Dirteater of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma and fast rising star of the Professional Bull Riders. Let Ryan avoid the pitfalls that Frederic Forrest has in this film.
Perhaps the best of the "aging rodeo cowboy" movies that mysteriously began to appear in 71-72 (Cliff Robertson's "J.W. Coop," Steve Inhat's "The Honkers" with James Coburn, and Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" with Steve McQueen). What makes the difference is Richard Widmark who seems more appropriately cast than the stars of the rival rodeo films. Widmark is excellent in perhaps the best of his later period roles.
I sent for a video of a film I fondly remember from more than 30 years ago, but was surprised that Widmark's role as the drunken, exploitative Red was relatively small. Forrest was never better than in his first starring role; presumably, despite his name, he is a Native American, and his riding skills cannot be wholly have been usurped by stunt riders. Anyway, he is excellent, as is the gloriously non-PC Widmark. But there are gaps in the story which I hope to fill by at long last reading the novel. I'm not sure that 'no animals were hurt in the making of this picture' - I was distressed when 'brother bear' was driven into the wilderness, and despite Tom's alleged love of horses his reputation as 'killer seems well deserved - but hey, the women hardly fare better. A film of its time, then, but well worth preserving.
Over the years I have always enjoyed the great acting of Richard Widmark and remember his crazy laugh while he pushed a lady in a wheel chair down a flight of stairs in a 1940's film called,"Kiss of Death",'47, which started his career. In this picture, Richard Widmark,(Red Dillon),"Madigan",'68 plays a rough and tough character from the West who lives and dies for the love of showing off his great skills with horses. Red Dillon becomes great friends with Frederic Forrest,('Killer',Tom Black Bull),"The Two Jakes",'90, who is a Native American and is a great horse lover and wins big prizes in Rodeo's through out the West. If you love this type of film, you can't miss this great Classic film and the great performance of Richard Widmark.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When the Legends Die is a powerful, moving story of an orphaned Ute Indian who goes on to become Tom Black Bull, a champion bronc rider. Raised in the old ways, Tom is given a white man's name and must adopt the language and ways of the white man to live in that world. Bitter about the role he has been forced into, Tom finds fulfillment doing one thing, busting horses, riding them to death, in the rodeo. The movie has Richard Widmark in the role of Red, the man who befriends Tom and acts as his manager. Red is a drunk who eventually dies in the story, which is about where the movie ends. The real story is completely ignored, the dark side of Tom Black Bull who develops a reputation as a killer of horses in the rodeo arenas. Oh well, you should read the book, this movie doesn't come close to doing the story justice.
Widmark plays the drunken, former rodeo rider to perfection, & Frederick Forrest does admirably as the put upon young bull rider. I felt most of the other players were of the Grade B variety, as was this production in many ways. Not as good as "J.W. Coop".
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