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Film adaptations of novels are a mixed bag at best, and The Dark Wind,
allegedly based on Tony Hillerman's novel of the same name, isn't one of
best. The screenwriters took several unnecessary liberties with the
storyline and characters, including stealing details from other Hillerman
novels and dropping Captain Largo entirely in favor of Lieutenant Joe
Leaphorn. Fans of Hillerman's novels won't like the portrayal of Jim Chee
as an awkward, barely-competent rookie, either.
It's hard to tell whether Lou Diamond Phillips is just failing to portray Jim Chee as he's intended to be, or whether he just didn't bother to read the book and find out. Having replaced Captain Largo's character with Fred Ward as Joe Leaphorn, the script doesn't take advantage of either character's personality, but at least they didn't turn him into one of those generic shouting police captains we see so much of in the movies.
Despite all of this, it's a fairly likeable movie. The film was shot on location in and around the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. The scenery is magnificent, and judging from the names in the cast and crew, the producers took advantage of local talent to fill in some of the smaller roles, which adds a good bit of authenticity. If you close one eye and pretend it has nothing to do with a Tony Hillerman novel, you'll probably enjoy it.
When I first saw The Dark Wind, I was impressed that local people were cast
as extras and were speaking the Navajo Language. The subtitles were
When I heard Chee speak Navajo, it was broken but he's not a native speaker. I was very impressed that he took the time to actually learn to speak the words.
Plenty of films of this vintage suffer from boom mikes in frame and the top and dolly tracks visible at the bottom: this is an artifact born of failed productions. When the camera operator composed the shot, he had been told the film was being made for theatrical release, in a 1:1.85 ratio and so when the boom dipped down slightly, but not enough to make it into the "letterbox" they let it slide. Then, after the film failed on the festival circuit or preview process, etc and was dumped to video no one cared to correct the errors - they were all just trying to dump the project on the market as quickly as possible. Had the final "release print" been made, instead of a video transfer from the camera original (mivees and all) we would have been spared the spectacle of seeing mister boom mike. Most of these types of film were being dumped onto the video market before consumers cared to see letterboxed releases, so the transfer was made full frame.
Despite the 'creative differences' with producer Robert Redford that
did not allow director Errol Morris to finish The Dark Wind, the final
product did not turn out half bad. Sad that it was relegated to
straight to video and did not get a theatrical release.
I liked Lou Diamond Phillips very much as Navajo Reserrvation officer Jim Chee, hero of many books by Tony Hillerman. Being part Cherokee himself, Phillips does have a very good insight into playing Indian characters as in Renegades, Young Guns I & II, and Sioux City.
Here he's the new guy on the force and hasn't made all that good an impression on his new boss, Fred Ward when he drives into a ditch while in hot pursuit of some speeders.
A lot of very strange, seemingly unconnected things are happening that Lou is asked to look into. A decaying body of an Navajo, the vandalism of a windmill, a plane crash in the middle of the reservation, some missing heroin from said crash, and the burglary of the Navajo Trading Post, yet all are connected. And Lou winds up on a suspect list as well.
Location shooting on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations really helps the story along. And there are some nice performances by Gary Farmer as a Hopi Deputy Sheriff, Gary Basaraba and Guy Boyd as a pair of DEA agents, and John Karlen as the trading post owner. Besides Lou and Farmer who are American Indians, a whole lot of the supporting players and small parts are played by same.
It's a good film, despite some filming goofs, with some very nice performances and a good story.
Hey even Alfred Hitchcock had some goofs in some of his classics.
Lou Diamond Phillips is the perfect "Jim Chee". I have read many of Tony Hillerman's novels and this was a great rendition. I saw this movie in college for an anthropology class. The best two classes of the semester!! (Thanks Dr. Neeley) The scenery was beautiful. The story line was exciting, true to the book. The only thing I would change would be the actor who plays Joe Leaphorn. Nothing against Fred Ward, he did a good job, but when you read book after book with the same characters you tend to visualize these people in your mind. And I have always envisioned James Olmos from Miami Vice as Leaphorn. I would love to see more of these novels made into movies.
Here's Agent Johnson's take on it. Something did go wrong. Erroll
wasn't big on action/fight scenes, but he was very hip to Navajo humor.
Some would call it dry. The producers, (over half way through), opted
for an action movie but the script wasn't able to support it on that
basis. Mr. Hillerman wrote a mystery. Redford brought in an action
director for all the fight scenes and Erroll went to his trailer, and
it became a stuntmans' movie. (If the mic is in the shot on a 1-take
dangerous stunt you just go ahead and use it, I guess.)There were a
slew of re-writes and plot changes for the last several scenes in order
not to denigrate a particular Hopi ritual that was supposedly
pre-approved. The logical resolution of the plot suffered to say the
least. I really enjoyed Erroll being there, and felt bad for him in the
latter part of the shoot. Lou hung in like a trooper throughout and I
thought gave a nuanced and skillful performance.(I hope to get a chance
to hear his version of events someday) I don't think the film solved
the mystery of filming a Tony Hillerman mystery completely but as long as Erroll was in charge it had heart. There were rumors about the lack of distribution being brought on by Carolco's overspending on The Last Action Hero and taking a huge bath. There was no money to advertise Dark Wind or so the gossip was at the time.
For using native actors, I give it a 10 of 10. The production values
are rather poor, but then again, they used a lot of local people for
grips, etc. Many shots with the sound boom in them.
This film was never distributed, so the editing was never really finished. Those shots with the boom could have been optically cropped. The sound very often picks up too much..for instance late in the film, in Leaphorn's house, the ticking of a clock near the mic almost drowned out the conversation.
Chee is supposed to be somewhat quiet, slow to move, but Phillips might have taken that a bit far.
Overall, it's fairly faithful to the book.
For me, the biggest shame of this movie is that the horribly botched
direction gets in the way of what I consider an excellent performance by Lou
Diamond Phillips in the title role. Whether his performance was exactly
what fans of the book expected Jim Chee to be like or not (I read the book
first, and personally thought Lou did quite a nice interpretation of Chee),
the fact remains that the performance was a high quality example of subtle
And for those who quibble that Lou shouldn't have played the role because he wasn't a full blood Navajo...well, I'd like to know who the hell Russell Crowe thinks he is! For an Australian to be allowed to play an American in A BEAUTIFUL MIND and an Italian in GLADIATOR...It's just not right!
Having read all of Tony Hillerman's work in the Leaphorn/Chee series, I felt the movie was pretty good. I understood the plot and felt it was quite faithful to the book. The acting by Lou Diamond Philips was very in character with Jim Chee. Gary Farmer and Fred Ward also turned in performances worthy of the characters they portrayed. Robert Redford executive produced this and was diligent in using American Indians as actors throughout the film. I enjoyed hearing the characters speaking Navajo. Three more of Tony Hillerman's works were further formated for PBS, again with Robert Redford's involvement. Chee and Leaphorn are cast with different actors, who are wonderful too, but I believe that Gary Farmer is in at least one of these other films.
Comparing Lou Diamond Phillips' rendition of Jim Chee to Adam Beach's version in the PBS specials, it's obvious that SOMEone decided that Chee had to assume a more authoritarian stance and actually seem like a physical threat when necessary to the story. In The Dark Wind, Phillips seemed to spend more time in handcuffs than anyone else in the story; his character seems less in control of his fate than (to make an apples-and-oranges comparison) McGyver, who relies on his wits and doesn't even carry a weapon (other than maybe a swiss army knife). Not to criticize Phillips' performance, which I thought was as good as it could be given the script,I think that the series of PBS specials would have ended at one had the Chee character not been reworked.
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