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This is a true story. It is more emotional than a soap opera and, yet,
Just as was depicted in this film, Ishii stumbled into a white man's barn near Oroville, California, in 1911. He later told Kroeber that he expected nothing but death. Graham Greene's portrayal of a soft-spoken primitive gentleman is delightful. Greene's Ishii speaks English only after a fashion.
If you have the time, look up Kroeber's story of Ishii in the "Handbook of California Indians".
For the record, I am not Jen, but her sister Kathleen.
I saw this movie in an English class after reading "Black Elk Speaks." It is a solemn statement about the sad plight of dying Native American tribes. Graham Greene's character is a poor hungry Native American who has lost his family and is found trying to steal food from a small farm. A kind-hearted doctor takes him in and attempts to educate him to the ways of the white man. The middle-aged native is seduced by the prosperity of this new world, and even has an unexpected encounter with a prostitute, much to the dismay of his new guardian, the doctor. But the distractions of this new world are not enough to erase the sadness of this man who has lost his family, his tribe, and his history. In a striking scene in which the native leads his new friend to the wilderness he once called home, the native sings a mournful tribal chant in remembrance of the family and tribe that was forever gone. It is an emotionally moving film for those who feel compassion for the Native American and I recommend it to viewers who enjoy a film with a message.
I usually try to avoid overstating my case, but this is probably the
worst film ever made. The true story of Ishi is a story of a life well
lived and a sensitive ambassador of one culture to another. But this
film is so full of falsehoods about Ishi, and clichés about Native
Americans, that it should probably be banned. And I have never said
that before about any work of art or literature.
Until his encounter with the Saltu (us), Ishi was merely a good citizen (so to speak) of his harassed and harried nation, simply doing what he was supposed and expected to do as a Yana man. Period. After that encounter, he took up his destiny as a bridge between two utterly different cultures and fulfilled it with dignity and competence. He did NOT at any time freak out and run around shouting "No! No!"---what baloney! Almost everyone who knew him commented on the low-keyed, self-controlled manner in which he conducted himself in his strange surroundings. He never lost his cool. Nor did he babble ridiculous Hollywood-Indian clichés about "our Mother Earth", etc., as appears in the film. The most insulting lie in the film is the sequence in which Pope (who was, by the way, certainly not the clownish idiot portrayed here) brings in a prostitute to service Ishi. Actually, Ishi had much too great a sense of dignity to indulge in any such thing, and was always very cool and formal in the presence of women, as his culture demanded.
The portrayal of Kroeber is almost as offensive. The film makes him into a stereotype of the emotionally starved anthropologist who regards Indians coldly as mere objects of study, and allows him to really respect Ishi only after the latter is dead. Again, nonsense. Kroeber did use the kind of language that was common in his day: he wrote that when Ishi made his first acquaintance with Saltu society "he was absolutely ignorant" (of Saltu ways, that is), and used unfortunate expressions like "wild Indian." But everybody knew what he meant. He and Ishi were friends, and Kroeber made it clear that knowing Ishi was one of the great experiences of his life---Ishi, he made clear, not as an object of study but as a warm, generous and gracious human being. There is no evidence that Kroeber's wife Henrietta looked down her nose at Ishi or that she was the racist snob depicted in the film. In fact, as Kroeber's second wife Theodora recorded in her memoirs, Ishi's sensitivity and compassion helped Kroeber greatly in dealing with Henrietta's death. I guess the makers of this film avoided depicting that because it would have interfered with their disorted portrayal of Kroeber as an insensitive lout. (Speaking of Theodora, she wrote two very readable and informative accounts of the life of Ishi, whom she had never met, consulting extensively with her husband. And by the way, these two were the parents of the fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuinn.)
If only this film had been based on Theodora's writing! This film, I say again, is an atrocity. It makes me so angry that I feel like committing mayhem.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A. L. Kroeber was a fascinating and brilliant man, completely devoted
to his field. During the earthquake of April, 1906, he pulled himself
out of the rubble in his downtown home, shook off the dust, and walked
many miles up hill to check on his Museum, which was located where the
U. C. Medical Center now stands, at the top of Parnassus. He was into
everything. He was the first person to bring anthropology to the West
Coast and almost everyone who met him considered themselves friends of
his. He also wrote what was probably the most lucid and
all-encompassing general text of anthropology, a huge 1948 tome, which
is now considered out of date because of its content (we now know a lot
more) and its approach (culture as determined by history and styles
rather than materialism). The progressives dislike him for this and for
the fact that his benefactress was Phoebe Hearst.
And yet, he was devilishly smart, able to outline some social problems that we are only now trying to cope with, like globalization, which he called "the universal pattern." What happens when the whole world depends on an oil-based industry -- and then we run out of oil? I won't go on about him except to say that he loved his first wife -- Ann Archer in this movie -- that his second wife, Theodora, wrote a graceful biography of Kroeber, subtitled, I think, "A Personal Configuration." Also, the "K." in Ursula K. LeGuinn stands for "Kroeber," since she was his daughter.
The movie itself sometimes lapses into clichés but there are blessedly few of them. It's been years since I read "Ishi: The Last Yahi," but as I remember it he was consistently polite and cooperative. The movie yields to the temptation to make him a bit of a mystic, listening to the song of the earth (which Kroeber is unable to hear). But I don't know if such beliefs are so alien to the spirit of the Indians of California. There are other conjectural episodes added to spice up what the writers might otherwise have thought a too-pedestrian story. Ishi gets deflowered. The next morning we see him humming happily to himself, hard at work polishing the glass cases in the museum.
The movie also turns Kroeber into a kind of stereotypical scientist. "You have Ishi here?" Ishi asks Kroeber, tapping Kroeber's notebook. "In the book? Yes." "But not here," says Ishi, tapping Kroeber's chest.
But, well, okay, so it's poetic license. (I think actual documentaries of Ishi's life with the white folks are available.) The performances are outstanding. If the film creaks at the joints while straining to make the characters look human, the performers take it over the finish line. God, John Voight can be a good actor when he gets his teeth into a role. Here he does a splendid job as a man who puts as much distance as he can between himself and human emotions. Voight expertly conveys the discomfort and helplessness Kroeber feels when faced with unpleasantness. It makes his final breakdown, when he sings abjectly over Ishi's death mask, almost unbearably moving. Without the delicate touches provided by the actors, what we would otherwise have is the story of a man "getting in touch with his feelings," whatever that means.
Being an Indian in California wasn't all bad, at least until the white folks came along. (Stereotypical incidents -- two of them -- of hairy white men shooting down helpless Yahi. Not to say that it didn't happen in early California, because it did.) The Chumash lived in what is now Santa Barbara, for instance. They left huge piles of garbage behind. If you were to dig in one of OUR old garbage dumps, you'd find that the deeper you dig, the more "primitive" the tools become. There may be disposable ballpoint pens at the top, but under that would be a layer of ballpoints made to last, and under that a layer of fountain pens, and under that ink pens with long wooden handles, then quill pens, and so on. But if you dig into a Chumash garbage dump, you can dig down through three thousand years of their history and find virtually no change in their artifacts. Why should they invent new stuff? They didn't need it. They had it made.
Of course, tragically, the Chumash have now gone the way of the Yahi and the various tribes that were incorporated into the 21 California missions, most of whom died of disease. Next time you visit Mission San Juan Bautista, consider the fact that just over the low stone wall there are roughly 3,000 unmarked Indian graves. Ishi has a lot of company.
I believe that having read a book that becomes a movie, tends to bias the reviewer into more of a comparison rather than a film review. I came into "The Last of His Tribe" with zero knowledge of the story. Based on fact,I find it forgivable for a film to embellish for entertainment purposes, unless it is presented as an outright documentary. The acting is strong, with Graham Greene outstanding in a quiet, understated, performance as Ishi the last survivor of his tribe. John Voight is the scientist who intends to take advantage of a marvelous opportunity, for learning the secrets of Ishi's people. David Ogden Stiers is a sensitive physician, who views Ishi not as an object for study, but simply as a man. So what if it's not totally accurate? "The Last of His Tribe" is a fine movie, with sensitive performances. - MERK
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Anthropology translates into 'study of man', but has increasingly
become 'science of man', just as biology has become 'science of life'
rather than 'study of life'. By now every field has been invaded by
science, and any proposition, in any field, is considered valid only if
it can be proved by the scientific method of testing on the basis of
clear and indisputable evidence (even what constitutes evidence is up
for grabs and the final arbitrator is a consensus or majority amongst
the scientific community). Opinions are laughed at and logical or even
knockdown arguments count for nothing. Consequently, fields like
anthropology have become graveyards of meaningless collections of data
about various kinds of people. Art has therefore become the last and
ultimate form of expression for exploration into fields like
anthropology, philosophy and history, and without art, all these fields
of human endeavor are effectively dead.
In a movie like this, as in any art form, the focus should not be on 'factual details' (facts by themselves do not convey ideas) but how well the characters and ideas have been presented or articulated in order for us to learn or gain insight into human nature in general and into specific persons in particular. Ishi has been represented very well by Graham Green, a very talented actor. Ishi comes through as a shy, reserved, quiet and dignified man who has somehow survived as the last of his tribe, and running out of food, wanders into a farm but is captured. Kroeber, who is an anthropologist is excited by having found a 'subject' whose tribal language he knows, and takes charge of Ishi by providing him a job at the museum. There is abundant curiosity on both sides, and prompted by his wife, Kroeber develops a more passionate relationship with Ishi, and this relationship is the crux of the movie that idea that anthropology is more about how different kinds of people relate with and learn from each other rather than study the other from a vantage point.
The high points of the movie are 1) some of the townspeople come to the rail station to see off Ishi and in a touching gesture present him a basket of fruit 2) the conversation between Kroeber and his wife about Ishi and the tribe's myth of the afterlife. "There is one thing about facing death I'm not afraid to let anything into my heart anymore."3) the outdoor shots when Ishi is taken to his home lands which are still un-spoilt and beautiful 4) the beautiful musical score at the beginning and end.
The choice that Ishi makes of not going to a reservation gives me a sneaky feeling that Ishi was the real anthropologist who learned the most from his interaction with a different culture, and this learning would go with him on his journey beyond "I feel strong. I could travel forever." Wonderful ending.
I sought out this HBO movie because I just recently watched an episode
of "The American Experience" that was all about this same man and his
discovery at about 1900 (Ishi: The Last Yahi Indian (#5.8)"). It seems
that there was a very small tribe in California that the White folks
didn't know about--and their existence was only discovered when the
last of them, Ishi, wandered into town! While I am no where as familiar
with the story as firstname.lastname@example.org, I would not consider this
'probably the worst film ever made'. I would be loathe to call ANY film
this, actually, and I can think of hundreds of films (such as those of
Ed Wood, Ray Dennis Steckler, Arch Hall and Ted Mikels) that are truly
among the worst ever made--and "The Last of His Tribe" would not even
come close. Perhaps it might be faulted from taking liberties with the
true story (and as a history teacher, I hate this), but so have
thousands of other films. But when it comes to completely dismissing
history, this HBO film doesn't even come close to films like
"Pocahontas" or "They Died With Their Boots On" or the VERY
anti-Semitic Nazi film "Jud Süß". No, to me, calling this film the
worst film ever made just sounds like a lot of hyperbole. I COULD
understand many faults he found with the film (especially since the
film SHOULD have been based on Kroeber's widow's writings and they did
misrepresent Kroeber in some ways), but 'the worst'....no. In fact, if
I were to be a filmmaker today, I probably wouldn't even try making a
film about Native Americans today. After all, even if you try to get
the story right, you'll probably get ripped apart by someone--even if
you try to get the story right.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and thought it pretty good. I did think that Graham Greene's zombie-like expressions/behavior did seem a bit odd. While Ishi was not a loud and boisterous guy, in the film he seemed practically catatonic at times. But the essence of Ishi's life with White America came through and the film was entertaining and most enlightening.
By the way, think twice before you see this or have kids see it--the autopsy scenes are a bit vivid.
I believed Graham Greene did well portraying Ishi since he easily blended
with the character's storyline. I found it interesting how the
anthropologist he befriended became so familiar with his Native language
soon! I think he wasn't like any other white anthropologist who wasn't
interested in truly getting to know the people whose cultures he was
studying. He really had a genuine liking for Ishi and as a result their
friendship became very deep.
Well........ anyways........... that's the reason why I gave this film a 6 out of 10.
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