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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After reading some of the reviews posted here of Thunderheart, I am
happy to see so many are positive. A few have posted the type of
negative review I might have expected more of, that is, that the movie
falsely criticizes the American Government of malfeasance and fraud.
After seeing Thunderheart several times, I recognize many of the most controversial American Indian issues that have been interwoven into this parable that is set in South Dakota. It might be of interest to those who enjoy this movie exactly what those events were.
ARMThunderheart centers around an activist Native American movement based on the real organization called AIM (American Indian Movement). President Richard Nixon was genuinely angry when AIM marched onto Washington in 1972 and forcefully, but without any injuries, occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were led by charismatic leaders such as Dennis Banks and Russell Means, and although their protests were not typically violent, Nixon made sure that they were treated like any other radical and violent organization of that era.
GOONsFred Ward plays the character "Jack Milton," who is based on the Tribal Counsel President of the Pine Ridge Reservation, Dick Wilson (1934-1990). The name of his private police force, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (or GOONs) was apparently too good to change for the film. The violent acts by GOONs depicted in the filmroadblocks, shootings, and the secret murders of Wilson's political enemiesare all based on true events, for which Wilson was impeached in 1973, although reelected again in 1974. It is also mentioned in the film that GOONs was financed by misdirected money that was intended for humanitarian purposes on the reservation.
Bear Creek Indian ReservationThis is a pseudonym for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Two dead agents, "family men"At one point, Cooch mentions two FBI agents who were killed. This is based on agents Ronald A. Williams and Jack R. Coler, who were killed by multiple gunshot wounds on June 26, 1975. A detailed depiction of this shootout, along with the story of Leonard Peltier, who was ultimately convicted of the double murder, is in Peter Matthiessen's book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
Jimmy Looks TwiceRay asks Cooch if the mission they're on is a "mop up," in other words, he suspects that Cooch is just trying to pin the killing on anyone, just to close the matter for good. Peltier was charged along with three other AIM members in the brutal slaying of Agents Williams and Coler (only Peltier was eventually convicted and is still serving a life sentence). As explained in Matthiessen, the controversy surrounds the way the two agents were first wounded by gunshots from afar, and then "finished off" at close range. The case against Peltier and three other AIM members appears to be nothing more than the FBI railroading some of the more visible activists. Nonetheless, efforts to get Peltier a new trial or possibly even a pardon (as was imminent at the end of Clinton's Presidency) have been unsuccessful. Jimmy is played by John Trudell, a longstanding activist in AIM.
Maggie Eagle BearCooch scolds Ray by saying, "Now ARM people think she's an informant." Maggie is undoubtedly based on Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (1945-1975), who was a Micmac Indian (not Sioux) and never attended Dartmouth as Maggie did, but was a mother and AIM activist who was murdered under still mysterious circumstances. Cooch infers one of the theories, that AIM members killed her for being an FBI informant. Matthiessen suggests a scenario more akin to the movie, in which FBI agents might have even dragged their feet to identify her. The film also adds a second layer as a motive for the murder involving uranium mining which was contaminating the water.
Richard Yellow HawkAn agent provocateur in a wheelchair, Richard adds yet another layer to the plot, in that the FBI was planting its own agents into activist organizations like AIM to gather information and discredit them. Although the FBI program COINTELPRO was discontinued in 1971, parts of it did continue into the 1970s to monitor AIM.
Red Deer TableThe issue of contaminated water due to uranium mining, or of strip-mining in general, is most prominent not on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. The mining companies, with the help of the Federal Government, invented a Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, in order to move Navajo off of coal-enriched land so they could strip-mine it. That Cooch is motivated by the land deal adds this geographically remote Indian issue to this tale.
ThunderheartAlthough there are 146 people buried at Wounded Knee, history records that over 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed there on December 29, 1890 (as Grandpa Sam Reaches explains to Ray). The famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull was killed 14 days earlier. When Ray visits the Wounded Knee Monument, he reads "19. Thunderheart," the name of the Indian he is supposed to be the reincarnation of, as the 19th name listed in the mass grave. Actually, the 19th name on the monument, according to some photos on the Internet, is an Indian named Swift Bird.
Above all, this film does not claim to be nonfiction. The opening disclaimer says: "This story was inspired by events that took place on several American Indian reservations during the 1970s." Recently, there has been a strong effort from the politically right to show that Peltier really was the close-range executioner of the two FBI agents and that Acquash was murdered by AIM members because she knew this. Although this bizarre version of events has all the twisted logic of Barack Obama's Kenyan birth certificate, it is being employed in a new trial against two AIM activists, John Graham and Richard Marshall. A third, homeless man, Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud, has already been convicted in 2004 for the murder of Acquash, and his strange testimony is being used against Graham and Marshall.
Michael Apted has made a poignant beautiful film on behalf of the
Indian People.The only problem is the casting of Val Kilmer as a
"civilized" Sioux.It's an excellent screenplay which mixes real life
events and fiction.The actors (G.Greene,S.Shepard ,S.Tousey) are all
excellent and the director succeeds in making us feel that the Indian's
power is invisible,somewhere in the wind ,that their magic eludes the
white man.Apted has really a sense of mystery which superbly shows in
Kilmer's nightmare or in Grandpa 's prophetic words.And when all seems
lost,the panoramic shot and the big tracking out the director uses are
worthy of the best westerns.
In one of her songs "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" (on the "Coincidences and likely stories "album,1992 too) Indian Buffy Sainte -Marie sings:
"My girlfriend Annie Mae talked about uranium
Her head was filled with bullets
And her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands
and told us She died of exposure."
This is one of my personal favorites. I gave it a 9 as I don't think
that it's a perfect film, though it is very close. The acting is great
and it's heart is in the right place. There are dozens of plot
descriptions available here, so i will just tell you why you might love
- a very honest and realistic portrayal of native Americans (by native Americans, like the excellent Graham Greene from 'Dances with Wolves').
- excellent location cinematography, it was filmed in the badlands.
- one of the most satisfying climactic scenes ever....it really feels good.
- the film has a fairly strong anti-government sentiment to it...(if you're all gung-ho for the US government, this film may not be for you).
- Thunderheart is based on actual events that happened on Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. John Trudell, who plays Jimmy Looks-twice (the FBIs main suspect), was actually there! He is a real real-life Sioux activist whose character is loosely-based on Leonard Peltier.
Some other quick tidbits, look for David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as a bartender in the bar room scene. I love the allegorical last shot of the film with Ray (Val Kilmer) in his car. Very fitting...which way to go? The whole film fits perfectly and usually I will say that many films wont appeal to every taste, however in the case of Thunderheart I will say this ....I don't know one person whose opinion I value who doesn't like this movie!
further note: If you like this one try watching the 1970 classic 'Little Big Man'.
I just watched Thunderheart for the first time the other day. I found
out about it a while ago when I was searching for movies about Native
Americans that was not biased towards the whites being heroes and
totally innocent of wrong doing (like the older westerns).
So was this film worth watching for the reasons above and in general...Well....Wow! Just wow! What amovie! As many people on here already stated, this movie is totally underrated. The acting is overall fantastic and Val Kilmer and Graham Green gives truly memorable performances. The chemistry and development between Kilmer and Greens characters alone is a reason for seeing this movie. And Ted Thin Elk as Grandpa is really a joy to watch. The beautiful and vast badlands of South Dakota also plays an important role in the story. The suspense, action and the underlying deep emotions and problems are well balanced through out. It also gives you a little insight how life is on a modern Native American reservation, in this case the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
A very powerful and mesmerizing movie that stays with you for a long time!
The first time I saw this movie, I was about 12 years old and I instantly liked it. But it wasn't until I was older and had seen the movie about ten times, did I really understand the magnitude of the plot. This movie goes further than action, drama or suspense. It tells a story of a people western culture has long viewed as the enemy. Only, it tells it from their side. And if you are a stereo-typical "proud" American, this movie may be a bit disturbing in the fact that after watching it, the American government seems to be the enemy. The movie reveals only a fraction of the oppression that Native Americans have been exposed to throughout modern history. And being based on a true story only strengthens the emotion of not only the story line, but the acting as well. Val Kilmer is one of my favorite actors. He's played some great roles. But I believe this is his most underrated movie to date. Judging by the plot, mainstream American audiences we never going to relate to this movie like they could "Top-Gun" or "The Doors". Still, he gives his all throughout the whole movie - which more than anything is a statement. The car-chases, gun-fights and aerial camera-work are just filler or eye candy supporting what should really be focused on...one of the many stories of suffering and oppression cast down upon the Natives of this country. That which so few in this country even care to know about.
My mother, sisters and I are enrolled Tribal members of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where my mother was born and raised. This movie is quite authentic in its treatment of Lakota (Sioux) culture and traditions without getting caught up in romanticism. Portrayals of our sacred Ghost Dance and other ceremonies give the viewer a glimpse into our heritage and spirituality, while he fact-based storyline takes the viewer on a ride into 1970's reservation life complete with FBI cover ups and abuse of power. Seeing this movie just might make you an activist!
What's not to like about Thunderheart. It's a murder mystery steeped in American Indian Mysticism, an journey of self-discovery, a budding love story, and lesson about honor and dignity. I have seen Thunderheart eight times and each time it moves me. Many pictures fade or disappoint with repeated viewings. Thunderheart thanks to a tight script, good direction, great story and fine acting holds its power. Val Kilmer, controlled and vulnerable as Ray Levoi, gives us one of his best performances and Graham Greene is wonderful as the hip impassioned Indian Policeman, Walter Crow Horse. But Thunderheart really belongs to Sheila Tousey and Ted Thin Elk. Tousey has beauty and strength to die for and every time she appears on screen she is riveting whether she's holding a shotgun or laughing affectionately at Agent Levoi. You ever wondered who you are? What kind of story you're living in and how's it all going to end? Just ask Ted Thin Elk. Looking into his eyes, getting lost in the wonderful wrinkles of his face, he guides you to amazing discoveries about the ways of life in general and your life in particular. His character, Grandpa Sam Reaches, is the ultimate mentor - wise, caring, and with a disarming sense of humor that lowers your defenses so you can see clearly for the first time. And if all this is not enough for you, I'll just mention...there is a dog, a faithful, smart, scruffy dog who you would adopt in a heartbeat. If this movie doesn't get you one way it will get you another.
This is a real story about real events. It's been "fictionalized" to avoid lawsuits. They took place not that long ago. The story hasn't ended. The book that detailed the story was censored by the US courts for over a decade, as a result of a suit by the ex- and present Governor of South Dakota. Once you've seen the movie, learn the rest of the story by reading "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" by Peter Matthiessen. Viking Books. And see the other movie about the story, "Incident at Oglala"... also directed by Apted and produced by Robert Redford.
I watch this film about twice a year. Far superior to the overrated Dances
With Wolves, this is a film about beginnings rather than endings.
As Apted points out at the begining of the film, this is based on actual events on Indian land, but the reality doesn't interfere with the story. The story is only peripherally about the actions of the US government and Native North Americans, but rather is about tradition, roots and the power to affect the future that their rediscovery brings. Val Kilmer's best film, Graham Greene is brilliant, and John Trudell's small part is essential to the film. The only reasonable comparison is to Bogart's rediscovery of himself in Casablanca.
Every now and then a film reaches into the soul of one's ancestry. This film " Thunderheart" did so with me. I found it tugging my heart as Indian chants boomed in the background. The story is taken both from the headlines of the National news and films of the A.I.M. Using documented facts, the story concerns the multiple murders on the Lacota Sioux Reservation in 1992. Two men, one a full blooded (When both parents are Native Americans) Sioux Indian, (Graham Greene) called Walter Crow Horse, the other an F.B.I. agent of Mixed Native Indian Heritage, Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) are thrown together by F.B.I director William Dawes (Fred Thompson) to solve several federal murders on 'the Rez'. Crow Horse is a natural detective and searches for clues by using his instincts. Levoi reminds him, he comes from a land where modern methods will help him discover the real killer. Crow Horse has an aid in an old Medicine Man called Grampa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk). Levoi has a veteran agent called Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard) and Jack Milton (Fred Ward) who seems to be more of a hindrance as a 'Goon.' Also helping Levoi is Sheila Tousey who plays Maggie Eagle Bear, a resident teacher and social activist. What begins as a routine inquiry, soon has all the characters squabbling over jurisdiction, methods and directional scope of the investigation. For Levoi it's a personal revelation as the past beacons his Indian Ancestory. The movie is an intriguing combination of detective work, national pride and an inner awaking for both the characters and the audience, as it's got what it takes to become a Classic. Good film****
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