A white trapper steals a white mustang called "Eagle Wing" from a Kiowa Indian, who pursues him to get his horse back.A white trapper steals a white mustang called "Eagle Wing" from a Kiowa Indian, who pursues him to get his horse back.A white trapper steals a white mustang called "Eagle Wing" from a Kiowa Indian, who pursues him to get his horse back.
Director Harvey uses the title horse as a focus for interconnecting stories, all dealing with the traditional Western clash of the primitive and civilisation. The former seems to have the upper hand. The vast scrub and desert of the film's landscape is unbroken, ripe for allegories of the mind. The only brief sites of civilisation are a stagecoach of missionaries and landowners, and their hacienda, from both of which derive behaviour that is anything but civilised.
The basic story intercuts three stories. In one, an aimless deserter, Pike, having lost his trading partner, steals a miraculous horse, Eagle's Wing, so-called because of its grace and speed. In the second, an Indian, White Bull, owner of this horse, waylays a stagecoach, and kidnaps one of its female occupants. In the third, the Spanish men sent to find her ignore this quest in favour of a murderous, plundering spree.
Although a revisionist Western, the treatment of the Indian is problematic. Unlike Pike, his character is never explained, forever inscrutable, denied a voice, except for an excruciating snatch of song. When he's not a strange Other, he's a symbol, whose role isn't entirely worked out - at one point a savage brute, at another he epitomises nature and freedom.
But Pike notes at the beginning that the film will attend to the period of primitivism before civilisation. In many ways the film resembles 2001 - A SPACE ODYSSEY, especially its opening sequence. Part of the film's power lies in the connections made between the three disparate characters, forcing us to view the mythic struggles and quests in a different light. Indian culture and Catholicism is linked by superstition, ritual, greed and murder. Both Pike and White Bull are musical and alcoholic. White Bull is demonised by both Pike and the abductee as a 'bastard', unwittingly revealing the tactic of illegitimacy used by colonising whites who infantilised the natives, becoming themselves 'necessary' fathers.
Unlike a traditional Western, concerned with making history, civilisation, and progress, this film is a double detective story, interrogating the past, tracks, remains.
What gives this film its remarkable uniqueness, I think, is, despite Maltin's racism, its Britishness. The climactic stand-off is more like an Arthurian joust. The film itself bravely eschews dialogue for the most part, creating the kind of visual and aural tapestry Malick missed in THE THIN RED LINE, and something few Hollywood directors would have dared. The existential doubling and quest motifs are more European myth than American (resembling another British Harvey Keitel movie, THE DUELLISTS).
Most astonishing is the use of nature. Most Westerns use landscape as an awe-inspiring backdrop: there is little sense of actually living in the West. In many ways, EAGLE'S WING is like a Powell and Pressberger film, with nature a powerful, pantheistic character in its own right - alive, dangerous, hostile, beautiful. There is a sublime scene reminiscent of A CANTERBURY TALE, when jewellery left as a trap by White Bull in the trees is suddenly blown in the wind: there is a haunting, tingling, magical, thrilling effect more reminiscent of the Arabian Nights than a horse opera. Heartstopping.
- alice liddell
- Sep 7, 1999