By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: They massacre the Indians.
Two survivors of a Cheyenne Indian attack, the young and beautiful Cresta (Candice Bergen) and Honus (Peter Strauss) a private from the Calvary must travel through treacherous western terrain avoiding other attacks while also finding the Calvary’s base camp. Along the way the two start a romance despite wide differences in their temperaments and perspectives. Honus supports the position of his country and government without question while Cresta is more sympathetic to the Indians, but this all comes to a crashing halt when they witness an assault by the U.S. army on a peaceful Indian camp, which shocks Honus and changes his perspective on things forever.
The film is mainly known for its notoriously violent ending, which at the time was unprecedented for its use of explicitly savage imagery and remains controversial to this day, but before we get to that I’d like to go over what I did liked about the movie, which for the most part is still watchable.
Filmed in Mexico in October of 1969 the stunning views of the wide open terrain is sumptuously captured by cinematographer Robert B. Hauser, which is enough to keep one enthralled with it despite its otherwise flimsy plot. I also enjoyed Buffy Sainte Marie’s rousing opening title tune, but the rest of the music score by Roy Budd seems misplaced. During the attack that starts out the film it is booming and orchestral almost like it wants to replicate the sound and mood of a conventional western even though this is supposedly a revisionist one. At other times it takes away from the potential grittiness by being played when it was not needed and sounding too modern for the time period.
Strauss in only his second film is marvelous and makes his naïve and rigid character believable and likable, but I was perplexed how someone lost in the wild for days and weeks and sometimes without food or even a gun could still remain clean shaven. Bergen as his female counterpart is great as well and beautiful. The fact that she is foul mouthed and very self-sufficient while Honas is more timid makes for a nice reversal of the sexual stereotypes, which helps propel the film during the first half. However, it eventually gets overplayed as Bergen’s character starts to display too many attitudes and behaviors from someone that was ahead-of-her-time until it seemed like she was really a late ‘60’s student radical that somehow got pulled into a western setting instead of a person that had actually lived during that era.
Donald Pleasence, a highly talented character actor who played many varied roles during his career, gets one of his best ones here while wearing false teeth that make him almost unrecognizable. His chase of the two when they destroy his wagon lends some much needed tension in what is otherwise a dull romance.
The Indian massacre that climaxes the film is based on the Sand Creek Massacre that occurred on November 29, 1864. Although the film incorrectly states during its denouncement that is was led by Nelson A. Mills it was actually U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington who ordered a band of 700 men to attack a peaceful Indian village where between 150 and 200 Indians were killed most of whom were women and children.
The film portrays Bergen’s character as being the only white person outraged at the slaughter, which isn’t true as many people from the era where appalled by the news when it was found out and the attack was condemned by the army after it was investigated. Chivington was then forced to resign where he lived out the rest of his life in almost total ostracism by every community he moved to. There were also two officers in the Calvary who refused Chivington’s orders to attack and told the men under their command to hold their fire, which doesn’t get shown at all.
Although the movie does leave some effective haunting images it would’ve worked better had it been a documentary, or a reenactment that concentrated fully on the attack while also showing its aftermath and what lead up to it. It should’ve also been better researched, accurate and balanced instead of feeling the need to pander to the political fervor of its day with stagy over-the-top dramatics and a clumsily attempt to tie it into the My Lai Massacre that has forever stigmatized this as being nothing more than dated emotionally manipulative propaganda.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: August 12, 1970
Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes
Director: Ralph Nelson
Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (Region 2), Amazon Instant Video, YouTube