IN the old Hollywood, native Americans were portrayed as noble
or ferocious savages, but almost never as fully developed human
beings. In recent years, movies about native Americans have been
few: The funny, bright little picture "Powwow Highway" garnered
less notice than it deserved, and "Dances with Wolves" was, after
all, a 19th-century plains romance. Contemporary Indians get short
shrift. So the appearance of a mass entertainment like the
mystery-thriller "Thunderheart" is welcomed by many audiences -
including some Indian viewers.
It is a Hollywood movie, no mistake, and the viewer is free to
take issue with the whole formulaic constructs of Hollywood film.
Inspiration for the story was taken from incidents at Pine Ridge
Reservation in South Dakota during the mid 1970s. The story places
young FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), who is part Indian and
ashamed of his heritage, in the position of having to find himself
as well as solve the crime. Sent to investigate a murder, he
discovers that the reservation is a hotbed of unrest with a corrupt
tribal council, FBI-instigated exploitation of natural resources,
and persecution of Indian activists.
Michael Apted came to make "Thunderheart" while directing a
serious documentary called "Incident at Oglala" for Robert Redford.
Mr. Redford's film, which opened in New York last week, attempts to
shed light on what Indian activists and a judge say was an unfair
trial in the case of Leonard Peltier, a native American who is
serving two life sentences connected to the deaths of two FBI
agents at Pine Ridge in 1975.
Intensely interested in native American issues, Mr. Apted liked
the "Thunderheart" script and the strong relationships between the
The events were complicated, Apted explained in a telephone
interview, and he had to try to be honorable to the events while,
at the same time, making them understandable. He found the
political storytelling as well as the tribal religious element
quite difficult to film honestly.
All during the shooting, Apted had to earn cooperation on the
reservation. Of major concern to tribal elders was the film's
treatment of religious rituals. Then, too, some families were
pretty hostile to the politics of the film, he says. So he had to
tread carefully. He kept the tribal council abreast of every day's
shoot. The council also insisted that the reservation be portrayed
honestly - neither more poverty-stricken than it really is, nor