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9-11:15 p.m., Sunday, May 27
History is told by the winners, at least for the first several drafts. Eventually, as demonstrated here, it’s possible for passions to cool down sufficiently so that even the winners can confront a shameful chapter in their history, in this case America’s treatment of Indians in general and the Lakota Sioux in particular.
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” stunningly filmed and honestly told, is based on the 1971 book by Dee Alexander Brown, a nonfiction account of the final years of conflict between the U.S. and the American Indians it sought to displace by any means necessary.
The challenge for screenwriter Daniel Giat was to breathe life into Brown’s thorough documentation. In this case, it meant weaving the most salient historic points into a compelling story about the lives of three men: well-intentioned Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), proud and defiant Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) and Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a Sioux Indian raised and taught by white people who lives in a sort of no-man’s land.
The film opens with the massacre of Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn, Mont., in 1876. Actually, the first scenes are just before the massacre, when Custer’s men led an attack on the Sioux, killing men, women and children with little or no provocation. The ensuing massacre — Custer’s Last Stand — also was the last stand of the Sioux, who were no match for the superior firepower of the U.S. Army. Unable to defend their land from encroaching settlers and government policy, they suffered indignity after indignity.
Sen. Dawes sympathized with the plight of the Sioux. While many would have been happy to see the tribes eradicated, Dawes thought they could be assimilated into American society, the way European immigrants blended in the American melting pot. The Sioux were forced to attend church and adapt white customs — all of which was, ironically, an enlightened view at the time. Dawes proposed cultural genocide instead of actual genocide, though in practice, he could prevent neither.
Sitting Bull, faced with a Hobson’s choice of surrender or death, held out as long as he could. Eastman, meanwhile, was plucked from the tribe as a boy to become an example of what the Indian could achieve with formal education. No longer Sioux and never white, he becomes a permanent outsider, though his sympathies remain with his tribe.
Quinn, Beach and Schellenberg are flawless. Schellenberg, in particular, makes his expressive face a window into Sitting Bull’s soul. Director Yves Simoneau brings a subtle eye to the story, imparting immense amounts of historical detail without making it feel like a lecture. He paints with colors that reflect the barren plains, the looming gray clouds and the bleak future of the Sioux.
Increasingly, our source for historical information has shifted from the library to the TV set. That makes “Wounded Knee” valuable not just for its compelling storytelling but for its unswerving candor.
BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE
A Wolf Films/Traveler’s Rest Films production
Executive producers: Dick Wolf, Tom Thayer
Co-executive producer/director: Yves Simoneau
Producer: Clara George
Teleplay: Daniel Giat
Based on the book by: Dee Alexander Brown
Director of photography: David Franco
Production designer: Ian Thomas
Editors: Michael Ornstein, Michael Brown
Music: George S. Clinton
Costume designer: Mario Davignon
Set decorator: Paul Healy
Casting: Rene Haynes
Henry Dawes: Aidan Quinn
Charles Eastman: Adam Beach
Sitting Bull: August Schellenberg
Gen. Sherman: Colm Feore
McLaughlin: J.K. Simmons
Wovoka: Wes Studi
President Grant: Fred Thompson
Elaine Goodale: Anna Paquin
Red Cloud: Gordon Tootoosis
Ohiyesa/Charles: Chevez Ezaneh
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