Today is the birthday of Sam Shepard (see my earlier post on him here). Since it is Native American Heritage Month, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about Shepard’s 1994 film Silent Tongue.
Shepard (whose stomping ground is frequently, but not always, the American West) had dealt with Native American themes and characters before, especially in his 1969 play The Holy Ghostly (1969), but also in Cowboys (1965), Cowboys #2 (1967) and Operation Sidewinder (1970). In 1994, with ever-increasing success as a movie star, playwright and screenwriter, and having directed one earlier film of his own Far North (1988), in Shepard re-connected with some of his earlier theme in Silent Tongue.
It’s essentially a ghost story. An Irish medicine show huckster (Alan Bates) marries a Kiowa squaw who’d had her tongue cut out years ago (Tantoo Cardinal). Much later he trades one of their daughters to a horse trader (Richard Harris) for some horses, and the trader marries the girl (Sheila Tousey) to his son (River Phoenix in one of his last roles). When the girl dies in childbirth, Phoenix’s character goes insane, and her angry ghost haunts him. She actually wants revenge for Silent Tongue. Harris goes back and steals her half-sister (Jeri Arrandondo), and the medicine showman (prompted by his son, played by Dermot Mulroney) follows them onto the plains where he is eventually killed (slowly) by Kiowas. The young wife’s soul finally comes to rest when Harris throws her corpse on the campfire.
The haunting on the plains by the ghosts is the coolest part of the story…it feels very much like Shepard’s earlier supernatural plays. Waiting in terror for death to grab you. The film is self-consciously arty and no doubt exasperating to general audiences, but does have some straight-up entertaining elements like Bill Irwin and David Shiner performing some actual minstrel sketches, and some original music by the Red Clay Ramblers.
The Native American women in the film are portrayed sympathetically but as passive agents (at least in the material world): victims and chattel. They are however able to act on the souls, psychologies and consciences of the white men they encounter. Women and Native Americans as primitive, spiritual and elemental. It’s meant in a positive light but there is a long tradition of this in American culture; as representation it’s hardly what you would call “progressive.” Yet there is something to be said for metaphysical power. Who, when all is said and done, has the last laugh?
Here is the film’s trailer: