Today is the birthday of the late Richard Harris (1930-2002). Those of us of a certain age were delighted when Clint Eastwood cast Harris in the part of English Bob in Unforgiven (1992). I at least saw it as a bit of stunt-casting. For, much like Eastwood, Harris was a star of westerns at a time when very few other actors were working in the genre – -the 1970s. I refer of course to the trilogy in which he played A Man Called Horse.
A Man Called Horse (1970)
Harris portrays a somewhat dandy-ish English Lord playing at democracy who is captured by Sioux while shooting grouse in the Northwest Territories in the late 1820s. The Sioux Chief respects his grit (he is a former soldier) so he doesn’t kill him. Instead he gives him to his mother (Dame Judith Anderson, who is excellent here) as a sort of servant. Gradually he proves himself and adapts the tribe’s ways, marries the Chief’s sister, etc. always while keeping one eye on escape. The movie is amazing — by keeping us in the Sioux culture the entire time (and it was supposedly exhaustively researched) it gives a perspective unlike any other. It does not paint a rosy, pollyannish picture of that culture (unlike, say, Dances with Wolves). This is a society entirely based on war and hunting. The centerpiece of the film is a bizarre sado-massocistic ordeal called the Vow of the Sun. A man has eagle talons thrust through skin of his chest, and is hoisted into the air by ropes which are attached to them. Hoka-hay! The practice can only be called brutal.
Harris is okay in the role. I feel his face is a bit too sensitive to have impressed the Indians with his bravery though. Most of the cast is Native American although of course the actress who plays his wife is Greek (there are some small Hollywood touches like this, but relatively few). This movie was a pretty big hit — we used to watch it on tv all the time as kids.
The Return of a Man Called Horse (1975)
He shoulda stood home! Having returned to his palatial estate in England, Richard Harris is so bored he actually moans like a wounded bear. So he blows off his fiancé (after all, she’s all English and shit) and returns to the site of his previous brutal imprisonment of 5 years earlier. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome! His tribe has now been decimated by some trappers and another group of Sioux. The patronizing Harris decides he must involve himself in their fate. In this movie they are much warmer and cuddlier, sort of like Ewoks, but this is probably because they are mostly elderly, children and women. But they continue to do unspeakable things with eagle talons. Harris orchestrates an attack on the trapper’s fort, wins the day, and stays with the tribe, we are told, for the rest of his life. At two hours and nine minutes, the film feels like the rest of our lives. Though beautiful to look at, it is way too long and we are subjected to an interminable purification ceremony, an interminable buffalo hunt, interminable lessons in soldiering, and an interminable funeral. The film seems mainly to exist so Richard Harris can wear a headband and act cool with his aboriginal buddies.
Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1982)
Well…this one scarcely counts. It’s as much of a Man Called Horse sequel as Son of the Pink Panther is a Peter Sellers movie. Harris only appears briefly in it before his character is killed off, and then the SON of the Man Called Horse (A Boy Called Pony? no) returns from his fancy school back east and takes care of tribal business out west. You want to skip this one? You can skip this one.