Touted at the time of its release as a comparatively enlightened western, A Man Called Horse now looks like well-researched sensationalism—and is, admittedly, all the better for it. After all, despite the plethora of savage inaccuracies to be imposed on North American natives in film (the dubious scalping motif among them), tribal violence and mutilation were certainly not absent from these cultures. But what's dramatically omitted in the average Ford, Hathaway, or Boetticher are the reverential niceties that might give the bloodshed context; even the complexly explored motives of The Searchers's Comanches are tethered to European concepts of property ownership and vendetta.
By contrast, the Sioux of A Man Called Horse hack off their fingers and lance their muscle-y midriffs out of uncanny respect for their material selves; both of these are grieving rituals that enforce the body as one's most holy and valuable possession, and thus the only object one can manipulate in order to express extreme emotion. Granted, director Elliot Silverstein and writer Jack De Witt aren't exactly hip to the spiritual dimension of these acts. (Rather than invoking the Great Mystery, these Sioux pray to the sun like Druids.) But there's something accurate all the same in their flimsily pornographic rendering of male-physique torture. The Sioux gauntlet becomes an eerily hallowed, corporeal-for-the-sake-of-corporeal experience, one that perhaps mistakenly nails the vague, energetic dichotomy of body and spirit in native worship. (And the myriad of creative ways the film finds for obstructing Richard Harris's man junk from view doesn't hurt the teasing rhythm either.)
In Dorothy M. Johnson's original postcard-length short story, a Bostonian goes west in search of "equals": men who possess, as he does, an ineffable awareness of the precious gift of existence. Here, however, Richard Harris's groomed Brit is on holiday in American wilderness, shooting grouse, when he's captured by Sioux who know a strong spine when they see one. He's tied up, whipped, roped behind horses and dragged on his belly through forest beds of rocks, twigs, and pine needles (his chest and stomach are splotched with purple through most of the movie) and made to do the tasks of the titular work animal until earning the tribe's respect with combat savoir-faire and physical resilience. In spite of his lack of impetus, the clumsy thinness of Harris's character suits the landscape; he arrives from nowhere, without any background or motivation aside from ennui, and is thrust into an environment where his identity is comprised entirely of bodily fortitude. Just as his nude, clenching buttocks—on fine display during the aforementioned dragging—exist purely for our titillation, his role within the tribe is chiefly as an object of community amusement; the novelty of his "whiteness," to them, mirrors the popcorn thrill we receive from Harris's masculinity and the sensationalized Sioux activity.
The film's most famous and best scene is meant as a transcending agent: Harris's character, having gotten comfy with the Sioux chief's daughter, has to undergo the brutal "Sun Vow" to prove his manliness, and for about 15 minutes the cinematography essays a cheap glory. Inside a dim hut with copious roof holes that let in aggressive, phallic shafts of light, Harris pleads his case (albeit through the movie's most ridiculous invention: a clown-y, half-breed translator who's also been captured by the tribe). Hooks made from talons are driven into his breasts, and he's lifted up several feet by the pecs, where he hangs, spinning, in an angelic sunbeam with his arms outstretched. Silverstein almost kills the hypnotic quality of this with a laughably late-'60s hallucination montage, but the excruciating plasticity of Harris's chest and the beadily approving eyes of his new Sioux brothers redeem it.
Still, while the horse becomes a man, the man never becomes anything more than a fleshy construct for our pleasure. This crowd-appeasing simplicity, however, obscures how the male body is religion for A Man Called Horse—and how this piety often involves pain without practical purpose. When Harris's character knifes and scalps a warrior from an enemy tribe, he takes no joy in it; it's a survivalist mechanism. When he's raised to heaven by the manboobs, it's sublime exultation; he "blacks out" and then wakes up, sated, as through from an orgasm coma. (The sex scene with his squaw wife moments later is flaccid by comparison.) And it's not the pain itself that's crucial to this ritual but the manner in which it underscores both the durability and pliancy of human flesh. Harris will heal, but he'll always have grisly markings across his bare and otherwise supple chest—like little loving and reminding bites from nature's dust-to-dust cycle. All self-flagellating and seemingly pointless feats of endurance quite ironically, and quite blissfully, celebrate the body's incontrovertible weakness.
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Aside from some B-grade cinematographic poetry in the "Sun Vow" scene, A Man Called Horse's strengths are not precisely visual, but the occasionally stirring 1080p transfer amplifies the movie's visceral potency. Unfortunately, the print doesn't seem to have been cleaned up much; there's a lot of specks and lines, and weird jump cuts apropos of nothing that, much as I'd like to, I can't quite buy as Arthur Penn or Sam Peckinpah homage. The screen becomes overwhelmed with filthy grain during most crossfades (where second-generation stock was traditionally used). I doubt this is a proper high-definition remaster, which is a shame given the film's rather picturesque B roll, but it does look slightly more vibrant than the average DVD.
Can you blame Lindsay Anderson for (allegedly) having a secret crush on Richard Harris?