A Man Called Horse (Blu-ray)
Directed by Elliot Silverstein
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p VC-1 codec
Running Time: 115 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 2.0 English, 1.0 German, French, Spanish, others
Subtitles: SDH, German, French, Spanish, others
Region: no designation
MSRP: $ 24.99
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Review Date: May 26, 2011
The millions of people who have watched James Cameron’s Avatar either in a theater or on home video already know the gist of the story for Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse. True, the more recent picture had a mega-million dollar budget, 3D, and production design of awe-inspiring complexity. A Man Called Horse is without most of those things, but the basic tale of a man assimilating into a foreign culture after a period of exposure to it rings very true in both films. Both films have a romance at their cores, and both protagonists must undergo a trial by fire to prove their worthiness to their respective culture’s demands as to their roles within their new society. Stripped of the elaborate special effects that distinguished Avatar, A Man Called Horse can be just as dramatically compelling. A man from one culture learning real human values within another culture has the stamp of authenticity regardless of the surrounding production whether it be bare bones or opulent.
Tiring of his duties as a British lord, John Morgan has come to America in 1825 to search for something real and meaningful. While exploring the Northwest with some drunken frontier guides, they’re ambushed by Sioux Indians with the guides slaughtered and Morgan captured (due to his blue eyes) and brought back to their reservation to be used as a beast of burden for Chief Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou) and his mother Buffalo Cow Head (Dame Judith Anderson). Bewildered at first by his treatment and by what is being asked of him, he soon figures out some tribal rituals with the help of Batiste (Jean Gascon), another blue-eyed captive who’s been with the tribe for five years, his extended stay made possible through his impersonation of a crazy person whom the Indians will refuse to kill. Over the course of a couple of seasons, Morgan becomes acclimated to tribal rituals and even learns some of the language, and when he spearheads the protection of the village by attacking and killing two Shoshone scouts, he’s allowed to become one of the Sioux by undergoing the Ritual of the Sun Vow. It’s the only way he can claim the chief’s sister Running Deer (Corinna Tsopei) whom he’s come to love. His initial hope had been that by becoming a Sioux, they will trust him enough to allow him to escape, but now that he’s become emotionally connected to Running Deer, he’s less interested in escaping.
The film’s most famous sequence, of course, is the Ritual of the Sun Vow which was immortalized in poster and cover art (including the cover for this Blu-ray release) and is shown in fairly grisly detail here. The film has always had a reputation for gore and violence, and yet, it really hasn’t earned such a reputation with much of the extreme violence reserved for off screen or below the frame. Otherwise, the film goes through its fairly predictable paces with Morgan’s initial resistance and his gradual incorporation into the tribe proceeding without much in the way of intrusions. Elliot Silverstein’s direction of the dramatic scenes is fairly mundane though the legendary Yakima Canutt handled the second unit work and was likely responsible for much of the climactic Shoshone attack on the Sioux village which is by far the film’s most exhilarating scene. There is no subtitling of the Sioux dialect, so for the film’s first quarter hour, we’re as bewildered by the Indians’ words as Morgan is. Later, with the help of the Batiste character, we can better understand what is being said which clarifies a great deal about why he was spared and what plans the Indians have for him.
Richard Harris was in his prime when the film was made, and he appears to take quite a physical beating during the course of the movie. His outrage and impatience is palpable and yet he also can show restraint when he knows it’s best to be quiet, and it’s altogether a fine performance. Judith Anderson wouldn’t be recognizable had the credits not alerted us of her presence in the movie, and she really dives into character for her role as the cantankerous village matriarch. Jean Gascon gets to overact unmercifully as the translator, though it must be said that his heavy French accent does sometimes get in the way of his translations. Manu Tupou makes a noble yet triumphant Yellow Hand (who is allowed a moving sequence late in the movie allowing to a tragic adjustment in his personal life), and Corinna Tsopei makes a very fetching Running Deer. Dub Taylor is one of the recognizable faces early in the movie as a drunken guide, and Iron Eyes Cody is certainly unmistakable as the medicine man performing the Sun Vow ceremony.
The film is presented in its Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and offers 1080p resolution using the VC-1 codec. Much of the film is sharp as a tack with those gorgeous Dakota vistas simply breathtaking to behold. Color saturation is rich and deep, and flesh tones are solid and appealing. Black levels are generally very good as well though occasional shadow details get crushed. There are a few shots that are exceptionally soft in comparison to scenes around them, and there are one or two rather digital-looking shots, too. Still, the transfer is very clean and looks far better than I remember seeing it in the theater all those years ago. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is really only surround in nature during Leonard Rosenman’s driving score where there is noticeable activity in the rears. Elsewhere, the mix plays across the front channels with surety but without much if any envelopment. In the quieter scenes, one can hear some low level hiss on the track, but it never becomes overbearing. Dialogue occupies the center channel throughout.
There are no bonus features whatsoever with this release.
3/5 (not an average)
A Man Called Horse is an interesting story even if it hasn’t been directed with as much forceful drive as a more gifted director might have brought to it. Picture and sound are far better than average, and fans of the movie will likely be quite happy with its high definition presentation here.