Aug 062010

A Man Called Horse, 1970, dir. Elliot Silverstein IMDB

This movie probably did a lot to inspire the modern primitive movement, portraying a rather familiar story of a “civilized” person being initiated into a “primitive” culture. I’m not going to address the historical or cultural accuracy of this film, as I’m not really qualified and also it’s not terribly relevant to this discussion. (The film claims to be based on authentic sources, but so did Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.)

The movie starts in the American frontier in 1825. Morgan, an English nobleman, resigned his birthright commission in the Guards, and travels west to hunt, though he still feels dissatisfied. Sioux warriors kill his escorts, capture him naked while he is bathing nude, and call him, “Horse,” in their language.

There are a lot of shots of Morgan’s bare butt, from the Sioux’s point of view, and it’s hard not to read a certain homoeroticism in this. Then there are long scenes of Morgan being dragged across the wilderness as an animal, treated as property and as an object of derision. When the warriors arrive at the encampment, Morgan is treated as chattel, handed over to chief’s mother, and associated with the women and the children of the Sioux. As an initiation ritual, this is an example of a man achieving spiritual regeneration by being removed from his usual place in society, and introduced into a new, society in which the low are high and the high are low. It’s the stuff of masochistic fantasies, the kind of thing that drove Richard Burton and TE Lawrence.

However, masochistic narratives just stop at this point, while more conventional, non-perverse narratives start the climb upwards. You can easily imagine this providing fodder for masochistic fantasies of enslavement by primitive peoples, in the same genre as The Sheik, the Gor novels and so on.

Morgan’s plan seems to be to climb from the bottom of Sioux society to the top, become the chief, form a war party and escape. However, violence is seen necessary to being identified as a Sioux man. Morgan’s failure to kill a man to escape leaves him so shamed by the Sioux that he willingly returns to his role as animal/property, placing his hair leash around his own neck.

Later, Morgan kills and scalps two Shoshone warriors who are sniffing around the Sioux camp. While Morgan is clearly disgusted by his actions, he’s ecstatic at the approval of the Sioux, transitioning from child/female/property/animal, to an intermediate state, not quite yet a warrior.

Being a warrior involves marrying, thin this case to Running Deer (played by former Miss Greece, Corinna Tsopei, in brownface). It also involves making the “Vow to the Sun,” which is the most memorable scene and one that figured prominently in the film’s promotion (“the most electrifying ritual ever seen!” according to the poster). It’s a faked version of the Mandan Sundance, involving being hung suspended by hooks embedded in the skin of the chest. It looks pretty realistic though, and must have been quite impressive at the time.

This experience is dramatized by Horse having a vision of the White Buffalo, followed by him and Running Deer running in slow motion towards each other, naked, while walking on water. (It was 1970, remember.) This is presented as a test of manhood, not a religious custom.

After this, Horse follows a rather predictable path up the social ladder of the Sioux, eventually becoming chief, and even organizing the Sioux archers into a British Army style firing line. The climax is when he decides to stay with the Sioux, even after Running Deer is killed, because without a man, Running Deer’s mother is would be persona non grata among the Sioux.

While not generally considered an exploitation film, and a bit restrained in terms of sex and gore, A Man Called Horse has a lot of “anthropology-porn” DNA. There’s a strong emphasis on the shock value of the fighting and the Sun Dance, portraying them as fundamental to Morgan becoming Sioux (unlike, say, learning their language, which he doesn’t do until much later, relying on a fellow captive to translate). There’s also a fair bit of sex, with semi-nude shots of Running Deer. Sioux life is portrayed as more “real” than the English life Morgan fled.

The fetish of authenticity expressed via blood’n’guts’n’boobs in foreign climes is also found in the “mondo” pseudo-documentaries. The 1972 film The Man From Deep River (released as Mondo cannibale in West Germany) is pretty much a direct rip from A Man Called Horse, just with more blood’n’guts’n’boobs.

You could argue that both the film’s story and the film itself are initiatory, with the Sun Dance presented to the prospective viewer as a challenge to witness and experience vicariously. Kink culture believes that truth, authenticity comes from extreme physical and emotional experiences, an offshoot of romanticism.

There are a lot of similarities to James Cameron’s Avatar: military men who find regeneration amongst and become the leaders of a primitive, naturalistic people. In Avatar, Neytiri calls Jake a “baby” and he has to work his way up Na’vi society to adulthood/physical capability, with access to “exotic” female beauty as an added incentive.

The difference is that, again, the kinky minded don’t want to come back up. They want to stay at the lowest level of society, the abject, the liminal. According to Wikipedia, in the original 1950 short story, Horse doesn’t try to escape. Maybe he found where he wanted to stay.

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