Why Historical Films are Inaccurate

An essay on Why Historical Films are Inaccurate – Brandon Skenandore

Total word count: 2559
Sources: 12
Time spent researching and writing: ~15 hrs

So far, we have found that How the West Was Won (1962), Little Big Man (1970), and Dances With Wolves (1990) show fairly different perceptions of Native Americans. Each of these movies was produced and released during different time periods, which makes for an opportune discussion of how the films treat the Native American in character and in events. Overall, a gradual turn toward revisionism has been created, starting in the 1960’s, where nowadays watching a spaghetti western may be offensive to some because of how Native Americans used to be portrayed in film. Overall, these three films show what the mindset of the American people was at the time they were made, and that the American people have gradually revised their beliefs and have turned from racial ignorance towards taking a sympathetic approach when including Native Americans in film.

To begin this discussion, we can look at a book titled Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film that groups films into different time periods. This book has three different eras that it talks about, namely “The Cowboy Talkies: the 30s, 40s, and 50s”, “Win Some and Lose Some: the 60s and 70s”, and “The Sympathetic 80s and 90s” (Kilpatrick). These eras belong to the three respective films I have chosen for this analysis. This book analyzes Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves, but unfortunately does not mention How the West Was Won. However, from the different film eras it talks about, it can be derived that How the West Was Won was a film produced when the popularity of its particular genre was finally waning: the western.

How the West Was Won had many influences from Hollywood, which helped with the film’s casting (MGM 27). Because of this, however, the film refrained from analyzing the effect Western expansion had on Native Americans. According to Sheldon Hall, a film historian, the film had no choice but to take the role of a blockbuster Western, and it needed to “attract as large an audience as possible…the desire not to offend conservative White groups might well have exercised an overriding pressure to avoid raising controversy” (Cameron and Pye 260). After all, how can the “winning of the West” be celebrated if you have to consider what happened to those who lost it (260)? Kilpatrick finds that the filmmaker’s approach at the time “downplayed the historical role of ambition and greed as motivating factors and provided a seemingly empirical foundation to the nostalgic views of many Americans” (46). Because of this, Kilpatrick argues that the filmmakers were able to underlie “Social Darwinism” in their films, where “the fittest survive, and those who do not survive become extinct because they are incapable of evolving” (46).

Sheldon Hall also examines the role of Native Americans in this film:

It is in the treatment of Native Americans that the film’s ideological evasions become most apparent…[The] images of Native Americans against the background of the westward expansion of White civilization are so disparate that some more explicit comment or analysis would seem to be called for. But Webb gives his Indians (described in Spencer Tracy’s opening narration as ‘primitive man’) no dialogue, no scene in which to dramatise their own point of view – though Zeb is at least shown to be a sympathizer. (Cameron and Pye 260)

Thus, this historian argued that Native Americans were deserving of a better portrayal of them, but all they received was Zeb, who failed in his attempts to sympathize with the Indians by stopping the railroad. It appears this film argues that you can’t stop the progress of America, no matter what or who gets in the way.

Also, Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero can be found in each of the 5 mini-movies that make up the film. While not all five will be discussed, we can look at the first part of the move, “The Rivers”, to get an idea. Linus Rawlings is our main protagonist, and his sacrifice, in a sense, is when he marries Eve. He performs a heroic deed by saving the Prescotts from the river pirates. He Journeys on the mountains, across a river, and finally to Eve, whom he decides to marry. His symbolic death comes when he is captured by river pirates and he resurrects himself when he escapes. Finally, he ushers in the new by leaving his life of fur trapping, and settling down with Eve.

In order to understand the mindset of people at the time the film was portrayed (1839-1889), we can read an excerpt from Laurence M. Hauptman’s introduction to a book about Native American misconceptions, where he writes that during this time, “Native Americans went against the majority of Americans’ definition of ‘progress.’ Therefore…Native Americans had no place except as obstacles to be overcome…The ‘winning of the west’ was the great epic which largely defined American identity” (xii). This specific quote very well explains the why Native Americans had such a small role in the film How The West Was Won. In this film, the purpose of the Natives is only to get in the way interfere with the progress of the American people. This film mainly features them as Hauptman says above; they are merely “obstacles to be overcome”. Thus, at a time when Americans were finally starting to open up to thinking differently about Westward expansion, this film ultimately played it safe by avoiding commentary on the Native Americans, and because of this it was very historically inaccurate. But even then, the film was still successful.

The film Little Big Man continues the gradual shift toward sympathy. At a time during the Vietnam War, Pauline Kael and Will Brantley argue this about how Americans thought of themselves at the time:

[Americans] are carriers of metaphysical evil, we are demons. And that was the attitude in a lot of American films during the war years, even Westerns that deal with an early period of American life. The Americans are racists who shoot up the Indians for the careless joy of it – in Little Big Man, for instance. It was a sophisticated criticism. The Indians, for instance, would have Vietnamese faces…The directors were making points. (Kael and Brantley 45)

So this attitude of regret, or guilt, was very strong during the Vietnam War period, when many Americans questioned the war. This allowed for the opportunity to reexamine the Native American in film. The film Little Big Man cast Orientals to play the part of the Native Americans in order to subtly make the film more relevant to audiences for which it was intended.

At a time like this, it may have seemed inappropriate to thrust on the American people an ideal mythic hero as described by Joseph Campbell. Instead of the sacrifice, deed, journey, resurrection, and ushering in of the new, all we see with the antihero-like protagonist Jack Crabb as the product of his surroundings. Events are thrust upon him that he does not expect nor wants, and he does the best he can like any normal person would do showing no signs of unique greatness. Prats expounds on this topic, referring to Jack Crabb as the “revisionist hero”:

The revisionist does not tell his tale from within the Indians’ world but from within the conqueror’s. If nothing else, revisionism must tell the story of the Indian to those of us who remain, and who, for remaining, are by implication Conquest’s beneficiaries…the revisionist hero exists on Conquest’s sufferance: that he bestrides the regions of civilization and savagery betokens not so much his courage or his open-mindedness as his ambivalence. (132)

It is easy to spot the ambivalence of Jack Crabb, for throughout the movie he is caught between two worlds: the white man’s and the Indian’s. Near the end of the movie, it appears that he finally settles down with Old Lodge Skins and the Indian tribe, but at the end of the movie, he is in a hospice obviously off the Indian reservation.

Furthermore, the Battle of Washita River that was so accurately portrayed in this film was made to portray more than just the brutal treatment of Indians. Prats states that Little Big Man “draws a parallel with American brutality in Vietnam by reenacting Custer’s massacre of a defenseless Cheyenne village in the Battle of the Washita” (258). This may be why such great lengths were taken to portray the event as accurately as possible: to show Americans that the Washita Massacre was not different than what was happening in Vietnam at the time. And many Americans, especially the counterculture, would enjoy this film. Richard T. Hughes, in his book Myths America Lives By, examines the feeling at the time:

Moral issues related to the war inflamed the counterculture. In the first place, the government of South Vietnam, which the United States supported, seemed as brutal and oppressive as the Communist government of the North. Many wondered how America could possibly support such a regime without betraying its noblest ideals. Beyond that consideration, many placed the war squarely in the context of the struggle for equal rights for black and other minorities in the United States. Inescapably, the war wrought devastation on the homes, lands, and lives of people of color. Many therefore saw the war as yet another manifestation of American racism and western imperialism. (184)

Overall, the film Little Big Man was made to appeal to the anti-war counterculture, and it showed through its subtleties that, although it is an important movie about a revisionist emerging identity of Native Americans when watched face value, delving deeper into the film shows a riveting connection between the Indian brutality and the Vietnam War.

Dances With Wolves took revisionism to a whole new level, and completely discredited the United States as, in the film’s protagonist Lt. John Dunbar’s (Kevin Costner’s) words, “A people without value and without soul, with no regard for Sioux rights” (Dances With Wolves). But how could this film still be popular with Americans when they are subtly slapped in the face during the movie? The answer is in the details. Kilpatrick notes:

Given that the film attempts to undo in a little over three hours stereotypes developed over hundreds of years, it is understandable that the characterizations of the white people in the film are one-dimensional, but in unleashes other stereotypes that are equally unfair. Not all white men of the 1800s were stupid or cruel, and not many were crazy. The mentally unbalanced officer is quickly becoming the new stereotype in films attempting to be sympathetic to the Indians or Vietnamese or other oppressed groups. This is a problem because in relating violence and cruelty to the madness of a few, it releases the general public from responsibility. (128)

So, the film very smoothly shows the flaws of the white officers, but does not make the connection with the American public. People watching the movie would see that the officers were bad people, but the American public was not responsible. While Kilpatrick sees this as a problem, this disconnect may have been done purposefully in hopes for more popularity, which it ultimately received.

As in the previous film, John Dunbar takes the role of the revisionist hero as described above. He tells the tale from the perspective of a white man, but instead of showing ambivalence he very quickly joins the Indian’s side no matter what, for he knows in his heart that the United States army is evil and he needs to protect the Indians. Joseph Campbell’s idea of a mythic hero can be seen very easily here, where Dunbar sacrifices his freedom to protect the Native Americans, and his deed is to help the Native Americans when no one else can. He transforms during his journey to someone who understands Indians, he dies symbolically as he is taken prisoner, but is resurrected by the Lakota tribe. The only aspect that is missing is when the hero ushers in the new. It seemed more like the hero tried to stop ushering in the new, but it happened anyway. That is the only missing aspect of Campbell’s mythic hero in the movie.

Furthermore, great lengths were taken to preserve the accuracy of the Native Americans as discussed in the 2nd paper, but why? Wilson and Herman explain that this was a decision of Kevin Costner, who attempted to “redress the many erroneous portrayals of American Indians through the years in films and television…Costner wanted only native Americans to portray the Sioux in his film…The Sioux are portrayed as real people, making mistakes, laughing, [and] worrying” (37). Obviously, in order for this film to be a proper revision of Native Americans, it needed to be as accurate as possible. Costner felt it important to make sure that the portrayal of Native Americans was as accurate as possible since the movie would be focused on them, and it paid off in the end.

According to Kilpatrick, however, the way the film ends is “more bothersome” for Native Americans. The caption that states the Sioux was defeated completely and “surrendered to live on reservations allotted by the white man’s government” was a bit drastic (130). This implies that the Sioux went extinct, with all of the rituals and culture. This is somewhat true, but is quite drastic. Costner also must have done this for a more heart-wrenching effect for the audience at the end of the movie. All in all, his strategies in this movie were effective.

Overall, these three films show a gradual shift towards more and more sympathy for Indians, sparked by the anti-war movement in Vietnam. Many people now have shifted their mindset from thinking of Native Americans as a savage, bloodthirsty, “primitive man”, in Spencer Tracy’s words (How the West Was Won) to understanding that Native Americans had feelings, emotions, and were more similar to Americans than previously thought. Because of these shifted perceptions, the films produced during different time periods have shifted as well in order to appeal to the current audience. Not only that, but films themselves may have accelerated this perception shift, since the films that are successful are watched by many Americans and, when done right, make the American people think differently about Native Americans.



Cameron, Ian A, and Douglas Pye. The Book of Westerns. New York: Continuum, 1996. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. Print.

Dances With Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Orion Pictures, 1990. Film.

Hauptman, Laurence M. Tribes & Tribulations: Misconceptions About American Indians and Their Histories. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995. Print.Bottom of Form

How the West Was Won. Dir. John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962. Film.

Little Big Man. Dir. Arthur Penn. National General Pictures, 1970. Film.

Kael, Pauline, and Will Brantley. Conversations with Pauline Kael. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Print.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Print.

MGM and Cinerama Present: How the West Was Won: The Program. Random House Books, 1962. Print.

Hughes, Richard T. Myths America Lives by. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Print.

Prats, A J. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2002. Print.

Wilson, Wendy S, and Gerald Herman. American History on the Screen: Film and Video Resource. Portland, Me: J. Weston Walch, 2002. Print.