An Examination of Three Historical Films that Involve Native Americans

An Examination of Three Historical Films that Involve Native Americans – Brandon Skenandore

Total word count: 2901
Sources: 16
Time spent researching and writing: ~15 hrs

For my research this semester, I have decided to focus on a single theme. With these three films I have chosen, I plan on exploring the portrayal and role of Native Americans in historical films throughout different eras in American history. What were the lifestyles and values of the Natives, and how accurately is this portrayed in relation to the historical record? The three films I have chosen to explore are How the West Was Won (1962), Little Big Man (1970), and Dances with Wolves (1990).

How the West Was Won (1962) has little written about the origins of this film, other than a short program book that was released shortly after the film was. One clue that can be found is in the movie credits, where it states that, although the film was written by James R. Webb, the film was “Suggested by the series ‘How The West Was Won’ which appeared in LIFE magazine”. This LIFE magazine series appeared in seven parts in seven consecutive weekly magazines, from April 6, 1959 to May 18, 1959. These seven parts were namely: “Opening a land of Destiny”, “West Relives a Lively Past, Trail Fever” – “To Oregon, Texas”, “Robust Life of the Gold Fields”, “Cowboy days, the Indian Wars”, “Pioneerwomen – Good & Bad”, and “Fulfillment for a Promised Land (conclusion)” (LIFE 1959). According to the book MGM and Cinerama present How the West Was Won: The Program, which described the production process, this written series was a giant success when it appeared in LIFE magazine, and was read by about 25 million people (5).

This book continuously purports the film as one of the largest ever undertaken, especially with respect to the filming process. The book claims that “Filming the fully definitive story of the winning of the American West was one of the most demanding projects ever undertaken…[It] was never attempted before…The search for locations for the filming was one of the most extensive ever inaugurated by a film company” (25). Also, “over 75% of the film was filmed” outside the Culver City, California studio (MGM 25). The location experts of the film traveled all over the west, examining spots such as the Ohio River Valley, the Rocky Mountains, the Black Hills, Uncompahgre National Forest, and other places, but only going where four-wheeled vehicles could take them (MGM 26). When filming took place, some areas were even bulldozed and roads were maintained for production of the film (30). The research for the film was gargantuan, filling 87 cross-referenced volumes and over 10.000 photographs (28).

Part of the reason why multiple directors were chosen for the films was because of time constraints (MGM 27). Also, Hollywood had an “unusual interest” in the film’s production, which MGM credits to the amazing cast that they were able to recruit for the film (27). Members of the cast included Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark, with Spencer Tracy narrating the film (28).

The production crew also wanted to preserve authenticity of the film. Interestingly enough, moccasins and other Native American accessories were either bought from Indian reservations, or, when those were depleted, made by Indian craftsmen specifically for the film (MGM 29).

The film is also separated into different parts; however only five parts appear in the movie, instead of the seven in LIFE magazine. The titles of the movie parts are namely “The Rivers”, “The Plains”, “The Civil War”, “The Railroads”, and “The Outlaws” (Rotten Tomatoes: How The West Was Won). As can be seen by the simplicity of these titles in relation to the LIFE magazine series, this film does not go quite as in-depth as the LIFE magazine, and instead focuses on one family’s generation through these times. This film had three different directors. Henry Hathaway directed “The Rivers”, “The Plains”, and “The Outlaws”. John Ford directed “The Civil War”, and George Marshall directed “The Railroads” (TCM: How The West Was Won). Bernard Smith produced the entire film.

But what is Cinerama? The program book described Cinerama as the “process of simultaneous filming by three synchronized cameras… pointed at different angles to…[approximate] the full breadth of human vision” (33). When the film is shown in theatres, it is then projected by three different projectors and “shown on a curved screen” and using seven different sound channels (33). This would obviously complicate the filming process by having to film the same shot with three different cameras, which may have ultimately been why the film was such a large undertaking.

This film accounts for a fifty-year time span of westward expansion, from 1839 to 1889 (MGM 25). The film begins with “The Rivers:” a mountain man named Linus Rawlings, who travels by canoe through the Erie Canal. He runs into the Prescott family, consisting of the parents Zebulon and Rebecca, and the children. Two of them are single daughters, Lily and Eve, of marrying age (IMDb How the West Was Won). This family is moving west in search of land. Linus and Eve like each other but Linus leaves. After escaping river pirates, Linus returns to the Prescott family to help them. The two parents drown on the river. Linus marries Eve.

In “The Plains” Lily is now a dancer in St. Louis, and then finds that she has inherited a gold mine in California. She travels with a large group by wagon, and two men are attracted to her. The company escapes an attack by Cheyenne Indians, and when they get to California, Lily finds that the gold mine is no longer active, and has no money. Lily decides to become a singer in California. One of the men proposes to her. She says yes and goes to San Francisco.

“The Civil War” goes back to the story of Linus and Eve, who have two young men and now live on a small ranch in Ohio. Linus is not seen; he has left to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Eve lets Zeb, one of her sons, leave for the army. After the Battle of Shiloh, Zeb is scared and thinks about leaving with another soldier. The soldier tries to shoot a Southern commander during a meeting, which forces Zeb to skewer the soldier with his bayonet. Zeb fights another battle and then returns home. Some time has passed, and he finds his mother buried next to Linus, who also happened to die in the war. Zeb decides to go west, and leaves the ranch to his brother.

In “The Railroad”, the story continues to follow Zeb. A telegraph is being installed across the west, and the Railroad is being built over the Rockies and across the plains. Zeb is hired to keep the Indians from interfering with the progress of the railroad. He does not agree with the man in charge of the railroad, and is ultimately unsuccessful. The Indians run a herd of buffalo through the main camp, killing many men and damaging the railroad.

In the final sequence, “The Outlaws”, the story goes back to a widowed Lily, who although is in a large house, has to sell it because of debts. She does have land in Arizona, however, and knows that Zeb (her nephew) is a marshal there. Zeb is married now and has small children. Zeb’s life and family are threatened by a group of outlaws seeking revenge. Zeb attempts to trap the outlaws on a train, and is successful, shooting and killing some of them. The family then travels to Lily’s land on Arizona. The film then ends with aerial shots of California in present day (How the West Was Won).

The film was a major success at the box office (MGM 30). The budget for the film was estimated at 15 million and grossed 50 million (IMDb How the West Was Won). It was also praised by critics worldwide, and not just for its spectacular filmography (MGM 35). It first premiered in London to a group of critics, who praised it as “a Western that banishes almost all other Westerns of the past into a background of comparative mediocrity…This is a show that is going to run for, maybe, years to come” (MGM 35).

The next film, Little Big Man (1970), was a film inspired by a comic novel and partly connected to the Vietnam war, in that it “indicted Americans for practicing genocide on the Native American [and was] partly the expressions of the producers’ and directors’ feelings about Vietnam.” (O’Connor 25). Indeed, this film did come out around that time, and in this way could have been made relevant to audiences at the time.

Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, begins with Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) as a 121-year old man in a hospice recounting his earlier days to a historian (IMDb Little Big Man). The story goes back in time, and Crabb is 10 years old. His family is wiped out by a band of Pawnee Indians. Only he and his sister Caroline survived. An Indian from a different tribe (the Cheyenne Indians) picks them up and takes them to his tribe. Caroline gets away on a horse and leaves Jack all alone, but Jack likes living with them and learns their ways. His adopted grandpa, Old Lodge Skins, teaches him the ways of the warrior. Another larger boy, Younger Bear, makes fun of him and Jack punches him in the face, ending the scuffle. A Pawnee Indian attacks Jack and Younger Bear when they are hunting together and jack kills the Pawnee Indian, earning Younger Bear’s trust. The Indian tribe gives him the name “Little Big Man”.

Jack is now 16 and while traveling with the Indians run across a burned Indian camp, and they go to battle with some white troopers. Jack then is taken by the troopers and taken into the Pendrake household and learns their ways. Jack begins to like Mrs. Pendrake, but then leaves to work with Merriweather. The two are tarred and feathered because of Merriweather. A member of the mob turns out to be Caroline, who realizes she tarred and feathered her own brother. She teaches him how to shoot a gun and he becomes the “Soda Pop Kid” but then Caroline leaves him after learning that he doesn’t like to kill.

Jack then marries a Swedish lady named Olga and has become a respectable storekeeper. After the store fails, Custer comes along and suggests they go west, and on the trail they are attacked and Olga is captured by Cheyenne Indians. Jack reunites with Old Lodge Skins but then goes to work in Custer’s cavalry. After not liking the cavalry’s massacring, Jack leaves and discovers Sunshine (a Cheyenne) and helps her have a child. They marry and while in the tribe, Jack finds that Younger Bear has married Olga, who doesn’t recognize Jack.

Jack’s entire family is then killed by Custer and Jack attempts to kill Custer, but fails because he does not like killing. He then starts drinking, but is given money by Wild Bill, who is then shot. Jack thinks of killing himself but then rejoins Custer’s crew. Jack leads the crew into Little Bighorn where there is a large amount of Indians waiting for them. Jack survives the battle and helps Old Lodge Skins up a hill and, after an unsuccessful attempt to get the Great Spirit to take his life, it starts to rain, and Jack and Old Lodge Skins go back to have dinner. Back as a 121-year old man, Jack is melancholy and orders the historian out of the room.

The film’s estimated budget was 15 million (IMDb Little Big Man). The film ended up grossing $31,559,552 (Box Office Mojo Little Big Man). It was also received well by critics. Roger Ebert reviewed the film the same year it was released, calling it a “perceptive and important statement about Indians, the West, and the American Dream”. A NY times reviewer also reviewed the film, but was not completely positive, saying that the film “tries to cover too much ground…often it is not terribly funny” but ultimately “in spite of…failings- [it] is an important movie…a tough testament to the contrariness of the American experience” (Canby).

The third and final film is Dances With Wolves, and although this is not necessarily a historical film, it captures the lives of Native Americans in a historical setting with respect to the time period. The film was directed by Kevin Costner, who also played the main protagonist of the film (IMDb Dances with Wolves).

The film is set during the US civil war (IMDb Dances with Wolves). John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is a union army member and has a leg injury. He is about to have his leg removed. John sees other men struggle with no legs, and rather than have his leg amputated, John pulls a boot over his bloody leg and rides through a battle. Rather than intentionally being killed, he helps the union army regain its courage and they overrun the confederate army. His leg is then healed by a more experienced surgeon, and he is regarded a hero. John then chooses to go west. He meets Major Fambrough, who sends John and another man named Timmons to Fort Sedgwick. Fambrough kills himself shortly after.

Once John and Timmons get to Fort Sedgwick, they find the fort deserted, after which John stays to clean up the camp and Timmons turns back, only to be attacked by Pawnee Indians. Since no other men know that John is at the camp, he is there alone and does not know that no other soldiers will be coming.

While at the fort, a Sioux tribe comes to the fort and John leaves to go to the tribe’s village. John learns of the tribe’s customs and lifestyle. He then helps the Sioux by leading them to a herd of migrating buffalo. Not only that, but John also gives the Sioux guns and ammunition from the fort to help them defend against Pawnee Indians. John then marries a white tribe member. As the Indians prepare to leave to another camp, John goes back to the fort to retrieve his journal containing sensitive information about the Sioux, only to find the fort occupied once more by troopers.

John is captured by the fort and after interrogation, is sent with a traveling group to be executed in Fort Hayes. The Sioux tribe then attacks the travelers and John is brought to the winter camp. John decides that he is dangerous to the Sioux tribe if he stays with them, so he and his wife decide to leave. The movie ends after the army and some Pawnee tribe members reach the deserted Sioux village. A caption reads “Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.”

This film had a production budget of $22 million (Box Office Mojo Dances with Wolves). It first opened with limited screenings, earning $598,257 in the first weekend. However, the film gained traction and went on to earn $184,208,848 just in the US (Box Office Mojo Dances with Wolves). Reception of the film was overwhelmingly positive, with Roger Ebert praising the movie as “magnificently told…[abandoning] the contrivances of ordinary plotting to look, in detail, at the way strangers get to know one another”. He goes on to say that the film “has the kind of vision and ambition that is rare in movies today…this is one of the year’s best films”.

Overall, these three films have been chosen because of their overwhelmingly positive reception at the time they were made. This connotes that American movie-goers of the time agreed with or at least were open to the tenets portrayed in the film, especially with Native Americans since they played a vital or at least substantial role (ahem, How the West Was Won) in each of the films chosen. Overall, they create a great trio of films in different time periods to compare and contrast the Native Americans between the films and in relation to the historical record.



“Dances With Wolves”. Box Office Mojo, 8 October 2011. Web.

“Dances With Wolves”. IMDb, 8 October 2011. Web.

“How the West Was Won”. Box Office Mojo, 8 October 2011. Web

“How the West Was Won”. IMDb, 8 October 2011. Web

“How the West Was Won (Series)”. LIFE Magazine. April-September 1959. Print.

“How the West Was Won”. Rotten Tomatoes, 8 October 2011. Web

“Little Big Man”. Box Office Mojo, 8 October 2011. Web.

“Little Big Man”. IMDb, 8 October 2011. Web.

Canby, Vincent. “Little Big Man (1970)”. New York Times, 15 December 1970. Web.

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

Ebert, Roger. “Dances With Wolves”. Chicago Sun-Times, 9 November 1990. Web.

Ebert, Roger. “Little Big Man”. Chicago Sun-Times, 1 January 1970. Web.

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.

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

O’Connor, John E. “The White Man’s Indian.” Film & History (03603695) 23.1-4 (1993): 17-26. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 8 Oct. 2011.