Critic's NotebookHBO's Bury My Heart At Wounded KneeClassic Book About America's Indians Gains a Few Flourishes as a Film
By Edward Wyatt The New York Times
May 9, 2007
LOS ANGELES, May 8 When the historian Dee Brown published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971, it became an instant sensation. In an age of rebellion, this nonfiction book told the epic tale of the displacement and decline of the American Indian not from the perspective of the winners, but from that of the Indians.
But the fact that Mr. Brown's work has been translated into 17 languages and has sold five million copies around the world was not enough to convince HBO that a film version would draw a sizable mainstream audience. When the channel broadcasts its two-hour adaptation of the book, beginning Memorial Day weekend, at its center will be a new character: a man who was part Sioux, was educated at an Ivy League college and married a white woman.
Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project, Daniel Giat, the writer who adapted the book for HBO Films, told a group of television writers earlier this year.
The added character is based on a real person: Charles Eastman, part Sioux and descended from a long line of Santee chiefs but who was sent away by his father to boarding school and then held up as a model of the potential assimilation of 19th-century Native Americans. But the film fictionalizes significant portions of his life. In the HBO version he dodges bullets at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In reality he was far away, in grade school in Nebraska.
Fictionalizing history has long been standard in Hollywood. But rarely do filmmakers directly hitch their historically inaccurate projects to revered works of nonfiction. Dick Wolf, an executive producer of the film who is best known for the Law & Order television franchise, defended the fabrications.
This was not an attempt to do the Ken Burns version of the Indian experience, Mr. Wolf said in an interview. It is a dramatization, and we needed a protagonist.
(The chief executive of HBO, Chris Albrecht, announced yesterday that he was taking a leave of absence after being charged with assaulting a girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot early on Sunday.)
At the time it was published, Mr. Brown's epic, subtitled An Indian History of the American West, struck a chord in a country embroiled in a divisive war in Vietnam and still shuddering from the American military's massacre in the village of My Lai. Segregation was dying hard in the South, and the American Indian Movement was ascending.
The story is a relentless tragedy, tracing the history of American Indian nations from 1860, shortly after the first new states extended into the permanent Indian frontier, through 1890 and the massacre at Wounded Knee, in what is now South Dakota. It became a blockbuster best seller and helped shape the way the history of the American Indians has been interpreted ever since.
For decades the book eluded attempts to turn it into a film, partly because of Mr. Brown's distrust of Hollywood. At least two attempts by potential moviemakers to adapt the book failed. When the current producers optioned the book five years ago, Mr. Brown was in the last years of his life and, according to his grandson, did not believe anything would come of the project. (Mr. Brown died in 2002 at 94.)
Tom Thayer, the executive producer who originated the project, said the HBO team wrestled for months with how to boil down a book that spans 30 years and dozens of tribes into a 130-minute film.
The book is basically an editorialized textbook, Mr. Thayer said. It doesn't have a single narrative; it's anthropological and episodic. Therefore, he added, we felt that to tell a story of that size, the Eastman character would be a great hand-holder for the audience.
Many literary critics, and millions of readers, however, had little trouble following Mr. Brown's story. Writing in The New York Times Book Review in March 1971, N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, emphasized that the book was a story, a whole narrative of singular integrity and precise continuity; that is what makes the book so hard to put aside, even when one has come to the end.
The film largely restricts itself to the late 1880s, the time of the Ghost Dance, a messianic movement that swept through the Plains Indian tribes. Within that period it weaves together three strands: the story of Sitting Bull, the legendary chief of the Sioux, who fought against Custer's forces at Little Bighorn in 1876; that of Henry L. Dawes, the Massachusetts senator who pushed into law a plan to allocate portions of Indian land to individual tribe members; and Eastman, who was taken from his tribe by his father and attended Dartmouth and then Boston University School of Medicine.
It is in the last two stories that the film begins to bend history.
Eastman was the most well-known, well-educated Indian at the beginning of the 20th century, said Raymond Wilson, a professor of history at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan., who wrote what is considered to be the definitive biography of Eastman. When I heard they were doing the film, he said, I joked with a couple of people that I hoped they didn't have Charles Eastman shaking hands with Sitting Bull at Pine Ridge.
Not quite, but almost. The film's climactic scene has Eastman watching as Sitting Bull addresses a group of Sioux in Pine Ridge at a meeting of which Dawes is the chairman. Sitting Bull tells them not to accept the government land allotments. In fact, the chief lived 200 miles away at the Standing Rock agency, and the meeting never happened.
As for placing Eastman at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Mr. Giat, the screenwriter, defends that choice by noting that some members of Eastman's tribe were there.
The film also shows Eastman courting Elaine Goodale, a Massachusetts poet and teacher who oversaw schools for Indians in the Dakota territory, over a period of years, beginning while he was in college. In fact, Eastman met her when he arrived at Pine Ridge less than two months before the Wounded Knee massacre. Nor was Goodale anywhere near the reservation in 1883 when Sitting Bull arrived, as shown in the film; she was in Virginia.
HBO executives said they saw no problem with the inconsistencies. When we look at historical accuracy, we look at history as it plays in the service of a narrative, said Sam Martin, a vice president at HBO Films in charge of production on the project. HBO has at times gone the opposite route; last year it publicized the pains it took to ensure the factual accuracy of its Emmy-winning miniseries Elizabeth I.
To its credit, HBO's version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee does not glamorize Sitting Bull, but rather portrays him as he was: an egotistical, often brutal leader whose pride endangered members of his tribe as they suffered through famine, drought and disease.
Some people who have seen advance screenings of the HBO version have praised it. This is the first time I've seen a film so accurately portray the impact of federal policy on our people, said Jacqueline Johnson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, which is cooperating with HBO on educational projects featuring the film. You see the beginning of issues and policies whose effects we are still dealing with today.
But others are dismayed. Nicolas Proctor, Mr. Brown's grandson and one of three people who oversees his estate, as well as an associate professor of history at Simpson College in Iowa, said that as a historian he was always kind of shocked that history is not moving enough, is not evocative enough and rich enough to keep people from having to get in there and start monkeying around with it. He said that the estate had no control over the film's content.
Mr. Proctor said his grandfather wouldn't necessarily be surprised by HBO's tinkering. I don't think he ever thought anything historically accurate would come out of any film version, he said. Still, before this, nobody had ever before gone and gutted it and turned it into a love story.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/09/ar...gewanted=print