A Man called Horse (1970)




Director:     Elliot Silverstein.

Starring:     Richard Harris (John Morgan), Judith Anderson (Buffalo Cow Head), Jean Gascon (Batise), Manu Tupou (Yellow Hand), Corinna Tsopei (Running Deer), Dub Taylor (Joe), James Gammon (Ed), William Jordan (Bent), Eddie Little Sky (Black Eagle), Michael Baseleon (Longfoot), Lina Marín (Thorn Rose), Tamara Garina (Elk Woman), Terry Leonard (Striking Bear), Iron Eyes Cody (Medicine Man), Tom Tyon (Medicine Man).

English nobleman must prove himself to the Sioux by surviving torturous rituals



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Englishman John Morgan is out shooting prairie chicken.  The Sioux hear his gun.  John is with Joe Mattock, who is his guide.  John Morgan shoots six birds in a row.  Now he sits and talks with Joe about his life in England.  In 1820 he resigned his commission in the Guards.  And now he is here in the Northwest Territory shooting birds. 

Back at the hunting encampment there are two more servants, but they are now drunk.  One guy goes over to Ed saying that he dumped the water from a tub into Morgan's tent and he found a bottle of rum in the tent.  Then he throws  the tub up in the air so Ed can shoot holes into it.  John and Joe rush back to the encampment.  The Sioux are gradually sneaking up on the white men. 

John and Joe arrive at the encampment and John asks the two drunkards what were they shooting at?  He answers his own guestion when he see bullet holes in his tub.  Because of the servants misbehavior he decides to strike the camp tomorrow and head back to St. Louis.  Joe says it will take about a month to get back.  That's fine with John.  He goes into his tent.  Joe tells the two drunks:  "Well, you've boozed us out of another job."  One the the drunks shouts that they aren't going to shut down the camp because John Morgan guaranteed them four months wages.  Joe tells the drunks that they will get their money.  John Morgan is not cheap.

John goes down to the stream to take a bath.  Joe sees a rabbit running by and says that something must have spooked the animal.  Now the fellows are alert, but literally within ten seconds the three white men are hit by arrows and one is also tomahawked down.  In the fight one brave is killed.  The Indians start taking things from the camp.  But now they have to subdue or kill the white man who is sitting on a rock in the stream.  All of a sudden two lassos are thrown around John's head and tightened around his neck.  He is caught.  One of the braves rushes over to kill the white man but chief Yellow Hand stops him. 

The Sioux harass and torment John Morgan. They take him along with them when they go to their village.  They stop for awhile while they put on ceremonial dress and paint their faces.  The braves are distracted when they all start looking at themselves in John's mirror.  John slips out of his ropes and runs away.  A brave notices him and tells Yellow Hand.  The fellow jumps on his horse and races after John. He forces John to run back to his original starting place of his attempted escape.  He puts the rope around John's neck again. 

One brave is sent running to notify the village that the warriors are coming back.  The drums start beating a fast beat and the people line up to tease and torment the white man.  Of course, the mother of the brave who was killed is not in a festive mood.  She cries over her son and cuts off one of her finger tips with a knife, letting out a loud scream. 

Yellow Hand turns John over to his mother as her slave.  Running Deer, the sister of Yellow Hand, comes out and Yellow Hand gives her a blanket, which she really likes.  Then Yellow Hand's wife comes out and tries to take the blanket away from the younger woman.  The mother now intervenes by letting the younger woman keep her blanket and telling the other woman to let the young one keep it. 

At the ceremony at night the people again tease and torment John.  The old woman goes and gets her slave and takes him back and ties him to his post.  She also gives him a mat to sleep on.  A puppy is later tied to the same post as John.  John awakens early and thinks about running again, but the dogs start barking.  John goes back and puts a blanket around him and starts walking.  Now the dogs don't bark.  He tries to get on a horse but it makes too much noise.  This alerts the guards on the top of a small mountain.  The alarm goes out. 

John runs to another horse, jumps on its back and takes off.  He doesn't get very far before the horse stumbles and falls to the ground along with the rider.  The Sioux come after him but stop and will not proceed beyond a certain spot.  John has landed in the burial ground of the Sioux dead.  Now the whole village chants something probably like out, out, out.  The kids throw their spears in front of John.  Then Yellow Hand John throws a long spear to John.  He then comes into the sacred ground and stands before John, offering John a chance to kill him.  John just stands there holding the spear.  Now the Sioux warrior turns his back to John and walks backward to place the spearhead right up against his back.  John does nothing.

Now the whole village turns their backs to John.  That is except for the old woman.  She signals him to come with her.  John walks right past her and goes to his hitching post.  He puts the rope around his neck.  A "crazy" man taunts John.  He speaks French to John.  John speaks a little French.  The man asks if he is American?  John tells him don't be absurd.  He is English.  The fellow says he also knows a little English.  The man now explains to John that his name is Batise and he has been a prisoner with the Sioux for five years.  He says his mother was a Flathead Indian, but his entire family was killed by other Indians.  He did try to run away but the Indians cut the tendons in the back of his knees for both legs.  So now he plays the role of a crazy man.  The Sioux won't kill a crazy man and a crazy man doesn't hunt or work.  He also tells John that if he makes it past the Sioux he still has to deal with some mean Indians:  Shoshone, Blackfoot and Rikaree.  And now, he says, John is just a workhorse for the old woman known as Buffalo Cow Head. 

Buffalo Cow Head comes out and shoos Batise away threatening to hit him with her tomahawk.  Batise runs away.  Now the old woman has Running Deer offer him some food.  He picks it up but tries to tell her in English that the food is rancid.  Buffalo Cow Head makes a sign that he must eat it, so John bites into the food, but he soon has to spit it out because it tastes so bad to him.  Then he tries to eat what is probably a salve for his skin.  The women laugh at him as he rejects the taste of this new "food". 

There is a big disturbance at the other end of the village.  The old woman who lost her son is presented her son's sword and shield.  Then she gives her son's possession to different members of the tribe.  Now the old tent she lived in is torn to shreds.  The people take everything from the old woman.  It looks like they might send the woman out to die. 

Buffalo Cow Head now tells John to get up.  She hits him with her stick, but he grabs it and almost tears it out of her hands.  He is trying to tell her not to hit him.  He will do what she asks without the punishment.  He walks behind her now, but she hits him again with the stick, perhaps showing off to the crowd that has gathered around her and John.  She takes him over to a pile of logs and taps the pieces that she wants him to remove from the pile.  She walks around like a peacock and the people say something like: "Ah!"  Now she indicates to John that he is to carry the wood back to her tent.  John obeys. 

A man who looks like some kind of chief comes in.  John asks Batise what's going on?  He says that Black Eagle comes for Yellow Hand's sister.  He also explains that the young woman is Yellow Hand's sister, Running Deer, while the older woman is his wife.  Black Eagle wants to buy the sister, but Yellow Hand says no.  Now Yellow Hand has his sister turn her back to Black Eagle.  The number two chief of his tribe tries to take back the pots and pans he brought to buy the sister, but Buffalo Cow Head chases him away with her stick and the women take the pots and pans. 

John pulls Batise over behind a teepee.  He tells the crazy man to act sane when they are alone together.  John wants Batise to help him escape.  Batise asks why should he help a man called Horse?  John says because he knows Batise wants to get out of here too.  Batise notices that John is really looking hard at Running Dear and he says maybe he will marry Running Deer and maybe Yellow Hand will give him a war party that could help Horse get beyond the other hostile tribes.  He also tells John that Indian women do not like men with hair on their faces.  So John grabs Batise's knife and starts using it to shave his face. 

Fall comes and John continues to work very hard.  Then winter comes.  John learns to master the bow and arrow.  When the big snows come the old banished woman will probably freeze to death.  When the snows arrive John takes pity on her and goes over to her, but she is already dead.  He then takes her equivalent of a coat.  John now comes into the teepee, which is a very brazen thing to do, but the white man is freezing.  He lays down just inside the teepee. 

Spring returns and John works in the fields picking flowers.  He picks two flowers and gives one to Running Deer and tells her to give a second flower to her mother.  Running Deer doesn't understand what he tells her in English, so she gives both flowers to Buffalo Cow Head.  The women laugh and laugh because in their culture this means that John wants to go to bed with Buffalo Cow Head, who now prances around while sticking out her rear end.  Now Running Deer goes and signs to John what just happened.  He is shocked and repulsed by the idea.  John indicates to her that he would like to make love to Running Deer.  She takes off one of her moccasins and shows John that there is no hole in it.  John yells down to ask Batise what this means and he tells John it means that she is still a virgin.  He goes on to say that a virgin can take any man she wants as her husband, but not John.  Buffalo Cow Head comes over and takes Running Deer away from John. 

A small boy is out hunting rabbits when he sees two Shoshone Indians.  He shoots an arrow into one of the warrior's legs and runs back home.  He yells:  "Shoshone!  Shoshone!" to the women and they take off down the hill to their village.  Running Deer signals to John to run for it.  But John goes with the small boys over to where the Shoshone were spotted.  A warrior starts climbing up the hill to see where the arrow came from that hit his fellow tribesman.  As he gets close John leaps and lands on the man.  He kills the man with his knife and the boys cheer for Horse.  They all run down to the dead body and one boy takes the warrior's scalp.  Now Horse kills the wounded Shoshone warrior.  The boys don't approve of this until Horse takes the man's scalp. 

Now Horse returns a hero.  Moreover, he has possession of two horses captured from the dead men.  Yellow Hand now places a feather in John's hair.  Then Yellow Hand brings out his sister.  The sister and John seem to want to marry, but Yellow Hand says John must first vow to the sun.  John is married now, but it's not valid until he takes the sun vow. 

John starts the test.  He has to stand in the sun all day and stand up through the entire night until sunrise the next morning.  Then John will have to suffer a lot of pain, says Batise. 

John manages to stay in one spot for the entire period.  With that accomplished, he has to make the sun vow.  Meanwhile, Running Deer has to go through a purification ceremony in which she will be made to sweat heavily.  (Brief partial nudity -- side of breast.)

John goes inside a large meeting area filled with Indian men lining the walls.  There is a fire in the center of the room.  Batise translates Yellow Hand's words so that John can understand the chief.  It is expected that John will say why he deserves the honor of taking the sun vow where he will prove his bravery.  John tells Batise that when he first came to the village he thought the Sioux were "... mean, vicious, ignorant, superstitious, ugly, benighted savages". The Indians cheer for this, so now John tells Batise repeat it again, but this time accurately.  The Sioux men get very angry.  To add insult to injury John has Batise tell them that one day, he will be a chief.  The medicine answers that because Horse is a white man, he is weak and will shame them and himself in the sun vow ceremony.  Yellow Hand gets up and gives the medicine bag to John. 

The drummers start a slow beat.  Now the medicine man takes two eagle claws and affixes them to John's upper chest by jabbing the talons in and working them farther into the skin.  Then he makes an lateral incision into the raised up flesh pinched together by the eagle's claws into both sides of his chest.   This incision creates a skin strap because the knife goes in and out of the raised skin.  Now the men above drop down rope which at the end is divided into two sections.  The rope is slung over a horizontal pole.  Each rope end is divided into two smaller ropes.  These are then tied to both sides of  two splints forced under the skin straps.   Now John is lifted into the air by the men above pulling on the rope.  This is very painful and he groans, but doesn't cry out.  Two Sioux warriors turn him around and around using spears.  The pain and the dizziness from spinning around often causes the participant to see visions. 

John sees a buffalo running toward him and then an Indian chief rearing his horse up on its hind legs.  Then he sees a vision of Running Deer running to him.  They embrace..   In the vision he tells her that when the chance comes, he will go.  She replies that she knows. 

The Indians above let the rope go and John falls to the ground with a thud.  Now Buffalo Cow Head runs to tell Running Deer that her husband has past the test and the marriage is validated.  At night there is a big ceremony honoring the sun vow and the marriage.  John and Batise are  by the tents.  Running Deer is now escorted by the entire village over to John.  Husband and wife stand beside each other.  She puts a blanket across his shoulders.  Running Deer opens the flap of the tent for her husband.  John goes in followed by a smiling Running Deer.

As the chief leaves the tent, he sees his wife being kissed by Chief Black Eagle.  They go together away from the tents.  Running Deer drops her garments and walks naked over to where her husband lays down.  They start kissing.  (Brief partial nudity -- back and side of breast.)

In the morning Running Deer cries and John has to ask Batise what's going on here.  Her father is going through a ceremony vowing to die bravely in battle to undo the dishonor forced upon him by Black Eagle and Thorn Rose (his wife).  Batise thinks this turn of events may serve him and John well, because when Yellow Hand dies, this means that John will be made chief much sooner than they thought and then they will get war party and escape.  This makes John mad at Batise because in this terrible situation all he can think of is himself and his escape.  He tells him to take Running Deer away from the ceremony. 

The seasons pass and Running Deer is pregnant.  This makes John happy.  He tells her that she is so much a part of him that when he goes, she will go with him. 

Two Shoshone Indians sneak over to look at the village and where the horses are kept.   The two spies call to their tribe and they come forward on horses all set for battle.  The hostiles kill the guards around the village.  Now the battle can begin.  The horses stir and the dogs start barking.  Yellow Hand tells everybody that something is wrong and they should get their weapons.  Now the hostiles let all the horses go and they stampede through the village knocking down the tents.  Then the Shoshone descend on the village and its hand to hand combat.

From the hills Buffalo Cow Head and Running Deer see Yellow Hand killed.  The Shoshone chief takes the Sioux bear belt, but John hits him with an arrow and he falls from his horse.  John jumps on a horse with the bear belt and tells Batise to tell the Sioux to go to the Ceremonial Lodge and get the bows and arrows.  Then John has the warriors get in two parallel straight lines facing the Shoshone as the enemy prepares a renewed attack with fresh troops.  Batise is killed with a spear to his back. 

The Shoshone chief sweeps down to get Running Deer.  He pulls her up onto his horse, but he has to drop her because John is on a horse and heading directly at him.  The two men fight and John wins, killing the Shoshone leader.  He takes Running Deer to their tent, but she soon dies there. 

There is a lot of wailing in the village as so many Sioux have to be buried.  John goes over to Running Deer's grave platform and puts her moccasins on top of the buffalo robe covering his wife.  And now it's the turn of Buffalo Cow Head to be isolated and die in the winter snow.  But John faces the old woman and says to her that he will be her son and take care of her.  The woman grabs John and cries. 

In much warmer weather, the Sioux are heading west to establish a new village.  From the hills John waves goodbye to them.  He goes over to his wife's grave and puts a flower on top of it and says goodbye.  A Sioux war party escorts him out of hostile territory.  


The film is a bit of anthropology done by following a captured white man's experience with Sioux people and their culture.  At first he understands nothing, but he meets another captive, named Batise, who serves as his guide to Sioux ways.  Without the guide, Englishman John Morgan is just a duck out of water.  He is often absolutely stumped as to what the Sioux are doing and has to rely heavily on Batise.  Sometimes the encounters with a new culture are funny, but other times a bit disturbing.  John is of noble birth in England and is ambitious to one day become the chief of the tribe.  But he first has a lot to learn.  More importantly, he has a good attitude and works hard to ingratiate himself with the people.  He is not prejudiced against the Sioux, but treats them like any other human beings (except he has to conform to their culture).  In fact, he wants to marry the chief's sister, Running Deer, and have children with her.  John's positive attitude and hard work pay off as the Sioux trust him more and more as time goes by.  When he proves his bravery, he basically is accepted and treated somewhat like a hero.  Of course, in the back of John's mind, there is always the thought of one day escaping and returning to his original world and culture.  But, he knows, that this will take him some time because he needs a small Sioux war party to make it through the territory of the other Indian tribes in the area.  So he bides his time and makes the most of the difficult adventure.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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