Beautifully shot in wide-open locations throughout the Montana wilderness, Winterhawk has the trappings of a proper Native American–themed Western saga, complete with appearances by such reliable Hollywood character actors as Elisha Cook Jr., Denver Pyle, and Woody Strode. Alas, the film’s merits are almost wholly superficial, because the characterizations are thin and the narrative is trite. One suspects that writer-director Charles B. Pierce knew he’d missed the mark during principal photography, because he adorns the finished film with a corny theme song and prosaic narration (both penned by Earl E. Smith), and those elements provide most of the story’s shape.
Winterhawk begins on the tribal lands of the Blackfoot Indians, where proud chief Winterhawk (Michael Dante) watches his people suffer from smallpox, which was brought into their lives by white men. Taking the counsel of a friendly mountain man named Guthrie (Leif Erikson), Winterhawk travels to a white settlement seeking medicine. He is not only rebuffed but ambushed, so Winterhawk attempts reprisal by kidnapping two siblings from the encampment—pretty young woman Clayanna (Dawn Wells) and her little brother, Cotton (Charles Pierce Jr.). Then things get convoluted. Finley (Cook), the uncle of the kidnapped youths, forms a posse to chase Winterhawk, enlisting Guthrie as a guide. Shortly afterward, a thug named Gates (L.Q. Jones) attacks Guthrie’s cabin, raping and killing Guthrie’s Indian companion, Pale Flower (played by Sacheen Littlefeather, infamous in real life as Marlon Brando’s Oscar proxy).
Pierce twists the story into knots to create comic relief from the interplay between the folks in Finley’s posse, to create tension from the various chases, and to disguise the fact that nothing much happens in the main plot. After all, scenes of Winterhawk and his captives include nothing more than shots of people riding across fields, mountains, and rivers. It’s not hard to figure out what went wrong, because Pierce clearly wanted to portray Winterhawk as a noble victim of circumstance, meaning that Winterhawk couldn’t be shown leading raiding parties or mistreating Clayanna. Instead, he does next to nothing. Supporting players deliver entertaining work, but the miscast Dante mistakes sleepwalking for stoicism, and Wells (of Gilligan’s Island fame) simply looks lost. On some level, Pierce’s heart was in the right place. Nonetheless, the countless shortcomings make Winterhawk a slog even though it’s supposed to be a song.