Years before Kevin Costner played a Civil War-era soldier who bonded with Native Americans in Dances with Wolves (1990), English actor Richard Harris played a character on a similar journey in the harrowing A Man Called Horse series. Based on a 1950 short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, the first picture in the series, A Man Called Horse, was released in 1970. Although Harris was still relatively fresh from the success of the blockbuster musical Camelot (1967), he was quickly sliding into a rut of intense movies about men enduring physically and spiritually debilitating odysseys—for instance, A Man Called Horse was one of three early-’70s Westerns dominated by scenes of Harris suffering bloody abuse. (A shrink could have fun analyzing the actor’s career.)
Harris stars as Lord John Morgan, a British aristocrat who is captured by a Sioux Indian band called the Yellow Hand while traveling in the American West. The sequence of his capture is typical of the picture’s disturbing vibe—Morgan is bathing in a river when Indians lasso him around the throat, yank him from the water, and then prod with spears while he tries to fight back, naked and vulnerable. Initially, Morgan’s captors treat him like property, and he learns about Yellow Hand culture and language from Batise (Jean Gacson), a fellow member of the tribe’s lowest caste.
However, when an opportunity arises for Morgan to prove his worth in battle, he determines that he wants to become fully integrated into the Sioux Nation. Accepting the Indian name “Horse,” Morgan takes a Sioux wife and—in the film’s most famous sequence—endures a gruesome initiation ritual during which he’s hung from the roof of a giant tent by hooks dug into his pectoral muscles. (If you can watch that scene without feeling queasy, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.) Director Elliot Silverstein’s style is lurid and occasionally trippy, the otherworldliness of the piece accentuated by Native American music and a preponderance of dialogue spoken in the Sioux language. One can easily quibble with the film’s dramatic merits and historical accuracy, but it’s impossible to deny that A Man Called Horse possess a bizarre sort of cinematic power. Plus, while Harris was well on his way toward self-parody, given his penchant for operatic gestures and shouted dialogue, his commitment is unquestionable.
Six years later, Harris reprised his role in the competent but unnecessary sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse, which replaces the original film’s grisly novelty with a ponderous narrative about the title character becoming a messiah for his adopted people. When the picture begins, Morgan has returned to England but regrets leaving the Sioux behind; subsequently, when he returns to America for a visit and discovers that the Yellow Hand were humiliated and relocated by white men, Morgan resumes his Horse persona and rouses his friends to a new chapter of accomplishment and purpose.
Woven into this principal storyline is a thread of Morgan attempting to reclaim the spiritual fulfillment he felt while living among the Sioux, so the picture is filled with anguished speechifying, and, naturally, director Irvin Kershner presents yet another bloody initiation ritual. The Return of a Man Called Horse is handsomely made, but it suffers from bloat and humorlessness, so viewers may end up feeling as depleted as the protagonist by the time the thing runs its course. In 1982, Harris reprised the Morgan role one last time for The Triumphs of a Man Called Horse, but the focus of the threequel was actually Horse’s son, so Harris’ appearance in the substandard flick is really just a glorified cameo.
A Man Called Horse: GROOVY
The Return of a Man Called Horse: FUNKY