Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Will Fight No More Forever (1975)

          Although it’s so heavily skewed toward providing educational content that it plays more like a dry documentary than a lively feature, the TV movie I Will Fight No More Forever illuminates such an important chapter of American history that it’s possible to overlook the textbook presentation and enjoy the underlying narrative. The title emanates from a quote by Chief Joseph, who in 1877 helped guide his Nez Perce tribe from Oregon to Montana in a quest to escape the clutches of the U.S. government by slipping into Canada. While Joseph was neither the only leader of the Nez Perce nor the only Native American who engendered sympathy among whites, his determination and eloquence were unique—during his flight from Oregon, Joseph evaded the U.S. Cavalry for nearly 2,000 miles with minimal loss of life, and when he finally surrendered, he did so with such poetry that he shamed his pursuers.
          I Will Fight No More Forever tells the story of the Nez Perce exodus simply, and with a commendable degree of balance—some Nez Perce braves are shown as reckless, providing a counterpoint to Joseph’s rationality, just as Joseph’s main pursuer, Gen. Oliver Howard, is shown to sympathize with Joseph’s goals rather than hating the man. The story begins with a white civilian murdering a Nez Perce brave based on a false accusation of theft. As his people call for war, Joseph (Ned Romero) counsels patience and brings the matter to the attention of his friend, Howard (James Whitmore). Howard pledges to bring the killer to justice, but then he drops a bombshell by saying the U.S. government wants the Nez Perce moved onto a reservation. Appalled that a treaty designed to prevent exactly that outcome has been broken, Joseph walks away from his meeting with Howard and confers with his tribe. Reasoning that flight is wiser than open war, Joseph begins the journey to the Canadian border, with Howard’s troops in pursuit. As the chase spreads from days to weeks to months, Howard gains respect for his opponent’s strategic genius.
          Romero, a journeyman actor of partial Native American descent, makes up in presence what he lacks in skill, because he looks perfect in flowing hair and feathers, his face seemingly carved from granite and his voice a resonant instrument. Whitmore and costar Sam Elliot, who plays Howard’s aide (and sparring partner during moral debates), invest their scenes with feeling, often surmounting the limitations of stilted dialogue. The physicality of the movie is okay, with wide-open locations compensating for iffy makeup and too-tidy costuming, though a Native-themed music score lends texture. I Will Fight No More Forever is not the best tribute one might imagine for Chief Joseph, but it’s an honorable attempt.

I Will Fight No More Forever: GROOVY

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