For those of us raised in the era of the Movie of the Week, today's made for television features can often inspire awe with their production values, casting and content. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee would be a knockout even as a purely theatrical release, however. It is simply one of the finest motion pictures I've had the pleasure of seeing recently: beautifully performed, exquisitely photographed and deeply felt. While it may rile some who insist on absolute historical accuracy, the film presents its points so resolutely, and with such profound emotion and eloquence, that its occasional fudging of facts and characters can be largely forgiven.
Based on a small section of Dee Brown's monumental book, the film focuses on "Charles Eastman" (his adopted Christian name), a Dakota Sioux forcibly inducted into a "civilized" way of life at an early age (he later co-founded the Boy Scouts of America), and Senator Henry Dawes, responsible for the infamous Dawes Act, which, though ostensibly well-intentioned, slowly but surely consigned Indians to lives of misery and poverty on reservations. As acted by Adam Beach (Eastman) and Aidan Quinn (Dawes), the men are shown to be equally stubborn and conflicted about their various roles in both United States and Indian culture. Backed up by impressive supporting performances by Anna Paquin as Eastman's Caucasian wife and especially August Schellenberg as the legendary Sitting Bull, Knee is an exceptionally well-performed piece of ensemble acting.
While some of the transitions are abrupt (notably the courtship to marriage of Eastman and his wife and especially the self-corruption of Dawes, who took darker and darker turns as he fell deeper into the trap of believing the Indians needed to be "saved" from themselves), overall the film presents its arguments cogently and heartbreakingly, if at times in a Cliff's Notes version of the actual facts. The film therefore is better seen as an introduction or generalist overview of its subject than as one definitive statement on the horrors that were visited on the Indian nations.
This is an epic American tragedy that still has repercussions for today's society (as evidenced by the postscript detailing the Supreme Court's findings in favor of the Sioux just a few years ago), and all Americans (indeed all people) should be interested in knowing the truth, as painful as it might be.
This is one beautiful looking film, perfectly rendered on this DVD (with one possible glitch noted below). The enhanced 1.78:1 image is pristine, one of the finest looking DVDs I've seen recently.
Possible DVD authoring glitch: An important caveat and one I'll be interested to get some feedback on from those with various players: on my high-end Sony DVD player, I had what I call "persistent subtitle syndrome," something those of you who purchased the ultimately recalled first pressing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail some years ago will recall. The subtitles simply kept turning themselves on every few seconds, despite my every attempt to get them to turn off, via every method, i.e., both the Subtitle menu on the DVD itself, and via the Subtitle shortcuts on the DVD player remote. Nothing worked. The DVD played fine on my PC, however, with no subtitle glitch.
No Dolby 2.0 is offered here, just an excellent Dolby 5.1 mix that is beautifully separated. There are foreign language tracks and two commentaries (discussed below).
Lots of nice extras here, including a whole second disc of above-average featurettes, though truth be told, they are all short enough they probably could have fit on the main feature disc. On the main feature DVD, there is an interesting "jump-to" feature offering further historical background information as the film plays (this option funnily enough states it turns off the subtitles, which was the only way I could get the subtitles to stop appearing). There are also two excellent commentaries, one by Director Yves Simoneau, who goes into both the history lessons the film imparts and the arduous task of making the film on a relatively short schedule, as well as a second, somewhat more raucous commentary by Beach and Quinn, who obviously enjoy each other's company a great deal.
This, like the somewhat similarly themed Schindler's List, is not an easy film to watch. One feels a certain amount of shame as atrocity after atrocity is committed against these "first inhabitants" of America. However, it's a cathartic shame and one that will hopefully help foster a new era of understanding for these much-maligned peoples. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, while perhaps not 100% historically accurate, has an overarching truth of spirit and heart that will speak deeply to many people.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet