[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Most of what is at all worthwhile in Winterhawk has little to do with Winterhawk (Michael Dante), a mysterious Blackfoot leader who captures a white woman and boy and asks that he be given smallpox remedies in exchange for their return. No smallpox remedies are ever forthcoming; instead, a grizzled band of mountain men led by one (Leif Erickson) who’s had dealings with the Indians in the past sets out in pursuit of the captors and the captured. As it turns out, they prove to be a more interesting assortment of faces and personalities than the tight-lipped, elusive myth they chase through the mountains of Montana. Not that interesting, though: Pierce’s characters tend to resolve into thinly textured types reminiscent of the most simplistically portrayed Disney frontiersman. Still, the first scene indicating that something actually matters in the film—and resists absorption into Winterhawk‘s I’m-ready-to-be-inspired idealism—takes place when the mountain men sit at Guthrie’s (Erickson’s) table and hedge around one another’s motives for wanting or not wanting to go after the Indians.
It is realism that Pierce seems to be after, particularly with his Indians, but while professing sympathy towards that quarter Winterhawk still fails to come across as a realistic approach to this chunk of the American past. And not realistic simply in the sense of using Blackfeet extras and authentically recreating rites and lifestyles (although that’s part of it). Stuart Millar’s When Legends Die, which examines culture clash in a much more meaningful way than merely setting up somewhat jaded premises of revenge and reprisal, only glances at the passing culture into which its protagonist, Tom Blackbull, was born, and yet Millar is able to suggest an unsentimental sense of loss that avoids any out-of-proportion romanticism in our attitude towards Blackbull and the unique worldview he embodies. Pierce isn’t overly concerned with such a balance between sympathy and restraint. By trying to couch the ripped-off-Indians message in a fairy tale, he uncomfortably suggests that this attitude towards the plight of the Indians is tainted by a desire to be ingratiating. Michael Dante, after all, doesn’t make a very interesting title figure, and his pidgin speech even when conversing with his own people seems like a rather lazy out that avoids the necessity of having to invent a way to indicate to us that the Indians are talking their own language, but which quite handily (and unhappily) perpetuates the stereotype of a people who never managed to develop their languages to any reasonable degree of communicative sophistication.
For that matter, all the characters have somewhat predictable niches in Winterhawk, but the people who fill them often manage to wrest some life from their undistinguished roles. A characteristically deranged L.Q. Jones shows up early as the one who starts the ball roiling by killing a couple of Winterhawk’s warriors when they come to a white trading get-together for medicine, and is later done in by a vengeful Guthrie—whose Indian wife he raped and murdered—who finds Jones and sidekick sitting around a campfire “just mindin’ our business.” Other people, like Woody Strode, seemingly just have to be there to make an impression and to fill the screen with a viable presence; and indeed Strode’s death is one of the film’s more magnificent moments. Stretched between two posts at the top of a snow-covered hill, he is branded by an Indian as punishment for killing Winterhawk’s father; a fellow mountain man (Denver Pyle) mercifully shoots him, and as Strode, in closeup, slowly topples to the right the camera angle also bends in that direction, giving the impression that Strode is pulling the screen right along with him.
It may be indicative of where the potential and largely unexcavated force of Winterhawk lies that such moments as Strode’s death, or even Jones’, weigh more meaningfully than more purposefully “heavy” but rather clumsy devices like having a hawk swoop down on its prey in metaphoric preparation for the following shot: the Indians perched on a bluff above the band of mountain men who have come to rescue the woman and boy. But while any movie with as interesting a mélange of familiar characters as Pierce has assembled for Winterhawk is bound to contain instances of roughhewn credibility that actors like Strode, Arthur Hunnicutt, Elisha Cook Jr., et al. seem effortlessly capable of, there is not much else—particularly Dawn Wells’ wispy, bedtime-story narration—to rescue the film from its misplaced inoffensiveness that sacrifices the humanly real in the name of G ratings and quite deservedly ends up failing at a meaningful exploration of its championed subject.
Screenplay, direction and production: Charles B. Pierce. Cinematography: Jim Roberson. Editing: Tom Boutross. Music: Lee Holdridge.
The players: Leif Erickson, Michael Dante, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Elisha Cook Jr., L.Q. Jones, Dawn Wells, Chuck Pierce Jr., Sacheen Littlefeather, Jimmy Clem.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann