Thunderheart is a 1992 Western film starring Val Kilmer.In the 1970s, FBI Agent Ray Levoi is tasked to investigate a possibly political murder on the Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota because of his partial Lakota ancestry. In the process, he discovers a conspiracy involving uranium mining.
This film provides examples of:
- Braids, Beads and Buckskins: If you want to see how Lakota people dress and live today, watch this movie. There is a brief pow-wow scene with people in traditional regalia.
- Category Traitor: The Lakota dislike Ray as a man with a quarter Lakota ancestry who's an FBI agent, unsurprisingly, mocking him as "Washington Redskin". Ray for his part returns the antipathy, disliking them at first as well and disclaiming that heritage.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Maggie tells Ray about a man who supposedly committed "suicide" by shooting himself in the back of the head.
- Good Flaws, Bad Flaws: Ray Levoi, the FBI-agent protagonist, manages to be a consistently sympathetic character despite having more than a casual contempt for Native American culture from the outset - something that was rare even in The Golden Age of Hollywood. Being young and good-looking helps (Levoi is being played by Val Kilmer in his early thirties, after all), as does his Punch-Clock Villain status when the FBI sends him to a Lakota reservation to investigate a murder and basically requires him to harass and interrogate suspected political radicals (at one point even pulling Sioux men out of a sweat lodge during a religious ceremony to arrest one of them, prompting the arrestee to demand if he'd ever arrest a Christian while that Christian was praying in church). Most crucially, however, Levoi is a quarter Lakota himself. While this doesn't grant him N-Word Privileges (though the full-blooded Lakota characters seem to have this, derisively calling Levoi the "Washington Redskin"), it does make him supremely confused about his identity and ambivalent toward the memory of his ne'er-do-well half-Lakota father. He's also naturally resentful that he's been assigned to this case specifically because of his heritage, and doesn't want to be on the reservation in the first place. Finally, Levoi does fall in love with a full-blooded Lakota woman, manages to get over his prejudices and reclaim his roots, and ultimately solves what proves to be a Chinatown-level mystery marked by corruption Inherent in the System.
- Magical Native American:
- "Grandpa" Sam Reaches fits the trope, but the movie earns points by presenting a brutally unromanticized view of reservation life at the time, with government corruption, violence, alcoholism, and crushing poverty. Also, everything Grandpa does is what Lakota people would reasonably expect a wikchasa wakan (holy man) to do; he leads a sweat lodge and later an outdoor prayer session, prays and leaves food out for animals, telepathically picks up on some facts about Ray's father, and offers to share a sacred pipe with him.
- Jimmy Looks Twice has a reputation for shape-shifting, but the film keeps it sufficiently ambiguous.
- The film also dodges Political Correctness Gone Mad by having the main character, a federal agent assigned to investigate a murder at Pine Ridge Reservation (and the hero of the piece, mind you) be contemptuous of and sarcastic toward Lakota traditions at first - even though he is of part-Lakota ancestry himself, which is something he usually doesn't discuss (his poor relationship with his half-Lakota father seems to be the source of his prejudice). By the end of the film, said federal agent also fits the trope, to an extent.
- And spoofed by tribal police officer and Deadpan Snarker Walter Crow Horse, who claims that he heard a message on the wind that the protagonist was exceeding the speed limit, and supposedly guesses how much money a person had in their pockets just by the depth of their footprints. It's pretty clear he's joking though. Later when the federal agent has a vision, Crow Horse gets rather annoyed because he has never had one!
- Mixed Ancestry: Ray Levoi is a quarter Lakota, and his ancestry features heavily in the plot. Also the tribal council president Jack Milton (Fred Ward), though it isn't outright stated. Both he and Val Kilmer (Levoi) really do have native ancestry (though Cherokee, not Lakota) so Fake Mixed Race is thankfully averted.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Ray is a quarter Lakota, but identifies as white and has almost completely turned his back on the heritage of his half-Lakota father, which he's disdainful toward. When he's assigned to a Lakota reservation to investigate a murder, he's not at all happy about it. Throughout most of the film, he feels almost no sympathy toward any of the Lakota characters (except for a school teacher with whom he falls in love) and even mocks Lakota religious beliefs. He does eventually come to embrace his heritage, though.
- The Rez: The movie is made of the political rez. Given that it's based on Pine Ridge in The '70s, yeah, Truth in Television.
- Scarily Competent Tracker: Walter Crow Horse, tribal police officer of the Native American reservation, tries to convince the FBI that a footprint left at a murder site was of a man who walked like a white man, which the prime suspect doesn't do.note The FBI remain unconvinced, so he proceeds to tell one of them about his own weight, eating habits, and ankle holster from footprints. When the FBI agent sarcastically asks how much change was in the man's pockets, Crow Horse gives that information too. Given that Crow Horse is a Deadpan Snarker and says this last bit semi-sarcastically, we can assume he's joking.
- Stealth Hi/Bye: A few of the locals pull this trope on Ray as an insult, implying that a real Lakota wouldn't fall for it. That implication is never tested.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film is based on actual incidents on and around the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota during the 1970s, which John Trudell (Jimmy Looks Twice) participated in personally. His character also bears a great resemblance to Trudell's friend Leonard Peltier, who was controversially convicted in the murders of two FBI agents (Peltier remains imprisoned, and a documentary about this came out in the same year with the same director, produced by Robert Redford, entitled Incident at Oglala). The Aboriginal Rights Movement clearly represents the American Indian Movement as well, which both Trudell and Peltier were prominent members of. Jack Milton (Fred Ward) is pretty clearly an expy of pro-government tribal council president Dick Wilson, whose followers are alleged to have murdered numerous dissidents. The Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs) appear much as they're reported to have behaved.