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Film / Thunderheart

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Thunderheart is a 1992 neo-Western mystery film directed by Michael Apted, starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, and Graham Greene.

In the 1970s, Ray Levoi (Kilmer), an FBI agent of partial Lakota Sioux ancestry, is assigned to investigate a possibly-political murder on the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. In the process, he discovers a conspiracy involving uranium mining.

This film provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Time Period: the movie seems to go out of its way to make it very unclear when itís taking place. While the events are clearly inspired by the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee and the ensuing conflict between the American Indian movement (renamed Aboriginal Rights Movement for the film) and the GOONS (not renamed for the movie!) There is some Anachronism Stew that do not seem to be errors, for instance:
    • When Ray meets Agent Coutelle he makes a big point of attending a lecture he gave in 1976. Coutelle even repeats 1976 in such a manner that implies it was several years ago. Contrast that to a picture of Richard Nixon prominently displayed on the wall in Fred Thompsonís office despite Nixonís presidency ending in 1974. Likewise the reign of Dick Wilson, on whom the character Jack Milton is clearly based, was voted out of office in 1976 and his GOONS disbanded at the same time.
    • Rayís Mustang is a mid 80s model. The car driven by Agent Coutelle is an early 80s model. many other vehicles seen throughout the movie are from the late 70s or early 80s. While this is of course common practice for any movie that takes place 20 Minutes into the Past, there are no vehicles seen from the late 80s or early 90s.
    • Jimmy is stated to be a Vietnam veteran. However actor John Trudell (who actually did serve in Vietnam) was 46 at the time of the film's release. While not impossible, that would be very old for a Vietnam Veteran if the movie was in fact taking place in the early 70s.
    • All of the fashions are neutral, jeans, T-shirts, basic suit and jacket, etc. and give no hint as to the time period.
    • all of the technology and vehicles driven by people on the reservation are horribly out of date however. Sadly this is very much Truth in Television in any community with a high poverty rate. Even more so on very rural reservations.
  • 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.
  • Car Hood Sliding: Walter slides across the hood of Roy's car when he and Roy are running to the car to escape from Yellow Hawk's house.
  • 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 Cavalry: At the climax of the film, Roy and Walter are trapped at the Stronghold by Frank Coutelle, Jack Milton and the GOONs. Just as it looks like it's all over for them, armed ARM Members brought by Grandpa appear on the rim of the canyon surrounding them and the GOONs realise that they are outnumbered and outgunned.
  • 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.
  • Crapsack World: The Reservation. The residents live in squalor and poverty all while being brutally oppressed by the GOONS and being seen as enemies by the US government.
  • False Flag Operation: The GOONs draw the ARM symbol and leave behind eagle feathers at the scenes of their murders to justify the FBI conducting a violent crackdown on ARM.
  • From Dress to Dressing: After Maggie's son Hobart is shot by the GOONs, Roy is driving the pair of them to the hospital. When Maggie panics that he is losing a lot of blood, Roy pulls off his tie and hands it to her and she uses it to bind the wound.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The GOONS, or Guardians of the Oglala Nation. It is also a very Meaningful Name as they were very much a group devoted to intimidation.
  • 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 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!
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Richard Yellow Hawk is killed by slitting both his wrists to make it appear like suicide.
  • Neglected Rez: The residents of the Lakota reservation live in extreme poverty, are being forced off their Reservation, and are often vitctimized by corrupt men who want to get mining rights to their land.
  • New Old West: Follows a fairly typical Western story of corrupt men trying to force settlers out for their benefit. Only in this case itís set in (relatively) modern times where Native Americans living in extreme poverty are being forced off their Reservation and being victims of gross injustice so corrupt men can get mining rights.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Leo's real killer is Richard Yellow Hawk who is in a wheelchair. Roy eventually discovers that he is in the chair after taking an iron bar across his back in Leavenworth, and can still walk for short periods. When he stands up, Roy also realises exactly how tall he is: the killer's height having been another clue.
  • One-Word Title
  • 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.
  • Rape as Backstory: Maggie was raped in the past, inspiring her to open a women's shelter on the reservation. Ray, despite disliking the Lakota at this point, expresses his genuine admiration for this.
  • Reincarnation: Grandpa recognizes Ray as being a reincarnated Thunderheart, a Lakota hero murdered in the Wounded Knee Massacre, who has come back to help them in their current troubles.
  • 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.
  • Scenery Dissonance: gorgeous views of the high Plains and very scenic Badlands National Park, along with the homes of brutally oppressed people living in squalor and poverty.
  • 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.