Starring: Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, August Schellenberg, Anna Paquin, Gordon Tootoosis
Director: Yves Simoneau
Mood: If you wish you knew more about the atrocities committed against Native Americans but seriously hate reading and just want a talented group of actors to give you a riveting history lesson.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee packs a powerful message – and a powerful cast. It definitely deserves an ‘A’ for effort.
Like the best HBO shows, this HBO TV movie is rich in both production quality and drama. But where the network’s iconic Western series Deadwood was a turbulent ocean of dark, messy humanity, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a tour at the aquarium.
You still get to see ocean life, but through the POV of the tour guide. And unfortunately, Adam Beach and Anna Paquin are not the best guides for this trip.
I was REALLY into the story for the first half hour, and that trademark HBO soapiness sustained my interest for the entire rest of the movie. It’s well-made and features some great acting.
In my pasty-white opinion, we need this kind of big-budget history lesson to exist, because it may dramatize the facts and be painfully obvious in its earnest pursuit of balancing centuries of other-sided storytelling… but it’s easier to digest than textbooks, which means it has further reach.
Besides, if you crop Beach and Paquin out, what’s left is is actually a visually impactful, action-packed movie that’s worth a watch.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is based on an acclaimed 1970 non-fiction book of the same name. The TV movie is a dramatization of real events of the 1860s and ‘70s, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the U.S. government decided to ignore its own treaties and push the Dawes Act, which coerced tribes into giving up their systems of government and handing over millions of acres of land.
It follows Ohíye S’a, a mixed-race Sioux (Lakota) boy who is forced by his well-meaning father to leave his people and attend a residential school. He takes the Christian name Charles, and grows into a polished young doctor (played by Adam Beach) who becomes the face of ‘the civilized Indian’.
Charles gets close with Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), believing that the senator is fighting for the best interests of Indigenous people. He also falls in love with a young poet and teacher named Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin).
But when Charles actually visits a reservation, he finds his people wasting away on meager rations and useless ‘farm’ land, and dying from lack of medical care and rampant disease.
Meanwhile, Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) suffers numerous defeats and indignities, quickly falling from respected leader to caged animal. Chief Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis) has been tricked into convincing his people to move to a reservation. And Wovoka (Wes Studi) shows up with the Ghost Dance and his prophecy of the end of the white man.
If you know your history, you know what happens next – the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre.
If Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had just focused on Dawes and Sitting Bull, this TV movie could have been outstanding.
Whenever August Schellenberg has the stage as Sitting Bull, THAT is when you feel the weight of the events being depicted. He radiates dignity and pride, and a healthy dose of ego.
His reactions to everything going on are the best storytelling in the entire movie; you know what’s happening is bad, but you truly get it through his character.
Aidan Quinn as Sen. Dawes is a unique kind of bad guy, in that he’s so smooth that most reviews refer to him as a good guy just based on Quinn’s trustworthy face and dialogue. But Dawes was one of those dangerous ‘humanitarians’ who actually believed he was doing good by forcing people to adapt to his ideal way of life.
He brings no physical violence, and Quinn rarely even raises his voice. His danger comes from the character’s friendly charisma, and his position of power.
Seriously, if you just gave those two the reins I would have been endlessly captivated.
There’s lots of other great acting here, too:
- Gordon Tootoosis is utterly heartbreaking as Red Cloud; it’s a much smaller part, but he makes it so impactful. Even in a crowded scene, his quiet presence commands your attention
- Trust Wes Studi to steal the show – his appearance as Wovoka transcends two worlds, a skill he’s mastered in recent years (see Seraphim Falls, and satirically in A Million Ways to Die in the West)
- J.K. Simmons is a master character actor, and here he welcomes your hatred as the despicable James McLaughlin
- Eric Schweig doesn’t get nearly enough time to flex his acting chops, but he still makes a strong impression as Gall
Then you have Adam Beach and Anna Paquin.
Beach is the captain of this ship, and I was excited to be on board. I’ve enjoyed every other performance of his that I’ve seen. I don’t know if it’s the overly dramatic dialogue in Bury My Heart or that Beach usually plays supporting roles. Either way, the authenticity was just lacking. Close, but not quite a win.
The real Charles Eastman did all the things you see in the movie and much more, but he wasn’t in the book – he was added to the movie script to help white audiences get behind the story, giving them a nice, safe character to bridge the two worlds and capture conflict in a way that wasn’t TOO challenging.
Yup, we still can’t take a history lesson from a Native.
Anna Paquin is just Anna Paquin. There’s not much different here from her other performances of the last decade, except an accent more questionable than that of Schitt’s Creek icon Moira Rose.
I can’t help but compare Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to Into the West, Steven Spielberg’s epic flop of a series with the same theme.
Both get props for using such a huge cast of actual Indigenous actors. But Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee succeeds in many places where that nine-hour groan fest fails. While Into the West drowned the Native stories in terrible white acting, at least Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee gives lots of time to Native perspective.
It’s also more realistic (despite its melodrama), and runs at just the right length to get the message across before it becomes a lecture. You feel the terrible tragedy of the events you’re watching, and that feeling lingers long after the end credits.
It’s still HBO. Characters rasp out impactful lines right as they die. I caught myself rolling my eyes at the heightened drama of a few monologues. But at the end of the day, you can’t help but appreciate the production value. HBO always comes through, and although this isn’t a gritty movie, it also doesn’t shy away from showing the deaths of innocent men, women, and children. The action is riveting, and the costuming is fantastic.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee won and was nominated for a crapload of awards, but seems to have drawn an extremely mixed bag of love-it-or-hate-it sentiment from Indigenous audiences.
I would definitely watch it again. I’m a huge fan of Aidan Quinn, and now of August Schellenberg. I just really wish the young leads were either better written, or better cast.