The “Native American Images on Film” series on Turner Classic Movies continues with Thunderheart, the Michael Apted-directed 1992 Hollywood thriller inspired by the real-life events at Wounded Knee in the early 1970s, when the collision of members of the American Indian Movement and the FBI agents became a weeks-long siege. I write about it for TCM here.
Val Kilmer puts on the Raybans to play taciturn and loyal FBI agent Ray Levoi, whose Indian ancestry (Levoi’s father was part Sioux) are all the qualifications the feds care about when they send him to investigate a murder on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The young, handsome Kilmer had attained the status of movie star the previous year playing Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). While make-up adds just a hint of duskiness to his complexion, Kilmer’s own ancestry includes Cherokee blood. Levoi, however, has spent his life denying his Indian blood and the assignment only rouses his resentments (one local dubs him the “Washington redskin”). It, of course, makes him a prime candidate for a spiritual reawakening, guided by dedicated tribal cop Walter Crow Horse (the dryly witty Graham Greene, who was previously an Academy Award® nominee for his supporting role in Dances with Wolves ) and the tribal medicine man Grandpa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk). As Ray digs into the murder case, he discovers the evidence doesn’t support the FBI’s theory, which has blamed the murder on the local leader of the militant Aboriginal Rights Movement, or ARM (a fictionalized version of the real-life American Indian Movement, aka AIM). More telling, Ray’s new boss Frank “Cooch” Coutelle (Sam Shepard) doesn’t even care, which sends Ray digging even deeper into a conspiracy that challenges his allegiance to the FBI (“the Federal Bureau of Intimidation,” as Walter dubs them).
Read the complete feature here. Plays on TCM on Thursday, May 20. Also available on DVD.