In 1970, a simple tale of A Man Called Horse galloped its way onto the silver screen to shock audiences across near and far. With the Hays Production Code demolished and the MPAA now in full effect, filmmakers were at last able to make sprawling western adventure epics replete with gore and nudity. Because, well, after all, that’s what made the Wild West so darn wild. Alas, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch had beaten the film to the screen (and fared much better at the box office), so copious amounts of violence (by the standards of the time) weren’t entirely new to viewers. What wasdifferent, however, was the film’s brutal initiation sequence wherein star Richard Harris ‒ who joins a Native American tribe after being captured and tortured by them ‒ was hung up by his pecs.
In Europe, A Man Called Horse‘s success amazingly, unintentionally inspired an entire subgenre of Italian horror movies. Stateside, however, the film garnered a fair share of both criticism and respect from various sides of the racial coin: some said it was too white, others said it honored the Sioux peoples it depicted. But by the time The Return of a Man Called Horse ‒ which wouldn’t be too out of place if featured in the “Sequels Nobody Asked For” category in Michael J. Weldon’s defunct Psychotronic Video magazine ‒ premiered in 1976, most of the admiration present in the original had shifted to another source: its star. For The Return of a Man Called Horse feels like it was made solely to give Richard Harris something to obsess about himself over as he absorbed himself in it.
The film opens with the Yellow Hands Sioux being all-but massacred by white trappers, as led by Geoffrey Lewis, who eagerly employ nearby Rickaree Indians to do much of their dirty work. Meanwhile, back in England, wealthy aristocrat Richard Harris ‒ who has lost all of the great spirit within him since returning home (a colorful metaphor for impotence?) ‒ feels the death and horror of his people. And any time Richard Harris feels anything ‒ be it he feels pain, feels happiness, feels indifference, or he (God forbid) feels like singing ‒ you can bet your bottom dollar there will be moments of whispering immediately followed by screaming (something only the comedic genius of SCTV‘s own Dave Thomas could perfectly parody). But then again, that is what we love about Richard Harris, isn’t it?
Sadly, Harris’ sequel ‒ which he himself co-produced with Sandy Howard (who was well on the way to making exploitation movies already) ‒ didn’t think too terribly much about the other people that made the first film successful. In fact, there’s nary a supporting cast member from the original to be found here. It’s not entirely suspicious, considering much of the film was shot in Mexico (to take advantage of filming costs, to say nothing of a nicer climate). The casting of Mexican actors as Native Americans, however, is. As is the weird recasting of the only returning character ‒ an aged Indian lass named Elk Woman ‒ who is portrayed here by a formerly blacklisted Gale Sondergaard. Previously, the part had been played by Russian-born Tamara Garina (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), who died in Mexico City three years later.
So, back to the actual film itself, our protagonist returns to his adopted tribe in the Dakotas (well, Mexico) to find his haunting vision was in fact a disturbing reality. It doesn’t take him long to differentiate the trappers’ story of the Yellow Hands’ disappearance, and before you can say “training montage,” the great white hope of a now-humiliated, decimated indigenous people is hanging himself up by his pecs in order to fuel not only his waning masculinity, but to inspire his co-stars to overact, too. And yet, despite all of the whitewashing, the brownwashing, the fact the film isn’t quite as good as the first (it’s certainly better than the third and final feature, Triumphs of a Man Called Horse, which has never been released on DVD), The Return of a Man Called Horse is still a highly entertaining western picture.
Capably directed by Irvin Kershner (Never Say Never Again), the film impressed George Lucas enough to hire the latter to helm The Empire Strikes Back, which is largely considered to be the best Star Wars film. Kershner’s attention to detail and realism, combined with TV composer Laurence Rosenthal’s string-heavy score, and one very determined lead actor at the tail-end of his western-adventure phase (also see Harris’ precursor to The Revenant, 1971’s Man in the Wilderness) is what ultimately makes The Return of a Man Called Horse worth your while. It isn’t a grand scale epic by any means (although it certainly tries its best to look like such), but, to be perfectly frank, I found it much more enjoyable than Dances with Wolves.
William Lucking and Claudio Brook co-star (in small parts with big billing) as two of Geoffrey Lewis’ trading-post baddies (with the versatile Mexican actor Brook effectively portraying a Frenchman for some reason), and Jorge Luke, Jorge Russek, Enrique Lucero, Regino Herrera, and Patricia Reyes Spíndo playing Native Americans. Olive Films rescues this oft-ignored sequel from one of cinema’s lesser-explored trilogies from moratorium (the MGM DVD went out of print years ago) via a new 1080p presentation, which sports a trailer as its sole extra. Olive’s picture is very clear and clean. In fact, it is so clear and clean overall, the prosthetic appliances used during the excruciatingly long re-initiation sequence stand out like, well, Mexican actors playing Sioux Indians.
But it’s still a fun way to waste the better part of two hours. Plus, hearing Richard Harris go from a whisper to a scream in the same sentence is always a delight. Of course, now I’m sort of hoping someone will release Triumphs of a Man Called Horse on DVD or Blu-ray someday. (Sure it was bad, but those old Thorn EMI videocassettes aren’t exactly getting easier to come by!)