Thirty years ago, two films were inspired by a violent clash that continues to have repercussions today.
In 1975, two FBI agents were killed during a shootout at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Four men were arrested but only one — Leonard Peltier — was tried and convicted. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.
Robert Redford, long an outspoken advocate for Native American rights and issues, was among those who believed Peltier did not receive a fair trial. After visiting Peltier in prison, Redford described the case as "a misapplication of justice."
"So that led to a long, long time of trying to help him," Redford recalled in a 2010 interview. "And then, finally, and I had lobbied in D.C. ..., I decided a film might be the better way to go, and if a documentary could be made about the injustice of his case, maybe that would help."
Val Kilmer (left) stars as one-quarter Sioux FBI agent Ray Levoi and Graham Greene (right) stars as tribal police officer Walter Crow Horse in director Michael Apted's 1992 crime thriller Thunderheart. Based on a true story, the movie features many South Dakota locations, including Badlands National Park, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Wounded Knee Cemetery.
Incident At Oglala
The film, released in 1992, was Incident at Oglala. Redford served as executive producer and narrator, and he recruited British-born Michael Apted to direct. "I thought, 'what an incredible story on so many levels,'" Apted said following a 2017 screening of the film at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, though he described the production as "dangerous" because scars left by a century of conflicts were still deeply felt on the reservation.
More than 100 years earlier, the last major armed conflict between the United States and the Plains Indians also unfolded at Pine Ridge, where more than 140 Indians (some sources place the death toll at more than 300) and more than 30 members of the 7th Cavalry were killed at the Battle of Wounded Knee. In 1973, 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) declared Wounded Knee the "Independent Oglala Sioux Nation" and vowed to stay until the U.S. government met AIM demands for a change in tribal leaders, a review of all Indian treaties, and a U.S. Senate investigation of treatment of Native Americans in general. The government responded by surrounding the siege with federal marshals, resulting in exchanges of gunfire and the deaths of two Native Americans.
Incident at Oglala recounts this violent history, as well as the contentious conflicts at Pine Ridge between AIM supporters and the authorized tribal government, dubbed the "Guardians of the Oglala Nation" (GOONs). The film documents how the FBI supported the GOONs with weapons, while observing that in the five years before the FBI shootout, more than 55 people had been murdered on the reservation — cases all classified as "unsolved."
"Redford and his team make no claim for Peltier's guilt or innocence. The issue is whether Peltier received a fair trial, and the evidence they've amassed is impressively damning," wrote one reviewer. The film earned just $536,00 and never played in more than 12 theaters across the United States.
Screenwriter John Fusco witnessed the skirmishes between the GOONs and AIM firsthand. For five years he lived at the Pine Ridge reservation, researching a script that would become Thunderheart.
"It was an accident that I got asked to do Thunderheart," Oglala director Michael Apted said in a 1992 interview. "When I got the script...and I was in the middle of preparing the documentary, I thought, 'holy Toledo, I can't believe it. Here's a fictional piece about the documentary I'm doing.'"
Val Kilmer starred as buttoned-down FBI agent Ray Levoi, who is dispatched to South Dakota to investigate the murder of Lakota tribal council member Leo Fast Elk. Levoi's boss, played by one-time U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, hopes that Levoi's part-Sioux heritage will make it easier for him to earn the trust of the community.
Levoi is joined in his investigation by veteran agent Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard). He also receives unsolicited advice from tribal police officer Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene), a man with one foot in the culture of his ancestors and one in the modern world. As suspects are found and lost, Levoi discovers a deeper understanding of his heritage.
Director Michael Apted was a regular visitor to the Pine Ridge Reservation.
In of the key scenes, Levoi tells Crow Horse about the dream:
Ray Levoi: Just before they caught Jimmy, I had a dream. I was running with other Indians at the Wounded Knee Cemetery. I was shot in the back.
Walter Crow Horse: You were running with the old ones at the Knee?
Ray Levoi: It was just a dream.
Walter Crow Horse: Who the hell are you, man?
Ray Levoi: What do you mean?
Walter Crow Horse: You had yourself a vision. A man waits a long time to have a vision, and he may go his whole life without having one. Then along comes some instant Indian with a f—king Rolex and a brand-new pair of shoes. A goddamn FBI to top it all off, has himself a vision.
After the disturbing vision, Crow Horse tells Levoi that he is a "Thunderheart," a Native American hero slain at Wounded Knee, who is now reincarnated to deliver them from their current troubles.
"The [heart of the] movie is Val Kilmer's development from this rather cold, ruthless FBI agent to a man you feel at the end is at peace with himself and knows who he is, which is a journey all of us take at some point of our lives," Apted said.
Thunderheart came out on the heels of 1991's Academy Award winner Dances With Wolves, which Kilmer felt enabled Thunderheart. The release came in between The Doors (1991), in which Kilmer played Jim Morrison, and Tombstone (1993), in which he played Doc Holliday. The other two movies might have brought more acclaim, but Thunderheart arguably hit closer to home. "My father's grandmother was Cherokee," Kilmer said at a press conference around the release of the film. "He was raised on reservation land in New Mexico for most of his youth, so I grew up with stories that were real-life, romantic stories of the Wild West. ...A lot of the stories that my father told me that happened to him when he was a kid are quite vivid and got me interested in Indians."
The first contemporary movie permitted to film on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Thunderheart shot for 10 weeks in the Badlands — the site of 1890's Wounded Knee Massacre — in brutal 100-degree weather. The "killer flies and killer dust storms and killer rain" ("killer everything," Kilmer recalled) made strong impressions, but the most indelible was the people. "The remarkable thing about the Sioux, or the Native Americans, is their incredible power," Kilmer said. "Even before I started filming [Thunderheart], I found it impossible to believe how anyone could keep their sense of humor in such blight."
To add authenticity to the film, the director cast several locals. One was John Trudell as Jimmy Looks Twice, the first man suspected of murdering Leo Fast Elk. From 1973 to 1979, when the tensions depicted in Incident Oglala took place, Trudell was the chairman and chief spokesperson of the American Indian Movement (AIM), as well as a major figure in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.
Thunderheart, with Graham Greene and Val Kilmer, thinly fictionalized the true story told in director Michael Apted's 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala.
"He was an inspiration to me in making [Incident of Oglala] about Leonard Peltier's fight for justice, so much so that I cast him as the charismatic Indian leader in Thunderheart," Apted said. "There wasn't an untruthful moment in his performance."
It was Trudell who delivered the most memorable speech in the film, when Levoi encourages him to run. "Sometimes they have to kill us," he responds, "because they can't break our spirit."
Thunderheart received mostly positive reviews and was a modest box office hit. "Thunderheart was better-informed from the fact that I did the documentary. The souls of both the films were the same," Apted said.
While both films brought new attention to the case of Leonard Peltier, he remans in prison 45 years after his conviction. Now almost 78 and in poor health, he continues to be on the minds of many who are advocating for his release and clemency.
Graham Greene remembers Thunderheart...
Contentious issues that inspire passionate debate still pervade the events surrounding Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart. But Graham Greene prefers to leave those conversations to others. "I live in Canada, and I don't discuss politics that I know nothing about," he told C&I in a phone interview.
Greene was unaware of Apted's documentary when he played the role of Walter Crow Horse, but he has fond memories of the character: "Crow Horse was a wise guy who knew what was happening but never really let on. He could play dumb when it suited him and always seemed to have the information needed and shared it when the FBI were going off track."
Despite the downbeat subjects explored, Greene enjoyed his time on location.
"The people I met were great. I love that part of the world. It always draws me back," he said. "I couldn't say if [the movies] changed life on Pine Ridge. I hope things have changed. It never really inspired my life; I just had a ball hanging out with the crew and local people. As a performer, I can't stay attached to one thing very long. There is a point when you have to let go and move on."
Photography couresy of Alamy Stock Photo.