The Memorial Day weekend timing of the premiere of HBO’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is entirely appropriate. The massacre of about 300 members of the Lakota Sioux tribe at a camp near the banks of Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota occurred on Dec. 29, 1890. Memorial Day is, of course, the federal holiday designated to honor the memory of our nation’s war dead. The men, women and children killed at Wounded Knee that day inhabited their own sovereign nation, but they are most definitely “our” war dead. They were slaughtered by U.S. Army soldiers, without direct provocation and without much in the way to defend themselves. They are war victims that we as a nation should never forget.
pictured above, "Wounded Knee" producer Dick Wolf, left, and actor August Schellenberg, who plays Sitting Bull.
The reasons behind the indefensible slaughter in South Dakota, coming as part of the federal government’s sys-tematic campaign to corral and exterminate, or at least neutralize, Native American tribes, are varied and complex. They defy easy categorization of either side into “good guys” and “bad guys,” as detailed in historian Dee Brown’s landmark 1971 book on which the Dick Wolf/Tom Thayer-produced telepic is loosely based.
There were certainly economic motivations. The territory held by Native American tribes under decades-old treaties with the U.S. were increasingly coveted by the feds as land to accommodate settlers, for railway rights and for the gold and other natural resources discovered in fertile areas a la the Black Hills of South Dakota. The wide gulf of cultural differences between white settlers and Native Americans only reinforced suspicions and conflicts on both sides.
Much of it came down to 19th century America's fervent, ethnocentric belief in Manifest Destiny. The mindset, even among those who were sympathetic to the Native Americans’ plight, was that the American way of life needed to be projected on to the diverse and far-flung 500 nations at virtually any cost, to ensure their salvation and to stop the warring that cost many lives in both factions of the conflict.
The Wolf/Thayer rendition of “Wounded Knee,” which bows May 27, has taken some hits from historians, Native American organizations and activists and even from author Brown’s heirs. The complaints center around storytelling liberties taken with some events, some historical characters and for focusing part of the film on a love story between a college-educated Sioux doctor and a good-hearted schoolteacher (played by Adam Beach and Anna Paquin, pictured).
But the movie does not pull punches in getting across the central message that it was a collective sense of superiority and a desire to make the most of economic opportunities in the untamed West, no matter what the old Indian treaties delineated, that allowed one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history to unfold in the late 1800s.
Wolf believes that is a message that should resonate with audiences today, at a time when America is at war in the Middle East and generally grappling with its role in a world.
“Time and again, we as a country seem to feel it’s part of our Manifest Destiny to prove that our way is better than theirs,” Wolf said. “I hope people will watch this film and look at how it resonates down through history.”
Brown’s book had particular im-pact when it was first released because of its uncompromising detail in telling the story of from the Native Americans’ point of view, and it came at a time when the U.S. was embroiled in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.
“The losers don’t usually write the history books,” Wolf says. “And then came this blistering look at the cultural genocide that we had inflicted that was little known at the time. It had incredible impact, because it was not a white-wash for either side.”
Wolf points with pride to a scene in the “Wounded Knee” pic where Sitting Bull (in an Emmy-bait powerful portrayal by August Schellenberg, pictured left) sits down on a blanket in an effort to reach détente with a hawkish Army colonel, and the two spar about which side is really the aggressor and which had the first claim to the land.
The colonel reminds Sitting Bull of the well-documented examples of Sioux aggression against rival tribes for their own material gain, while Sitting Bull shoots back that at least they managed to respect cultural differences, unlike those who were forcing Native Americans onto reservations and insisting that their children take “Christian” names.
“Wounded Knee” was a project six years in the making for Thayer, the former Universal Television president who recruited his longtime pal Wolf to executive produce the project early on. Wolf initially thought the book was “unfilmable,” but worth trying, and the two stuck with the project even after it was downsized by HBO from a planned six-hour mini to four hours to the final single pic that runs two hours and 20 minutes. Wolf heaps praise on screenwriter Daniel Giat for finding the way to tell a slice of the story that was narrow enough to be compelling but also touched on the larger issues and forces at work. Director Yves Simoneau (pictured below) did a masterful job of wrangling the production during the 39-day shoot in the wilds of Calgary, Wolf says.
“Wounded Knee” was a rich, wide-open canvas for the producer who is known for sticking to the confines of Manhattan in his “Law & Order” television empire. Wolf had never done a period piece before, and it was a heady experience traveling out in the middle of nowhere last fall to their re-created Indian village set full of teepees and extras riding horses bareback.
To even Wolf’s surprise, “Wounded Knee” came in on time and on budget, despite the significant scope of a picture that spans 25 years and numerous locations.
“Nobody did this one for the money,” Wolf says. “We came in right on budget, and frankly I don’t think I would’ve taken that bet when we started.”