justin eagle gauthier | yl voice | nov. 2016
Let's go back. Back to a time when streaming video over a high-speed wireless internet connection was only happening on reruns of “Star Trek: The Original Series." Back when a Blu-ray was something shot from a UFO in “War of the Worlds." Back to an era before cable television invaded living rooms and a full two years before Americans would be able to purchase the first VHS player. I'm talking about 1975. If you're of a certain age, you may remember when TV was (to borrow millennial parlance) everything. If you happened to be tuned into ABC's Movie of the Week on Monday, April 14th, 1975, you would have watched a biopic of the legendary Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph entitled “I Will Fight No More Forever."
Why would I review a 1975 made for television movie? Simple: it stands apart from other “Indian" films of the era in casting and production value. Lead actor and enrolled Chitimacha tribal member, Ned Romero delivered an impassioned yet reserved performance as the legendary Nez Perce leader. The supporting cast features a strong roster of character actors of the era including a young Sam Elliott who made a sympathetic turn as Charles Erskine Scott Wood.
If you are a fan of westerns and biopics, this film is a unique blending of the two genres. It manages to portray the real tragedy and loss experienced by the Nez Perce people as it showcases their indomitability under the inspirational leadership of Joseph. It achieves this through nuanced, humanizing performances from both the main character and his supporting cast. It must have been unnerving for non-native viewers on that April night in 1975 to see Native Americans repeatedly defeat and outwit the U.S. Army while the protagonist heroically sacrifices his own freedom for the safety of his people.
While I'll freely admit, the forced and regrettably stilted dialogue is clunky and that I cringed at some of the music cues, I think we should admire the considerable job of filmmaking and dedication to detail-oriented storytelling. Things like the period regalia felt genuine and the portrayal of Joseph as a thoughtful, principled man of and for his people went a long way towards casting Indigenous people in a positive light.
In my opinion, this story is ripe to be retold by one of the emerging class of outstanding Native filmmakers; crewed, cast and produced entirely by Native people complementing the diversity of nations on this continent. Yet for now, this forty-year-old version stands as an excellent example of a thoughtful and more human mode of storytelling. Thankfully, it's available to stream right to your computer. In 2016 the power of 1975 cinema is one click away, but the stories we set our browsers to have the potential to be timeless.
Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.