June 12, 2006 -- I had not heard of this 1998 movie starring Wes Studi, but was intrigued by the title, one of three on a VHS tape I bought recently at a flea market. Wind River is a name well-known to Wyoming residents. It is the name given to river, a huge mountain range, and a large Indian reservation shared by the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes. It turns out this movie does have a lot to do with Wyoming history, unfortunately, it was filmed in Utah, but the scenery kind of looks like Wyoming.
The film is based on the books “The White Indian Boy” and “The Return of the White Indian Boy” by Elijah Nicholas Wilson, a legendary figure of the Intermountain West. Nicholas not only lived for several years among the Shoshones, but he was also a trapper, Army scout, and one of the original Pony Express riders. The town of Wilson, Wyoming is named after him. This film concentrates on the years he lived with the Shoshone, but does include some footage of him riding the Pony Express route. The film is a combination of history and Indian mysticism. It includes some very famous historical characters, including the great Shoshone chief, Washakie (a town and county in Wyoming are named after him) and the great Shoshone warrior Pocatello (you know what is named after him).
The film opens with Wilson's pony express ride, but quickly goes into a flashback to his childhood days and a dream sequence. The dream sequence is pivotal to the story as Chief Washakie (played well by former American Indian Movement activist Russell Means) sends out his warriors to find a white boy. Washakie's wife has dreamed that a white boy will save him. The warriors, led by Moragoni (A. Martinez of “Pow Wow Highway”) find Wilson (played by Blake Heron of “We Were Soldiers”), and are astonished to find the boy already speaks Goshiute, which he had learned from his friend, a young Indian boy. Moragoni tells Wilson that they will take him back to live with the Shoshoni if he appears at the meeting place the next dawn. Wilson, who is fed up with farm life, and who dreams of being a great adventurer, leaves his family and rides off with the warriors. He does, indeed, find adventure.
For several years, Wilson learns the ways of the Shoshone. He learns to hurl a tomahawk and to shoot arrows, and he learns horsemanship. He is taken in by Chief Washakie, and Moragoni becomes his mentor. He witnesses a battle between the Crow tribe and the Shoshones. There are some funny scenes as Wilson struggles to learn the rules of Shoshone society. He seems to have a lot of trouble understanding the role of women, who repeatedly reject his attempts to help them gather firewood.
While Wilson is living this somewhat idyllic life, his brother, Sylvester (played by Devon Gummersall) has been looking all over for him. Sylvester evidently feels guilty about his brother leaving the farm since he was very hard on his younger brother. Sylvester searches alone across thousands of square miles, trying to find some clue of his missing brother. The family assumes that the boy was kidnapped by Indians. They did not know he left willingly.
This film tells a story of the clash of cultures between Native Americans and early settlers in a much more gentle way than one usually sees in this kind of film. The violence between the two cultures happens off screen. The main violence in the film is the battle between the Shoshone and the Crow. The emphasis here is on how much alike these people are, despite their vastly different cultures. The acting is good by all the principles. The best known actress in the film, Karen Allen (best known for her starring role in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) has a very small role as Wilson's mother. Wes Studi of “The New World”) plays the warrior Pocatello. He is one of the heavies in this film, a role in which he excels. He isn't as menacing a villain as he was in “The Last of the Mohicans,” but he is a very strong presence in this film. According to the film's credits, some of Wilson's ancestors appear in this film, although no one with the name Wilson appears in the credits.
The film seems to be aimed directly at the youth and adolescent audience, but it is tolerable for adults. The story is somewhat compelling once it gets going, but it sputters a lot at first. The best scenes are shot with the Shoshone, either at camp or on the move. The film also puts location photography in Utah to good use. It does give the viewer some insight on Native American culture. That is a lot more than most westerns have to offer on this subject. This film rates a C+.
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