a man called horse title

The Two A Man Called Horses

Nineteen Seventy Two’s MAN FROM DEEP RIVER was heavily influenced by 1970’s A MAN CALLED HORSE. This earlier film was actually based on a 1950 short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. There are some hilarious and/or unfortunate missed-the-point-style differences between the film A MAN CALLED HORSE and the original story. My writing about them right now might seem slightly out of place in a review of MFDR, but the cannibal movie makes a lot more sense within this context of missed points and altered emphases. There’s actually a story to tell in the progression (or regression, but, I swear, not digression) of these misunderstandings.

The Short Story

“A Man Called Horse” was originally published in Dorothy M. Johnson’s collection Indian Country.
After the story was made into a film, the title Indian Country was dropped.

Johnson’s story¹ is a beautiful, simply told narrative about the growth of a human being — literally a transformation of a man who must be stripped of all his humanity before he can learn what being a human means. The man who the reader only ever knows as Horse gets captured by Indians who treat him like a horse. He eventually learns to shoot a bow, and with the new skill he succeeds in killing a member of a rival tribe and claiming the dead man’s horses as his own. With the horses he’s able to marry the daughter of the mean old lady who owns him. His new wife becomes pregnant but dies giving birth. Meanwhile Horse’s brother- in-law loses his honor and dies in battle to regain it. At this point Horse has acquired enough experience and tools to make it back to civilization, but he stays because his mother-in-law, now without a daughter or son, will die without someone to take care of her.

miss-the-point2The film for the most part follows the same broad outline, but changes some things, adds some other things, and gets pretty much everything wrong.

And if we can understand why and how the film gets so much wrong we will be in a better position to understand the problems of MFDR.

The Search for Something

“I wish to be a Red Indian. That is what I truly wish to be-ee-ee.”

First of all, the film’s Horse, one John Morgan (for the sake of convenience, hereafter called Film Horse), is a member of the British nobility who gives up his titles and wealth to search for . . . “something” — a wistful and never clearly stated something. “Looking, just looking,” he says when asked what the hell he’s doing in the American wilderness.

Film Horse’s experience with the Indians earns him a place as a leader in the group and he gains the respect of his new peers. At the end of the movie we get the sense that he has found the “something” he was looking for. What else could this “something” be but the chance to have earned all of the titles and privileges that birth had merely given?

“But even among the horses he felt unequal. They were able to look out for themselves if they escaped. He would simply starve. He was envious still, even among the horses.”

He basically gets back in Indian form all the things he had given up in White Man form.

On the other hand, Johnson’s story’s Horse (hereafter called Story Horse) is not a wealthy British nobleman but rather just “a young man from a good family,” who knew the comfort and privilege of wealth. He heads west because “he had the idea that in Indian country, where there was danger, all white men were kings, and he wanted to be one of them.”

What Story Horse is looking for is exactly what Film Horse already had — entitlement, power, and position. Film Horse on the other hand is ultimately searching for the authorization of the wealth and power he was given at birth. What Film Horse earns is something completely different than what Story Horse learns, and it’s something less powerful, less moving, and less profound.

At the end of the short story, Story Horse doesn’t get exactly what he’s looking for; he finds something better.  And ironically, it turns out that what he ends up with is –in a way he would have never predicted — actually what he was looking for. Part of what he learns can be stated like this: Story Horse discovers that everything Film Horse was searching for and eventually found in his Indian life are completely worthless.

So in a sense, the film version of A MAN CALLED HORSE extols everything that the short story criticizes.

How Being a Horse is Like Being a Man

"He thought of trying to escape, hoping he might be killed in flight rather than by slow torture in the camp, but he never had a chance to try."
“He thought of trying to escape, hoping he might be killed in flight rather than by slow torture in the camp, but he never had a chance to try.”

Once captured Story Horse is treated like a horse. Better a horse than a dog, though. He refuses to let himself be turned into a dog, and so he learns to do without pride. Pride leads to anger, and a man who is proud learns to strike back. If he struck back “that would be the end of him.” Becoming a horse teaches him forbearance.

“While he was healing, he considered coldly the advantages of being a horse. A man would be humiliated, and sooner or later he would strike back and that would be the end of him. But a horse had only to be docile. Very well, he would learn to do without pride.”

We don’t see this attitude in Film Horse. He stays an irascible, prideful man who is quick to shed anything horse-like about his new position in life. “I’m not a horse! I’m a man!” he shouts. He learns nothing from being a horse. Instead he clings to his manhood.

Here is the definite moral fork in the road. Story Horse accepts his lot and learns from it and changes. Film Horse is all resistance, pride, will, and strength; he doesn’t change, except to become more resistant, proud, willful and strong .

Killing a Sick Man

“This is the way the captive white man acquired wealth and honor to win a bride and save his life: He shot an arrow into the sick man, a split second ahead of one of his small companions, and dashed forward to strike the still-groaning man with his bow, to count first coup.”

Both Horses are looking for an opportunity to better their position within the tribe. The chance comes for both when they kill a member of the enemy Shoshone tribe. How they accomplish this says much about how the two stories view the act.

Film Horse leaps off a cliff onto a Shoshone warrior, grapples with him in deadly man-to-man combat, then sticks him in the neck with his blade. There’s a moment where he looks with moral suspicion upon what he’s just done, but that doesn’t stop him from chasing down a second Shoshone who is fleeing from the scene. This time he cuts the scalp from the victims head. It gains him not only the respect of the tribesmen but two lovely stallions which he needs to marry the beautiful maiden. It’s also his ticket to the initiation ceremony that will make him part of the tribe.

Kill #2.

Compare this to the short story’s depiction of the same scene. Story Horse and some children spot a sick Shoshone warrior laying on the ground moaning.

This is the way the captive white man acquired wealth and honor to win a bride and save his life: He shot an arrow into the sick man, a split second ahead of one of his small companions, and dashed forward to strike the still-groaning man with his bow, to count first coup. Then he seized the hobbled horses.

There’s nothing even remotely heroic about the act.

In a scene reminiscent of LAST SAMURAI, the white man saves the day by teaching the natives modern Calvary tactics.

Soon after this, Film Horse kills with alacrity when a Shoshone war party attacks the village in a huge battle scene which was not part of the original story.

Part of the Tribe

With the two Stallions, Film Horse now has everything he needs to marry his native chickadee. There’s only one thing left to do: Get suspended by hooks from the roof of the meeting house² .

In Johnson’s story, Horse’s scars have a different source: Mourning like a woman, he slices his arms to prevent his mother in law from hacking her last few fingers off. “Piteously she approached him, bent and trembling, blind with grief. She held out her knife and he took it. . . .She spread out her hands and shook her head. If she cut off any more finger joints, she could do no more work. She could not afford any more lasting signs of grief. . . . He hacked his arms with the knife and stood watching the blood run down. . . . When I get home, I must not let them see the scars.”

The initiation ritual is completely absent from the short story. In fact, any kind of initiation would have been completely out of keeping with the tone of Johnson’s story. The idea of Horse’s being accepted by the tribe wasn’t the point at all. He was always on the fringe.

The film, incidentally, is almost an encomium of Native Americanism. The story, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the tribe within which Story Horse has to find a means of survival is no better or worse than any other society — that it, like any other place, is filled with proud and stupid people. One theme that might be read in the story is that the praise or lack of praise of these people means nothing.

Consider Horse’s brother-in-law  who, after his wife leaves him for another man, wants his pride back so badly he dies to regain it, meanwhile leaving his mother and sister. He abandons all the responsibility he owes to his family in order to fulfill the foolish desire to regain his reputation³.

So, perhaps as much a result of not wanting to offend any Native Americans as of wanting to romanticize Indian life, the film version of A Man Called Horse has Horse gain acceptance and his “something” within the tribe, rather than, like Story Horse, finding the strength to withstand the siren calls of pride and popularity (both within the Indian tribe and the tribe of white people he must return to) in the empathy he feels for an abandoned and unloved old woman. This is something fundamentally anti-tribe.

“I’m Going to be Chief!”

It’s good to be head horse.

Before Film Horse undergoes his initiation ritual he shouts to the assembled higher-ups of the tribe, “One day I will be a chief!”

This might have been suggested by this passage from the short story:

“You heathens, you savages,” he shouted. “I’m going to get out of here someday! I am going to get away!” The Crow people listened respectfully. In the Crow tongue he shouted, “Horse! I am Horse!” and they nodded.

What’s at stake is the obvious point that Story Horse isn’t interested in being chief. All he wants is to get out. He’s not interested in climbing the Native American corporate ladder. And he embrases the very symbol of his low status, in sharp contrasts to Film Horse’s “I’m not a horse! I’m a man!”

Nothing Keeps him in the Camp Except the Old Woman

Finally in the climax we see the most important difference between film and story. This distinction dramatically underscores the missed-the-pointism of the film, and it shows how this misconception creates the skewed emphasis of narrative that MFDR would inherit and use to twist into heroism the assholish chauvinism of John Harris.

Towards the end of the film, Film Horse develops a sense of responsibility for, or identity with⁴, the tribe. At this point, when the lame trapper suggests that Horse might soon be able to take advantage of the tribe’s weakness to make his escape, he turns angrily to his fool of a servant⁵ and shouts angrily, “Have you learned nothing!” This marks the point at which the filmmakers have completely and utterly abandonment the original story. If you’ve read the story and expected the filmmakers had too, you want to turn angrily to them and shout the same line.

Horse's mother-in-law doesn't so much die as she just sorta sinks out of frame. I guess it's symbolic? It deosn't really matter, because she
Horse’s mother-in-law doesn’t so much die as she just sorta sinks out of frame. I guess it’s symbolic? It doesn’t really matter anyway, because at this point she’s just more of a loose end than a character.

What is surely the most important part of the short story, the three years Horse defers his return in order to care for a sickly fingerless shrew, is glossed over in a short scene in the film, where she dies quickly and conveniently. The film places the emphasis not on her but on the tribe. The old lady is just one part of the tribe that he is staying to help.

Here’s how the story explains why he stays.

Greasy Hand stood before him, bowed with years, withered with unceasing labor, loveless and childless, scarred with grief. But with all her burdens, she still loved life enough to beg it from him, the only person she had any right to ask. She was stripping herself of all she had left, her pride.

He looked eastward across the prairie. Two thousand miles away was home. The old woman would not live forever. He could afford to wait, for he was young. He could afford to be magnanimous, for he knew he was a man. He gave her the answer. “Eegya,” he said. “Mother.”


The story ends with these lines:

He went home three years later. He explained no more than to say, “I lived with Crows for a while. It was some time before I could leave. They called me Horse.”

He did not find it necessary either to apologize or to boast, because he was the equal of any man on earth.

The film, on the other hand, ends with Horse riding off to civilization accompanied by a hunting party. He lets out one last hearty native cry to the rest of the tribe who have gathered in the valley below to see him off. They return his huzzah, expressing no doubt their admiration, acceptance, and gratitude, and Horse rides off triumphantly into the sunset.


Who doesn’t love a big Hollywood ending?


 So, all this and I haven’t even mentioned the cannibals.

There’s an irony in the progression from Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story to an Italian cannibal film. In Part III we’ll find out how this irony explains why the character of John Harris in MFDR is such a colossal dick.



¹ You can find the text here. Assuming  I know how to make hyperlinks work. All quotes come from that source. The captions are from the story only where they are obviously from the story.

² This is the Okipa ceremony. A real ceremony that was really practiced by real Lakota.

³ This whole brother-in-law subplot is brilliant with irony. In order to regain the pride he’s lost from being abandoned by his wife he abandons the two women he’s closest to. And this whole search to regain his honor echoes or even parodies Horse’s original departure from civilization.

⁴ Or something. I’m not exactly sure when and how Film Horse’s attitude changed. I get the feeling that there was a turning point in there somewhere, but maybe it happened when I wasn’t paying attention or they forgot to film it.

⁵ The fact, incidentally, that this servant/master relationship is actually acknowledged within the film is hilarious and inappropriate, but underscores the message of the film: Rank is real; ranked is earned; rank is worth earning. Compare with the last words of the short story, quoted in the next section.

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