The Return of a Man Called Horse Review
Five years after A Man Called Horse, Richard Harris returned to the role of the aristocrat-turned-Sioux warrior for a self-explanatory titled sequel. In narrative terms, it is eight years since Lord John Morgan become Shunkawakan (i.e. Horse) and three years since he left the Yellow Hand tribe to return to England. Since that time the white trappers (led by archetypal white trash actor Geoffrey, father of Juliette, Lewis) have moved in, enslaving their women and removing them from their sacred ground.
The most important, indeed most promising, name on The Return of a Man Called Horse’s credits is Irvin Kershner’s. Though his career has been diverse enough to encompass collaborations with Barbra Streisand (Up the Sandbox) and Sean Connery (A Fine Madness, Never Say Never Again), it is his sequels which remain the key works. These include The Empire Strikes Back, of course, but there’s also RoboCop 2, a film which, though minor in comparison to the original, demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in merely cashing in. Indeed, compare them to Return of the Jedi, RoboCop 3 and, in this case, Triumphs of a Man Called Horse and gaps in quality – and intent - are quite immense. What with have with The Return of a Man Called Horse, then, is a piece which we can consider as at least trying to do something as a sequel even if it’s not wholly successful.
The major difficulty it has to contend with is the fact that, to a degree, much of what is on offer is simply a retread. And not just of A Man Called Horse either, but also 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, another Richard Harris Western written by Jack DeWitt. Yet as well as the familiarity this brings (once again Harris has to undergo the masochistic “Sun Vow” ceremony in order to prove his worth), such repetition also leads the filmmakers to make certain presumptions on the audience.
Indeed, it’s hard not to get the impression that Kershner et al fully believe that the audience will side with the Native Americans and as such never really develop their characters. Rather they go for an easy route not all that different from the one taken by filmmakers in the Western’s early days, albeit with a benign twist. Thus they are the eternal innocents, easily disposed of it narrative necessities require it (we never mourn their deaths here) and decidedly cartoon-ish in their simplicity. Furthermore, we also have the rather damning fact that it takes a white man to come along and give them the impetus to stop eating their dogs and start fighting back.
Such a patronising attitude would have been easier to overlook had The Return of a Man Called Horse more readily engaged in other Western tropes. Though ostensibly a revenge flick – it all builds to a final showdown with the trappers at their cannon-equipped fort – the film is too heavily geared towards its “progressive” dimensions to make this work. Indeed, the pace is far too deliberate for it to operate on the level of an action movie. And as such The Return of a Man Called Horse can be looked at in one of two ways: either the filmmakers wanted to make a serious piece but copped out and felt the need to pin on an action-packed finale; or they realised that their action-packed Western wasn’t really working and so wrapped it with half-arsed serious intentions. Either way it can be classed as a failure.
Another of MGM’s bare bones back catalogue releases, The Return of a Man Called Horse actually proves to be barer than most. Indeed, all we have here is the film, its original mono soundtrack and optional English HOH subtitles; even the multitude of languages has gone. Not that this makes for a better presentation, however. We do get the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and an anamorphic transfer, but there are signs of intermittent print damage and a rather washed out look to the whole thing. Of course, the latter could be intentional, but as it also infects the early England-set scenes as well, it is likely that this isn’t the case. As for the soundtrack, we get a decent enough offering of the original mono recording which copes ably with the dialogue and Laurence Rosenthal’s incessant score. Needless to say, any extras are non-existent.