Catherine Weldon, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, movies, Sitting Bull, Woman Walks Ahead
In Woman Walks Ahead, Catherine Weldon, a thirtysomething painter from New York, travels to the Dakota territory to meet the living legend Sitting Bull and paint his portrait. The film’s good intentions combine with Hollywood imperatives to produce a pleasant entertainment, where there could have been so much more.
The filmmakers want Weldon to be an independent woman, and at first, they seem to uphold a feminist message, when she is shown tossing a portrait of her hated late husband into the river. The problem is that making Catherine a strong, knowledgeable or wise person might conflict with their most important goal, to assign all these qualities to Sitting Bull. (Because the man and woman can’t both be strong and wise, right?) Above all, the filmmakers want to avoid the “white savior” trap of so many other Hollywood films about Native Americans. So Weldon must be rendered sufficiently feminine not to be a threat. She must be made ignorant, naive, and emotionally fragile. Oh, and did I mention that she’s deathly afraid of horses? Yet determined to travel in the West? During the mid-nineteenth century? No worries: Sitting Bull has improbably dainty feet, and loans her his butter-soft moccasins! I’m surprised he doesn’t give her a foot massage.
Within the storyline itself, Sitting Bull recognizes that his own culture subordinates women. The one time Catherine ventures a suggestion in front of the other Hunkpapa Lakota, he explains that he cannot appear to take instruction from a woman; he must wait a few moments before speaking in order to avoid that inference. How ironic, then, that the filmmakers themselves accept this tactic as legitimate, and dutifully erase Weldon’s historical role as his advisor.
The film bends over backward to deny that Catherine might know anything about Indian affairs, land values, politics, and treaties, or that she might be able to competently advise Sitting Bull. (In real life, one of her principal contributions as an activist was to provide information on such matters.) The real Weldon was a lifelong advocate for Native Americans, who rejected Victorian sexual mores, dumping her husband and bearing a son by her lover. Of course, none of this could be allowed to stand. The film’s Weldon is a childless widow, untainted by scandal and ignorant of politics, who impulsively travels to Standing Rock in the hope of painting the great man’s portrait. The real-life Catherine learned Lakota well enough to act as Sitting Bull’s translator and secretary, but throughout the film, Catherine is constantly asking, “What did he say?” “What’s going on?” “What just happened?” The filmmakers deserve credit for a respectful, authentic treatment of the Lakota language, and certain moments are very effective, as when Sitting Bull gives a rousing speech (translated by McLaughlin’s wife). Yet some of the scenes of untranslated Lakota speech are so lengthy that they break the dramatic illusion. Forcing the viewer to experience Catherine’s cluelessness makes a valid point, but a little of this goes a long way.
Woman Walks Ahead includes a few moments of gritty realism, which are undeniably powerful, and timely, even if they seem to belong to a different movie. When Weldon announces her intention to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, one of the white men spits in her face, and hopes she will be raped and murdered. Later a group of townsmen administer a vicious beating, to punish her for getting too cozy with the enemy. This appears to be an embroidery on history, but the locals’ hostility toward Weldon was real. The press pilloried her as “The White Squaw” and derided her efforts to help him and the Lakota as the crazed behavior of a lovestruck female. Ironic then, that this film leans so heavily on the sexual attraction between Catherine and Sitting Bull.
Realism battles with romance in this movie, and romance usually wins. For a dose of guilty pleasure, try the scene where Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) strips naked in front of Catherine, in order to change into his traditional garb for the portrait.
Or the scene where he bathes in the river, naked except for a loincloth, while she sketches him.
Or one of the other scenes where he strips, revealing his broad shoulders, fine chest (with tribal scarification) and lithe, tall, muscular form. The titillation doesn’t end there. The historical Catherine actually did live in Sitting Bull’s compound; in the film, this is turned into a scene where they shelter in the same teepee after a rain (how convenient that the persistent drought suddenly breaks!) and remove their clothing in order to warm themselves at the fire.
In her shift, Catherine is a disturbing sight for Sitting Bull, who gallantly absents himself, presumably in order to avoid temptation. In real life, Catherine would likely have been bedding down with his TWO WIVES and their children, who go unmentioned in the film (Catherine herself had a young son). Eileen Pollack, Catherine’s biographer, reports that Catherine received an invitation to become Wife Number Three– and declined.
Reducing the story to a sexy romance trivializes Sitting Bull, turning him into a scrapbook keepsake for the privileged white woman who will return to New York to treasure the memories of their intimacy–“The Chief And I.” Imagine if their relationship were portrayed as the complicated friendship it must have been in real life, not the “meet cute” portion of a mass-market romance. And imagine if Catherine had been portrayed by a less photogenic actress who actually looked to be in her fifties. (In the movie, Jessica Chastain hilariously refers to herself as “middle aged”; her hair remains perfectly coifed in most scenes, and she has access to lipstick at all times.) Michael Greyeyes does such a lovely job as Sitting Bull that I would hate to suggest a different actor, but imagine that we don’t get to see him naked (I know, it’s a sacrifice). And finally, imagine that Catherine is indeed a knowledgeable activist, and has disagreements with him about the best strategy for the Lakota. Imagine that Sitting Bull (gasp) is not always preternaturally wise and even-tempered, but that he sometimes gets mad, or even makes bad decisions.
In real life, Catherine broke with Sitting Bull over his attraction to the Ghost Dance, a ritual expression of apocalyptic hopes which she considered a dead end for the Lakota, and worse, a convenient excuse for the US government to falsely accuse him of stirring up rebellion. Sitting Bull was a religious leader as well as a war leader, and he took offense. He turned against her, and she left Standing Rock for good, only to learn later that Sitting Bull had been assassinated, and his people massacred at Wounded Knee. I don’t suggest that the Lakota could have prevented their sad fate by listening to her advice, but rather than risk the “white savior” charge, the film turns her into a weeping, helpless female-in-love who has to be schooled by a parade of men. It also suggests that Catherine’s presence somehow inspires Sitting Bull to renew his resistance, where before he had dwindled to “a broken-down old potato farmer.” By donning the forbidden dress of a Lakota warrior for his portrait, and trading flirtatious quips with this feisty and attractive female, the old lion learns to roar again! In this way, Sitting Bull’s long real-life history of resistance is diminished.
I don’t blame the actors, who all turn in laudable performances. Jessica Chastain is too young and beautiful for this role, but that’s Hollywood. She makes Catherine stubborn, impulsive and brave to the point of foolishness, all qualities which are intrinsic to the character as written. Michael Greyeyes ensures that Sitting Bull has a realistic personality, with touches of humor and a few glimpses of inner agony. He is believable, despite the hagiographic tendencies in the screenplay, and dignified, despite its voyeurism. Certain characters (Chaske Spencer as Sitting Bull’s nephew and Rulan Tangen as Mrs. McLaughlin) reveal the forces pushing the Lakota toward assimilation and compromise with the oppressor, when the only real choice is between death or survival. As an army intelligence officer paranoid about sedition, who both distrusts Catherine and is attracted to her, Sam Rockwell’s slimy Col. Silas Groves offers insults as if they were pickup lines.
The real-life James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds), the Indian agent at Standing Rock, had a Native American wife, as in the movie, and he believed that the best course for the Lakota was cultural assimilation and humble obedience, no matter how harshly they were oppressed. (McLaughlin, the author of My Friend the Indian, began his book with a description of “the untutored men of the grasslands” being “cuffed” by the US army into an understanding of the white man’s Beneficence.)
Hinds ably conveys McLaughlin’s matter-of-fact hostility towards Catherine Weldon and her meddling (in real life, he seems to have been the one responsible for the smear campaign). Still, McLaughlin also takes a cynical view of Groves and his disgusting tactic of starving the Sioux into accepting an unfair treaty. And when McLaughlin finally realizes that General Cook (Bill Camp) is plotting vengeance for Little Big Horn, the look in Hinds’ eye reveals that terrible knowledge. (Camp himself memorably renders Cook as a perverted romantic, nostalgic for the bygone days of wild, bloody battles and female captives in furs.)
Woman Walks Ahead offers star glamor and eye-candy for women, but it’s not particularly respectful of women. Unfortunately, its “chick flick” sensibility means that it will not be taken seriously as a portrait of Sitting Bull, much less the story of a woman of True Grit who acted with the courage of her convictions, yet failed in her mission (which was indeed to be a “white savior” of sorts, at a time when precious few others were offering help). In the era of Trump, the subject of white America’s real history regarding other races urgently needs to be examined. Even as WWA was being filmed at the Standing Rock reservation, it was the scene of protests over the construction of an oil pipeline which jeopardized the residents’ only water source. The US Government responded by attacking the protesters with pepper spray and dogs, and the pipeline has been finished by order of our current President. Sadly, some things haven’t changed in 130 years.
Welcome back. You were missed!
As for your review, leave it to Hollywood to be unable to tell a story like this as it should be told. Like the U.S. Government, Hollywood’s treatment of things hasn’t changed in 100+ years!
Many thanks, Mister! It’s true, Hollywood gives us what it thinks we want, which is more of the same, same, same.
Have missed your blogging, and stories (Hint!) Lovely insightful review, I’ll have to think about whether I want to see it though (and yes, I know Ciarán Hinds should be reason enough!) but the way things are at the moment I think I may just see it as too depressing. Acknowledging little but the wrapping ever changes, has me quite sad. especially as it seems the stereotypical stuff is alive and well even in such an interesting subject. Mind you I’m pretty much assuming it won’t get major international distribution, so we will probably have to wait for our Channel 4 to pick it up and broadcast at 3 in the morning.
Thanks for the compliments! This is my first step toward writing anything in several months, so I am hopeful!
I say the film is worth a look, despite my criticisms. It will hold your interest. But, they should have let Catherine be an interfering, opinionated troublemaker with golden intentions! I would have loved a scene where she and Sitting Bull fight it out over the Ghost Dance, and he kicks her out for disrespecting his religion and being too bossy. If it had to be a romance, it should have been more Tracy and Hepburn.
Why can Hollywood just never tell a story – and sketch a character – as it is? Why do we constantly need their mollycoddling? Sounds as if this is an opportunity lost – to tell the story of a remarkable woman (I had never heard of her) and a well-known historical figure who both were prisoners of their time yet probably also ahead in other respects…
BTW – it was a great surprise to find your post in my WP reader this morning. Hope you are well!!!
Thanks Guylty! It’s good to be back. My posts will be intermittent, but I really enjoyed putting this one together.
“Prisoners of their time”: I think that’s a perfect description.
Bravo, Linnet, for the review and your writing. As others before me said, you’ve been missed. Your review is spot on, and yes, the truth of the story would have been a better tale. At least the scenery is factual.
I hope you are inspired to more reviews, they’re always insightful and worth the read.
Thank you Ellen! I had fun with this one, and I’m hoping to write something about “Elizabeth Harvest.”
I think you should submit your reviews to publications.
Thanks for a very insightful review. I suspect that if this screenplay had been written a year later it would have been very different–at least I hope that Hollywood has learned something since it was produced. Maybe not. I’m really looking forward to your Elizabeth Harvest review. I’ve watched it twice so far and still think I need to watch and consider it again.
Thank you, Karen! I fear that for mass markets, a woman in love (especially a young one) is always going to be more interesting than a woman pursuing a goal that has nothing to do with romance. A profound double standard. But we can hope for change!
I want to watch EH again before I write, but I grudge the rental payment to Amazon, and it doesn’t seem to be available for purchase yet!
So lovely to see a post from you again!!
Hadn’t heard of this movie yet, but it sounds like a missed opportunity and a disappointment.
Thanks Esther! I still recommend the movie as an entertainment, since it holds the viewer’s interest. In terms of its messaging, there are some problems, but they had a difficult task trying to balance a feminist message, or at least a portrait of a strong woman, with the need to be sensitive to the material about Native Americans.
continue 2 B M-prest w/yore research N-2 & uhmung many (all?) tangents to and about the main story line. and of course, yer konkloozhunz ~
Thank you, Betunada! Hoping to come up with another post before six months go by…
yeah, the ciarån angle — my spouse rented/watched this movie (I glimpsed in a few times) and doesn’t know the “real” story which you’ve provided here. 6 months? –> YOU were busy writing or trying to. I not only haven’t posted much, ’til recently, but didn’t do much of anything else this past summer. (mostly gardening/yard slave 2 U-NO-HOO)
Lovely Ciarán. He keeps supplying me with movies to write about 🙂
Jane Dunn Ostler said:
Oh Linnet! I’ve only just discovered this review and, not that you make me want to see the film, you are a MASTERFUL reviewer – so perceptive and intelligent and wise – and so witty and slyly satiric I was snorting with laughter at some of your asides.
Why aren’t you in charge of creative control on these potentially interesting and important films? Like the wonderful, truthful Roger Michell version of Persuasion for the BBC, this film could have been something!
Keep writing, you’re wonderful.
Thanks so much, Jane. I haven’t written anything for ages and feel as though the pandemic has drained my mojo. It would be good to find the time and energy to start again, and your praise is inspiring 😀
Jane Dunn said:
I’m not at all surprised you feel you’ve lost your mojo. I think the pandemic and lockdowns affected everyone, even the introverts who love their own company and thoughts, and were relieved at not having to wash visitors’ sheets, plan the meals and keep the house clean!
So Be Inspired! I know you have a lot on your plate but you’re really such a fantastically perceptive, soulful and interesting writer you do just have to find time to write, if even just for yourself.
You certainly inspired me. Having whiled away the first lockdown, doing none of the creative things I’d intended, your Heyer heroes blog and my re-reading of her books, and your responses to me brought a whole lot of creative ideas and emotions to the surface. To my utter surprise, I dashed off a Regency romance in three months – and I had an absolute ball! I’d wake up excited and go to bed with conversations in my head. I’ve never enjoyed writing so much in my life. And I feel in a funny way your subtle, layered take on the Regency, turbo-charged my imagination. So I have you to thank for that.
Although I wrote the book entirely for my own pleasure, halfway through I began to think – this is such fun, perhaps others might enjoy it too – and so I sent it in trepidation to my very bloke-ish, middle-aged (although unaware that he’s rather Regency-heroic) agent. And he loved it! So although I don’t know that it’ll ever see the light of day, somehow his unlikely enthusiasm continued my buoyant mood. If it ever does get published, I’ll send you one of the first copies!
So the point of this long amble is to say, dear Linnet, find time to write. It’s an absolute necessity to someone as creative and talented as you.
With best wishes
I would so love to read your Regency book, Jane. I feel that you are an ideal person to write in this genre, with your research skills, historian’s eye and perceptiveness. And how delightful to have an agent with a dash of Regency hero charm! I’ve never had an agent. I just send things off to academic presses and probably get fleeced on the contracts. My books are not big sellers so I don’t think it much matters. That said, I’ve noticed an uptick in royalties from e-book chapters. The entire publishing world is changing.
Thank you for the encouragement! I have a historical/fantasy novel about Rome in mind, a sequel to my Julius Caesar book. Perhaps I can find the time to start it–and do the necessary research–or at least to write a blog post : )
Jane Dunn said:
You too combine the love of research with perceptiveness and human understanding. Obviously Rome is calling you. Perhaps you should treat yourself to a visit and thereby spring back into inspired mode?
You did give me a chuckle. I think ‘Regency charm’ doesn’t quite describe my agent – he’s a Scot of few words but passionate and tenacious with a terrific nose and cheekbones. In your pantheon of heroes, he’s an Irascible type – but he has no idea, but he’s famous for terrifying lazy editors who haven’t bothered to read a submission for one of his authors!
Long live your Heyer Hero types. Where would Julius Caesar sit?
One of those taciturn Scots whose Irascibility is charming in itself–to those not in his employ, at any rate. Delightful : ) I do love a Scots accent and Scotsmen in general. James McAvoy, now there is a Beautiful Man, and such a Voice on him! I’ve been listening to him as Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s audiobook of The Sandman. He uses the Received Pronunciation there, of course, but he is thrilling. I wish I could have seen his MacBeth.
Ah, for the granita di caffè at Tazza d’Oro by the Pantheon! It would be good to see Rome again. And yes, I got an eerie feeling standing beside the spot where Caesar’s funeral pyre burned. No question in my mind that Julius Caesar scores Cool to Cold on the Heyer Hero temperature scale! That’s MY Caesar at any rate. Urbane, keenly intelligent, watchful, always calculating. With a drive to dominate. And utterly ruthless when the need arises.
Jane Dunn said:
You are an irredeemable romantic! Of course ‘your’ Caesar is as hard as adamant and as cool as steel. Do you ever wonder if your creative soul resides in an ancient town and a different century?
A play about Keats’ death in Rome is on the radio at the moment. If one could guarantee being rich and healthy (both of which poor Keats was not) then the most fun was to be had in Georgian England. Enlightened, sexy, witty, rude and roistering, with some great literature and fine music. The last hurrah before the heavy hand of Victorianism got a grip.
Book that ticket for Roma!
Romantic? I suppose I am. Usually I think of myself as more Elinor than Marianne, even if I would much prefer Colonel Brandon to Edward Ferrars. But my favorite book is “Jane Eyre,” and we all know what Miss Austen would have thought of THAT : )
As for Caesar, I have read enough of his work and life to be convinced that he would never allow a woman to obstruct his will to power. He loved his first wife, Cornelia, when they were both very young, but she died and that was that. Caesar was no Rochester, defying the gods in order to possess the woman he loved. Yet I feel that it would have been very difficult to resist falling in love with HIM despite his megalomania. As Miss Austen noted, the female privilege is to persist in love when all hope is gone.
Perhaps my creative soul resides elsewhere and elsewhen, but I am mighty grateful to have been born in the late 20th century. That said, I heartily agree about Georgian England. Now, Jane, why did you not write your romance as a Georgian? Or is it in fact more a Georgian than a Regency?
Jane Dunn said:
Oh Linnet, we both agree on the sexiness of the Georgians (and Heyer’s Georgian novels) but I think there’s something more subtly erotic about the slightly more buttoned down Regency.
I like the dramatic psychological background of the Napoleonic Wars and the sense that a Regency gentleman is quite capable of swopping his lazy, licentious London life as a rake and dandy to sling on his Hussar’s uniform, leap on his superb prancer and set off to fight Napoleon in the Peninsular War. These aristocrats are still quite close to the warrior spirit that won their ancestors their titles and wealth (unlike Bertie Wooster’s friends at the Drones Club whose warrior blood was so dilute they would find it hard to fight their way out of a paper bag!) and as you point out the Duke of Wellington was the supreme warrior-hero at the helm.
So my book is deep in the Regency, in the year when Byron woke up and suddenly found himself famous – having published the first part of Childe Harold. But the long Georgian century,( as it’s called when you extend it into the early 19th) is a fascinating one.
Ah, the dandy who is a man’s man beneath the finery! The beauteous and shocking Lord Byron! And the Peninsula– makes me think of “An Infamous Army,” a very good Heyer book. This will be a rare treat.
Byron is one of those authors whose works were chosen for publication in miniature format. They are the anointed few–it is a particular kind of canonization. I know this because I collect such books and I have some choice wee volumes of Byron.
I have to laugh about the Drones. Yes, they were moronic bumblers, but I do believe that even a Bertie Wooster or a Gussie Fink-Nottle would have dutifully stepped into the trenches, remained on the Titanic to save the women and children, and demonstrated other evidence of chivalry if the times demanded it. Thank goodness the most chivalry Bertie ever had to display was remaining trapped in an unwanted engagement 🙂
Jane Dunn said:
Oh, the hilarious, lovable Drones! You’re right, full of the grandest ideals of chivalry and prepared to give their lives if necessary, but so shockingly incompetent, so unprepared for hard labour and suffering! So nonplussed by the complexities of life without Jeeves, Nanny or the terrifying Aunts ‘like Mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps’.
Byron is the other end of heroic (certainly in his own romance). I didn’t know about his works in miniature – how lovely is that! I think his letters are almost his greatest writing of all.