Taking its cue from the title Dances With Wolves, director Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead is the Lakota Sioux tribe name given to 19th-century painter and activist Caroline Weldon. It refers to Weldon’s refusal to follow Sitting Bull when walking across the open Dakota landscape together, stubbornly demanding instead that she should be able to move at her own pace, either alongside, or even ahead.
As portrayed in the new biographical drama, Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain) tells us during the film’s opening that there are no portraits anywhere of the Lakota tribe leader, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). “I intend to rectify the situation,” she states. She then packs her bags. Along with her paints, canvas, and brushes, she boards a train in New York and travels across states to Dakota.
It’s while journeying alone that Weldon encounters US Army Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell) who immediately invades her privacy. With a clear, contentious attitude, he wastes no time in letting her know how he feels about her wanting to meet the man responsible for the massacre of the 7th Cavalry and the death of Lt. Col. George Custer. From Grove’s point of view, the woman from New York is nothing but an east coast liberal; an agitator with a political agenda to stir things up at a critical time of negotiations between the tribe and the US government. At a stop, Grove tells Weldon, “You get back on that train and return east today,” later adding, “Little Big Horn will be avenged, d’ya follow?”
After some initial resistance, and despite a summons from army commanding officer James McLaughlin (Ciaran Hinds) stating, “I demand you be back on that train tomorrow morning,” a meeting between the artist and the Lakota leader is eventually arranged. After some financial negotiation, Weldon agrees to pay Sitting Bull if he consents to have his portrait done. While watching the artist work from afar through binoculars, Rockwell’s Grove is surprised. “She really is a painter,” he murmurs to himself.
Read author Eileen Pollack’s book Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull, or even glance over Weldon’s page on Wikipedia, and you’ll see that even before leaving New York to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, in reality, the woman was already a member of the politically motivated National Indian Defense Association. The film portrays her initially as an innocent with no agenda other than wanting to paint a picture. Her sympathetic attitudes towards the tribe, the film tell us, were formed once a relationship with Sitting Bull developed; it better suits a movie storytelling mode.
But in reality, on that train from New York when Col. Grove accuses the woman of being an east coast liberal and agitator, he was actually close to the truth. Knowing the difference between what we’re watching and how things really were, uncomfortably changes a perspective of how you view Weldon. Plus, as history tells us, before an army sniper assassinated Sitting Bull, the Lakota Sioux tribe leader turned against Weldon. She fell out of favor. Their relationship fell apart. Weldon left for New York long before Sitting Bull’s murder. For dramatic purposes, The film paints a considerably different portrait.
In a general sense, much of what we knew, or thought we knew about the history of Native Americans came not so much from the history books or schooling but from the movies. For storytelling purposes, the heroes and villains of the west were clearly defined. And that’s how it was on the big screen for a long time. But for the past few decades, those dark days of Native injustices have come to light, particularly during the 70’s Vietnam era when films like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man looked back and punctured previously unquestioned beliefs.
Despite its flaws, if there’s one thing Soldier Blue taught us was that scalping originated not from Native Americans but from the soldiers themselves, a technique brought over from England by the white man and introduced to America. And in the episodic Little Big Man, though it was satirical in nature, the film’s portrayal of Custer may have seemed larger than life, but is now considered to be far closer to the truth than most other portrayals. Custer’s hate for native Americans and his madcap ambitions collided by the time Little Big Horn came about. He seriously believed if he accomplished one more victory massacring the Natives, any massacre, he would earn a nomination for President of the United States. According to Little Big Man, that is a lesser known but bizarre historical fact. In other words, Custer, already known for eccentric behavior, wasn’t exactly thinking straight at Little Big Horn and was ultimately responsible for his own demise. With this in mind, the army’s blind intent on assassinating Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead conveniently ignored truths in order to satisfy unwarranted, political revenge.
Though neither of those early seventies films are anywhere near the tone set by Woman Walks Ahead, there are some important issues that spring to mind. Sam Rockwell’s abhorrent Col. Grove briefly mentions how he was once responsible for opening fire and murdering defenseless Native women and children, even though they had already surrendered. It’s a scene straight out of the climax of Soldier Blue that at the time looked more like a director’s indulgence in revising history, yet Grove’s admission that he actually did that very thing underlines the murderous nature of many soldier blues who, while away from their regular lives and families, acted like savages with a blood lust against the Natives simply because they could. “If it helps,” Grove tells Weldon, “I haven’t slept well since that day.” It was horrific events such as the one Grove related that caused Weldon to become the activist she was and stand with the tribe.
Weldon really did paint Sitting Bull’s portrait. In fact, there were four, though two are missing. “You made me look too old,” Sitting Bull remarks after Weldon unveils her work.
As cinema, Woman Walks Ahead tells its tale at a slow, deliberate pace that fully engages, due not only to the fascination of how events between Weldon, Sitting Bull, and the conflicts with the US Army later unfold, but to the performances of all, and most importantly to Mike Eley’s captivating widescreen cinematography. New Mexico doubling for Dakota looks stunning. If it wasn’t for the historical inaccuracies and the differences in motivation for its central, real-life character, fully recommending director White’s attractive looking film would be easy. But knowing Caroline Weldon’s real story and becoming aware of the differences between reality and writer Steven Knight’s screenplay takes everything down a more unexpected fictionalized path.
Enjoy the film as an accomplished and well-crafted piece of entertainment, for that’s exactly what it is. But in this case, and more than others where history is often revised in order to make the telling more condensed and streamlined, once you know Weldon’s real story then witness the film’s version of events, you may find yourself questioning the film’s overall historical value in ways you weren’t quite expecting.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 102 Minutes