Program Notes: Thunderheart (1992)

Michael Apted's Thunderheart (1992) is about civil unrest and a murder on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

Its principal characters are two FBI agents – one a crusty old hand (Sam Shepard) and the other a young by-the-book up-and-comer (Val Kilmer) who, conveniently enough for his bosses, is one quarter Sioux.

Although the young agent knows next to nothing about being a Native American, his superiors cynically figure it'll be good p.r. to send an Indian to talk to Indians.

There's a very important third character, a tribal police officer (Graham Greene, fresh from Dances with Wolves when Thunderheart was shot), who slowly picks at the young federal agent until some part of his Native American heritage is stirred up.

Film Screening:
Thunderheart (1992)
Saturday, Nov. 26 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Their investigation takes place in the middle of a war between the goons of a corrupt tribal president (Fred Ward) and the traditionalists of an AIM-like (that’s American Indian Movement) political group.

The film works well enough as a mystery, but its real power, as critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, comes from its depiction of reservation life – the poverty, the alcoholism, the anger at the larger white society.

"What's most absorbing about Thunderheart is its sense of place and time," Ebert has written. "Apted makes documentaries as well as fiction films...and in such features as Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist and such documentaries as 35 Up he pays great attention to the people themselves...

"In Thunderheart we get a real visual sense of the reservation, of the beauty of the rolling prairie and the way it is interrupted by deep gorges, but also of the omnipresent rusting automobiles and the subsistence level of some of the housing. We feel that we're really there, and that the people in the story really occupy land they stand on."

Well, some directors are known for horror. Others for action, romance or comedy.

Michael Apted, though, has defied categorization. Thunderheart is just one more example of this filmmaker's breathtaking ability to adapt to and accurately depict on the screen any environment or milieu.

Undoubtedly Ebert is right that Apted's observational skills were born in his background in documentaries.

Long before he began making features in the U.S., Apted was renowned in his native Great Britain for the Up franchise, a series of documentaries which every seven years revisits the same handful of English citizens first captured as elementary school children in 1964, when they were only seven years old.

The monumental series (the titles reflect the subjects' current age, i.e. 28 Up, 49 Up) was inspired by the Jesuit saying "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" and was begun as Apted's effort to see if a child's social class predetermines his/her future.

Apted's flowering as a features director came in 1980 with the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter, for which star Sissy Spacek won the best actress Oscar. Initially the ability of this Englishman to slip inside the world of Southern poverty and country/western music was remarked upon as an oddity.

But over time Apted has pulled his chameleon act so often that we now hardly take notice. His is an exceedingly catholic resume: Gorky Park (a murder mystery set in the Soviet Union); Gorillas in the Mist (the life in Africa of slain zoologist Dian Fossey); Class Action (a courtroom drama with Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); Amazing Grace (historic drama about ending the British slave trade); Enigma (British intelligence races to break the Nazis' "enigma" code); The World is Not Enough (a James Bond movie); and the family adventure The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Plus Apted directed several episodes of the HBO series Rome, which he also produced. Relatively few other directors (Ang Lee comes to mind) share Apted's ability to slide between centuries and societies, while always finding the human stories that make his films special.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.