April 13, 2007

Pathfinder's racist stereotypes

Noble savages vs. evil hordes:These Vikings, great hairy beasts clad in leather, animal bones and chain mail, bring warhorses with them to their Vineland.

The boy is raised by the People of the Dawn, Native American Aquarians, they are—simple happy natives living in Hollywood peace.

The script is stuffed with Ancient Hollywood Native-speak, that stilted nonsense that puts the "noble" in Old School Hollywood "noble savages."

"He must find how own way. His heart is full of vengeance." (Orlando Sentinel)

The Norsemen, indistinguishable from one another in their fearful horned helmets and facial armor, are uniformly and viciously evil. The Native Americans by contrast are all courageously righteous. (Catholic News Service)

Aware of his Viking relatives' propensity for butchery, he leaps in to protect the wise old shaman Pathfinder (played by the famed Sioux activist Russell Means) and Pathfinder's beauteous, two-fisted daughter Starfire (Moon Bloodgood) from these sadistic invaders, supplanting the would-be Wampanoag hero Blackwing (Jay Tavare). (Chicago Tribune)
The racist subtext:Native Americans may not wolf down the depiction of their forebears as helpless, cowardly and weak. So much for being in tune with nature: They can't detect a company of armored horsemen charging at them. Thank goodness there's a circa 900-A.D. Rambo to save them. (Los Angeles Times)

The fact that Ghost is the best warrior in America is troubling, as it makes one wonder what the poor Indians would have done without the kindness and strength of this benevolent white man. We're not arguing that Nispel and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis have crafted a purposely racist movie. That would have required more thought than apparently went into "Pathfinder." (Catholic News Service)
Comment: Vikings in full-body armor? With warhorses? Ridiculous.

The Vikings didn't invade America to conquer it. They didn't even know what they'd find here. Their voyages to America were for exploration and perhaps trade, not conquest.

The idea of sending a few dozen warriors and warhorses across the ocean to attack a continent full of inhabitants is sheer lunacy. Cortés and Pizarro set out to conquer only after the Spanish established several decades of infrastructure in the Caribbean. The isolated Vikings had no such support system.

As the Catholic News implied, the Vikings' military might makes the Natives look weak and helpless. So the white savior rescues the hapless “primitives” from their own inferior culture. Ghost is the only one “smart” enough to fight swords with swords, although Natives often defeated white men once they got over their initial “shock and awe.”

So the Vikings get beefed up (literally super-sized) while the Natives get emasculated. That also amps up the movie's dramatic conflict—a conflict similar to that in 300 and Apocalypto. A small number of noble warriors from a peaceable village stands against hordes of murderous monsters from an evil empire. The only difference is that the non-Europeans are the victims rather than the victimizers this time—but the brown skins don’t come off well in any of these movies.

Really, the brown skins are just fodder in Pathfinder. As you can see in the still photos, the movie is all about the white-skinned hero vs. the black-clad devils. You have to search long and hard to even find a Native in these pix.

As one critic implied, Ghost could be Tarzan: a superman amid savages. Or Jesus, a point reinforced by the Vikings' practice of crucifying enemies. Meanwhile, the Vikings look and act inhuman, even though they come from a more "advanced" civilization. Again the message is white = good, non-white = bad.

We're still looking for a movie in this recent crop of releases that features a Native (or non-European) triumphing over non-Natives (or Europeans). It didn't happen in Pathfinder, 300, Apocalypto, Flags of Our Fathers, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, End of the Spear, or The New World. You have to go back a few years to Edge of America, Hidalgo, and Black Cloud to find a film that might qualify.

Note also the Indians’ stilted speech and New-Age names. Can you say “stereotypical”? And although one critic identified the Indians as Wampanoags, I get the impression that they were wholly generic.