March 04, 2012

Apaches in John Carter

As you may recall, I wrote about the Native stereotypes in Edgar Rice Burroughs's seminal A Princess of Mars:

Barsoom = Indian territory
Stereotypes in A Princess of Mars

I was curious how the new John Carter movie would handle the Native element. The answer is...very well.

'John Carter' 10-Minute Teaser Focuses on Taylor Kitsch's Character on Earth (Video)

The scene opens in the Arizona Territory, where an unkempt John Carter enters a ramshackle saloon. He tries to buy supplies with a piece of gold he says he found in a cave.

Right away the vibe is radically different from the book's. Carter isn't a pioneer heading into the "untamed" territory to prospect for gold. The land is already colonized, with white settlers on farms and the US Army protecting them. Carter is clearly an outsider who follows in the white man's wake, not a trailblazer. He isn't responsible for what's happened.

Moreover, he isn't planning to take the Indians' land and turn it into his own private wealth generator. He's a scavenger who finds things, not a developer who creates and destroys them. He's living with the land like an Indian, not trying to own it like a white man.

Colonel Powell takes Carter, who's a decorated war hero, into custody. Powell wants to Carter to help him against the Apache, who are attacking homes. Carter says he doesn't care about either side. Warring is man's natural state, so let them fight.

Again, this is a far cry from the book's John Carter, who was explicitly an Indian fighter who killed the Sioux. The movie's Carter is neutral, not an agent of the white man.

Meeting the Apache

Carter escapes and flees with the cavalry in pursuit. They come up against a line of Apache warriors, who look reasonably authentic, on horseback. Speaking their language, Carter seems to negotiate with them (at the 7:50 mark).

So this Carter has had dealings with the Apache. He knows them well enough to speak their language. And they know him well enough to listen respectfully. Again, that's radically different from the approach of Carter the Indian fighter.

But a nervous soldier shoots an Apache and the negotiations are off. (The white men initiate the violence, not the Indians.) Understandably angered, the Apache chase Carter and Powell.

The men hide among some rocks. Carter says something about a Spider Cave. The Apache approach the spot to attack...but then back off. Carter looks up at something as the clip ends...perhaps a giant spider?

So it seems the Apache didn't back off because of their superstitious fear, as they did in the book. They may have known the spot was dangerous. Indians as rational men, not fearful more radical difference.

All in all, this is a textbook example of how to update racist material to make it acceptable in today's world. The Apache don't do anything to make themselves sympathtic. They're still the nominal antagonists, attacking people without explanation. But the movie humanizes them by showing they're willing to listen first and attack later. They aren't mindless savages like a previous generation of movie Indians.

The cast includes:

Akima--Apache Leader
Joseph Billingiere--Apache #1
Aldred Montoya--Apache #2
Kyle Agnew--Stable Boy

So the casting is reasonably authentic too. The movie may bomb, but not because of its Native aspects. If every movie handled Indians this well, we'd have trouble accusing Hollywood of racism.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


betsy pie said...

I can't wait to see this movie. Thank you for your awesome overview!

Anonymous said...

I don't know how it'll bomb. They got rid of the word "princess" in the title that males hate, and they got rid of the word "Mars" in the title because Mars Needs Moms taught us people are anti-Mars.

This is like a reverse I Am Legend in terms of title relevance.