A Man Called Horse:
Western Melodrama and Southern Gothic

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2020, Volume 19, Issue 1


Mike Phillips
Southern Illinois University

This article concerns a relatively neglected Hollywood Western, rarely addressed in critical discourse but vividly remembered by cinephiles, both lay and professional. A Man Called Horse, released in 1970, is an adaptation of a short story by Dorothy Johnson, first published in Collier's magazine in 1950. Johnson is best known as the source author for another cinematic Western adaptation, John Ford's canonical The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).1 A Man Called Horse belongs to a much older genre that has been subsumed into the Western, the so-called Indian captivity narrative. In this story form, a settler of European extraction is kidnapped by indigenous people, lives among them for a time, and is eventually redeemed to white civilization. Evincing an ambivalence endemic to the Western genre, the captivity narrative fluctuates between an exoticizing fascination with the primitive and an ideological imperative that the protagonist withstand the temptation to "go native." According to a longstanding theory, genre narratives foster social cohesion by imaginatively resolving intractable contradictions within dominant ideologies (Cawelti, Adventure 35-36). In the case of the captivity narrative, at least if the protagonist is male, his temporary encounter with this savage way of life is thought metonymically to rejuvenate his decadent culture, as is exhaustively elaborated in Richard Slotkin's frontier myth trilogy.

Johnson's variation on this theme in "A Man Called Horse" runs as follows: John Morgan, an upper-class white man, leaves behind his privileged existence in order to test his mettle on the frontier of the Northwestern Territory during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Taken captive by an Indian2 raiding party, he is treated as a slave and given the name Horse. Over the course of many trials and tribulations, he adapts to native ways and eventually regains human status by killing a member of an enemy tribe and appropriating his horses. Morgan uses this newfound property as the bride price to wed the chief's sister. His new brother-in-law soon dies in battle, and Morgan's wife subsequently dies in childbirth. He must then decide whether to stay and care for his mother-in-law, who now has no living relatives. This he somewhat reluctantly does until the time of her death. He finally returns home, having proved himself, as Johnson's narrator puts it, "the equal of any man on earth" (24).

While this synopsis appears to fit Slotkin's paradigm, the captivity narrative presents some striking peculiarities that prevent its wholesale assimilation into his narratological model. Foremost among these is the treatment of borders, both literal and conceptual. Let us suppose that the classical Western concerns the establishment of an orderly social arrangement, a prelude to the nation's annexation of a previously chaotic and nebulous geographical space. Its conventional resolutions accordingly reflect a teleological model of history that underlies the genre's ideological justification for Manifest Destiny. The establishment of spatial limits and the irreversibility of civilizational progress also entail the exclusion of Native Americans from the nation and from the future. All of these facts comprise the grounds for the Western's typically melodramatic mode, in which moral distinctions – often drawn along racialized lines – are clear, the protagonist's actions are fully justified, and all conflicts are satisfactorily resolved.

The captivity narrative, on the other hand, tends to problematize borders, whether geographical, temporal, or racial. As Gary Ebersole has argued, "Captivity represents an ultimate boundary situation.... In such situations, the body is a painful register of the shattered or porous boundaries of inside and outside, self and other, past and present" (7). The redemption of the captive seems to reinstate those boundaries, but this narrative resolution cannot contain the troubling questions raised in the story's middle. The horrific experience of captivity, especially the terror of contamination by a monstrous other, characterized as a manifestation of some primeval darkness or sin, moves us away from melodrama and toward the gothic. As Teresa Goddu has shown, "the American gothic is haunted by race" (7). Unlike melodrama, "the gothic tells of the historical horrors that make national identity possible yet must be repressed in order to sustain it" (10). Given its thematic interests in impurity and contamination, it should be no surprise that "the gothic seeps into other genres and appears in unlikely places" (Goddu 8), which is precisely what happens in the process of adapting "A Man Called Horse" for the screen.

While the film's plot generally follows Johnson's template, her narrative is interrupted by one crucial departure. The captive protagonist must undergo a gruesome initiation ritual in order to achieve full membership in the tribe and marry the chief's sister. This rite of passage, the Sun Vow, involves being hung from the ceiling of a medicine lodge by ropes attached to two bone splints pierced through the skin on either side of the chest.3 It is this set-piece, which Johnson referred to as "this bloody scene which really makes the movie" (Mathews and Healey 165), that spectators tend to remember, even if the film's other hundred minutes are not especially memorable. The peculiar layout of the film's one-sheet poster, which reveals key elements of the narrative in chronological order, graphically illustrates the relative importance of the Sun Vow scene by making its depiction massively larger than the other six plot points (see Figure 1). Initially reading the left side of the poster vertically from top to bottom, the viewer's eye must then diagonally traverse the shocking central image in order to complete the narrative sequence from top right to bottom right. This visual progression indicates the Sun Vow's spectacular disruption of the smooth narrative flow among the smaller images. At the same time as the vertical sequences on each side reveal more of the plot than typical film posters of the period, the central image hides from view the most gruesome aspect of the Sun Vow, Morgan's wounds, prompting a desire to see more.4

I argue that the addition of this scene, like its placement in the poster, amounts to a gothic irruption into a melodramatic frame. This apparent contradiction between narrative modes cannot be resolved internally. Rather, the somatic rupture of the Sun Vow accomplishes the film's central ideological work: to reconstitute a white identity that some believe has been diminished and fragmented in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. As Sally Robinson has demonstrated, this narrative of white backlash tends to uphold a synchronic, binary view of "a singular, pitched battle between the white man and his various others." To the contrary, she argues that "normativity, constantly under revision, shifts in response to the changing social, political and cultural terrain" (4). The twenty-year interval between story and film thus affords a clear view of how the idea of whiteness mutated between 1950 and 1970.

Slotkin's historical contextualization frames the film as pandering to 1960s youth counterculture's obsession with Native American aesthetics while failing to innovate beyond a standard Western plot (Slotkin, Gunfighter 630). However, both film and story display significant departures from conventional Westerns, in terms of geography (east of the Mississippi River), temporality (prior to the Civil War), and sociohistorical context (pre-industrial). These three peculiarities point toward the largely neglected though abundantly manifest connections between the West and the South. Despite the direct historical linkage between the admission of new states to the Union concomitant with westward expansion and the political struggle over the question of slavery, this nexus is almost never overtly addressed. The evacuation of this historical context also leads to a general (though not universal) absence of blackness in the Western film genre's racial ideology, in which whiteness is constructed through a negative binary relationship with indigeneity. As one of the few Western stories that features enslavement as a key narrative component, A Man Called Horse belies the Western's insistence on its discontinuity with the plantation.

One of the few scholars to link the Myth of the South and the Myth of the West, Richard Dyer, does so in the interest of drawing a contrast between them. In his view, the Myth of the South requires constant reassertions of racial purity in refutation of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, "whereas the West takes the project of whiteness for granted and achieved" (36). This generalization is most certainly not applicable to A Man Called Horse or to the captivity narrative in general. I argue that whiteness in the Western, just as in the Myth of the South, is constantly in flux and in multiple relations to various non-white ethnicities. In both regional genres, whiteness is presented as being under threat of erasure and, therefore, must be continually reenacted in order to be preserved. In what follows, I analyze both story and film through this lens in order to elucidate the unrecognized role that blackness has played in the Western, particularly as an ideological lever for the genre's construction of whiteness.


Viewing A Man Called Horse through its generic literary lineage offers a genealogical perspective on the ideological construction of whiteness in the Western. Consider two of the foundational Western texts, James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902). Despite the divergent thematic interests of the two authors, they are often seen as occupying the same linear trajectory toward the cinematic version of the genre. Wister borrows plot devices from the melodramatic stage to build a narrative that culminates in a companionate marriage, metonymically ensuring the foundation of a white nation on the frontier (Wexman 130-132). Conversely, Cooper's frontier novels are replete with doomed Romantic affairs involving a multiplicity of racial identifications. Wister's cold, Anglo-Saxon eugenics also present a stark contrast with the gothic irrationality and ambiguity that Cooper adopts from sentimental novels of the previous generation like Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (Ringe 108-110). The purity of whiteness in Wister skirts the gothic problematic of hybridity.

A key example of the latter is to be found in The Last of the Mohicans' Cora Munro, an early instance of the so-called "tragic mulatto" (Roberts 137). Although this character did not become a conventional Western type, Cora's opting for death over marriage to the villainous Huron chief, Magua, is the ancestor of some rote conventions that allow the Western almost uniformly to avoid the specter of miscegenation. One of these is the "last bullet" trope, whereby a white woman (or her male companion) in a group of settlers under Indian attack keeps one piece of ammunition in reserve so that she can take her own life (or allow herself to be killed) rather than submit to "a fate worse than death" (Telotte 120-127). While this device fell out of favor around the time of the Second World War, it is still common in Westerns for the Indian mother of biracial offspring to die in childbirth (Marubbio 20-21). This plot point generally results in an emphasis on the father and son's (the child is nearly always male) struggle with their social outcast status, in a variation on the tragic mulatto type. This trope persists from The Squaw Man (1914), regarded as the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, all the way to The Revenant (2015). A Man Called Horse employs a common variation in which the child dies along with the mother, suggesting that miscegenation is a biological dead end as well as a social taboo. These narrative devices are among the strongest indications that blackness is a structuring absence of the Western genre. Seen in this light, the preference in the cinematic Western for the melodramatic realism of Wister over the romantic gothicism of Cooper and Brown accrues new significance. Discussing the relationship between the gothic and blackness, which Cora refers to as the "curse of my ancestors" (Cooper 825), Diane Roberts notes that "[r]epresenting America's racial history as a 'curse' is a common-place in American fiction":

Blacks haunt the officially-optimistic story America tells about itself: opportunity, equality, wealth, freedom. The wails of beaten slaves are never quite erased in the loud proclamations of democracy. Often invisible (like ghosts), blacks manifest themselves at uncomfortable moments as reminders of past crimes: the return of America's racial repressed. (40-41)

In contrast with the gothic mode's obsession with guilt, melodrama emphatically disavows culpability. The official optimism to which Roberts refers is characteristic of the melodramatic mode as delineated by Linda Williams: "Melodrama begins, and wants to end, in a space of innocence," usually located in a rural past, often in the antebellum South (65). Moreover, "The greater the historical burden of guilt, the more pathetically and the more actively the melodrama works to recognize and regain a lost innocence" (61).

Of course, the most forcefully articulated cinematic expression of melodramatic racial ideology is D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, particularly the sequence in which the pastoral idyll of Flora, the youngest daughter of the plantocrat Cameron family, is disrupted by the violent sexual advances of the monstrous freedman Gus (Diawara 767-75). In the tradition of Cooper's Cora, the white woman throws herself from the cliff where Gus has cornered her. Subsequently, her elder brother, the "Little Colonel," mobilizes the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to lynch Gus. The intertitle immediately following Flora's death reads, "For her who had learned the stern lesson of honor, we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death." In other words, she averted the fate-worse-than-death without having to use the last bullet. Richard Maltby has argued that the controversy over the film's overt racism at the time of its initial release forced the diversion of its ideology into more subtle expressions: "the threat of the sexual Other migrated elsewhere, among other places, to its dormant position in the Western, where it is several times disguised" (48).

This process of displacement was already underway in The Virginian, whose nostalgic evocation of a vanished frontier shares close affinities with the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (Adams 108-11). As John Cawelti posits, "The very title of Wister's novel symbolized the link between the modern Western and certain aspects of the Southern mythic tradition, as did the two central themes of pastoralism and justified vigilantism" (Six-Gun 75). The latter becomes a major plot point when it interrupts the eponymous cowboy's burgeoning love affair with Eastern schoolteacher Molly Wood. She has developed reservations about his participation in a posse that is to track down and hang the cattle rustler Shorty, previously the Virginian's best friend. "The Judge," the owner of the stolen cattle, engages in a Platonic dialogue with Molly in an attempt to convince her that the Virginian’s actions are proper and justified:

For in all sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States. We execute our criminals by the swiftest means, and in the quietest way. (434)

Disavowing any relationship between Southern and Western lynching, the Judge expressly denounces the fascination of the crowd with gothic spectacle and their subsequent implication in the guilt for this horrific deed. By framing the lynching of cattle rustlers as a depersonalized expression of popular justice, the Judge maintains the innocence of the executioners and the Manichean morality of melodrama. The cowboy's internal struggle and ultimate determination to choose "frontier justice" over personal sentiment amounts to a melodramatic revelation of his "moral occult." According to Peter Brooks, this interior quality "demands to be uncovered, registered, articulated" in melodrama, usually through the protagonist's suffering or sacrifice (20-21).

Johnson's melodramatic mode of storytelling is clearly indebted to Wister's. For instance, she maintains the trope of the virginal schoolteacher tutoring the antisocial male protagonist in manners and mores, while also providing him a redemptive character arc when he finally accedes to her wishes and settles down for good. Like Molly, Morgan's bride "delighted in educating him" (Johnson 15). While the miscegenation taboo precludes an exact parallel with Wister's ending, Morgan's acceptance of the role of caretaker for his mother-in-law fulfills the same function of exposing his moral occult. Beyond these standard plot points, Johnson adopts Wister's Social Darwinist notions of "natural aristocracy," a status based on individual prowess rather than noble heredity (Slotkin, Gunfighter 176). As the Virginian tells Molly, "Some holds four aces...and some holds nothin’, and some poor fello’ gets the aces and no show to play ’em; but a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him" (144). As it so often does in Westerns, the game of poker becomes metonymic of grander conflicts, in this case between skill (meritocracy) and luck (heredity). Johnson echoes Wister's antidemocratic notion that the superior specimens of mankind, or "the quality," possess a natural right to rule over the unwashed, undifferentiated masses, or "the equality." Morgan goes West "to find his equals. He had the idea that in Indian country, where there was danger, all white men were kings, and he wanted to be one of them. But he found, in the West as in Boston, that the men he respected were still his superiors, even if they could not read, and those he did not respect weren't worth talking to" (1). In other words, Morgan's fantasies of claiming his birthright are quickly dispelled by the hegemony of meritocracy, which obtains not only within the United States proper, but also already on the frontier and, presumably, all the way to the Pacific.

Among the men Morgan respects are those he hires to guide him on his existential expedition. While Johnson barely mentions them, in Jack DeWitt's screenplay they are downgraded to stereotypical hillbillies. Their cinematic characterization plays on a longstanding prejudice in American culture against Appalachians, who have often been framed as congenitally retrograde, inbred "crackers" (Isenberg 105-132). Morgan, meanwhile, is transmogrified from Boston Brahmin to English Lord, further distancing him from his employees and risking the admission of hereditary social classes on the frontier. The contrast provided by the guides' tragic inbreeding, the mirror image of miscegenation, assuages this risk. In an essay on British characters in Western films, Jack Nachbar argues that figures like Morgan "confront the primitive coarseness of the frontier and in doing so are reborn, shedding their class consciousness and stuffy manners for individualism, democratic classlessness, and invigorating informality" (168). But the opening scene of the film shows that Morgan, despite having traversed the Northwest Territory for the past five years, is no closer to American egalitarianism than when he first arrived. He makes a clumsy attempt by imperiously demanding that his grizzled old guide, Maddock, call him by his first name rather than "Your Lordship." When Maddock responds with "And you may address me as 'Joe,'" his toothless, hillbilly grin is played for a laugh, mocking any suggestion that the two men could ever be considered equals. In their illiteracy, drunkenness, and general ill breeding, Morgan's guides hardly present an ideal model of a democratic citizenry. Instead, they project a retrogressive, excessively hereditary kind of whiteness that Morgan must reject in order to construct a superior, meritocratic brand of whiteness that can legitimate his inherited social status. Morgan's desired equality is to be found not in the erasure of social class, but in the transposition of racial identity. Whereas the former is properly accomplished in melodrama's revelation of the moral occult, the latter invokes the gothic's fatal bloodlines.



In his transitional stage between being white and becoming Indian, Morgan experiences an abjection into the status of a beast of burden. He becomes, for all intents and purposes, a horse. In arguing for the underlying connections between the myths of South and West, Cawelti notes the centrality of the horse to both, particularly as a symbol of a declining socioeconomic system that is rapidly being superseded by industrialization (Six-Gun 76-77). The historical role of the horse as a marker of nobility is clearly operative in the Western, as is evidenced in the return of the Spanish loan-word caballero (gentleman) to its linguistic roots to refer to anyone who rides a horse. Its etymological cousins, chivalry and cavalry, lie at the heart of the racist ideologies of protecting white womanhood and venerating the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which itself has been transposed into the Western mythos as Custer's Last Stand. "When the South lost the War," writes Colin Dayan, "its brutal, sweet, and vanishing world was kept alive in [its horses'] gently curving haunches." However, these same horses "also bore the pesky contradictions of slavery on their backs" (43). Cawelti detects an ambivalence present in the horse's "special linkage [with] black slaves" who are "often shown to have a special understanding or skill with horses" (Six-Gun 77). Beyond this literal association, still operative in the twenty-first century in the form of Deadwood's freedman livery master Hostetler, the analogical connections between horses and slaves in terms of social status and economic function is a central subtext in both versions of A Man Called Horse.

In Johnson's story, Morgan's captivity teaches him "what it [is] to have no status at all" (2). In other words, he has undergone a social death that places him entirely outside of kinship circles and status hierarchies (Patterson 38). At the moment of Morgan's capture, he is "naked as a horse and poor as a slave" (22). By the time he realizes that he is "the property of the...old woman" who will later become his mother-in-law, he has already "considered coldly the advantages of being a horse. A man would be humiliated, and sooner or later he would strike back and that would be the end of him. But a horse had only to be docile. Very well, he would learn to do without pride" (4). Morgan's newfound identity as a horse also prompts a feeling of solidarity with actual horses: "The captive was a horse all summer, a docile bearer of burdens, careful and patient. He kept reminding himself that he had to be better-natured than other horses, because he could not lash out with hoofs or teeth. Helping the old woman load up the horses for travel, he yanked at a pack and said, 'Whoa, brother. It goes easier when you don't fight.'" (6). Morgan's fatalistic acceptance of his status as livestock is mirrored in the narrator's legitimation: "The Indian who captured him lived like a lord, as he had a right to do." (6). If we take the question of chattel slavery vs. "free soil" as a structuring absence of the Western, this statement becomes less an expression of cultural relativism than an implicit endorsement of the Myth of the South. This reading is also supported by the story's denouement, described earlier as the revelation of Morgan's moral occult. When his brother-in-law falls in battle and his wife dies in childbirth, Morgan finds himself a free man. The fact that his mother-in-law has burned the family's possessions and mutilated herself in mourning adds an additional incentive for Morgan to leave the village. But when the old woman turns to him and plaintively addresses him as "Son," he finds himself acknowledging her as his mother and deciding to stay to care for her in her remaining years (23-24). In an interview, Johnson described this decision as the moment when her "neurotic" protagonist "becomes an admirable person.... He finally changes when he joins in the suffering" (Mathews and Healy 160). At the very moment of his emancipation, the former slave submits to maternal authority in a pathetic gesture of self-sacrifice. In this way, the Indian village comes to occupy the nostalgic space of an idealized past, the mythical plantation.

The intervening years between the publication of Johnson's story in 1950 and the release of its cinematic adaptation in 1970 straddle the conventional, if whitewashed, periodization of the Civil Rights Movement, from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. By the time Collier's first printed the story, the plantation myth was already becoming taboo in Hollywood filmmaking (Bogle 76). Despite the apparently radical departure of inserting the Sun Vow, the adaptation maintains and hyperbolizes Johnson's theme of sacrifice and its concomitant racial coding. While the film retains Morgan's acceptance of his adoptive mother at its conclusion, the narrative logic of the source material is undermined by the far greater spectatorial impact of the ritual sequence, to the extent that the film's ending is utterly anticlimactic. Russell Reising has argued that texts whose "failed endings" resist clear-cut structural exposition "can't close, precisely because their embeddedness within the sociohistorical worlds of their genesis is so complex and conflicted" (11). A Man Called Horse engages in a strange attempt to integrate the Myths of the South and the West while also addressing a contemporary moment in which those ideologies are being questioned.

The white captive's complete integration into Sioux society is forbidden by the ideological imperatives of American mass culture, which also insist on his accession to citizenship according to his metaphorical role as immigrant. In Johnson's story, the public event that follows Morgan's successful horse-raid takes the form of a performance rather than an initiation ordeal: "The white man smeared his face with grease and charcoal. He walked inside the tepee circle, chanting and singing" (13). In other words, Morgan's integration into the tribe is marked by a display approximating blackface minstrelsy, a key vehicle for the dissemination of the plantation myth that is echoed in Johnson's ending. This moment of Morgan's accession to citizenship in the village unexpectedly mirrors Michael Rogin's argument that “blacking up” became a mode of Americanization (read: whitening) for immigrant Jewish entertainers, through a process he calls "conversion by blackface" (80). Despite the replacement of the minstrel show with the Sun Vow, racial masquerade continues to be central to the film's construction of whiteness. In theory, the horse raid should itself raise Morgan to full citizenship in the village. As Johnson succinctly puts it, "This is the way the captive white man acquired wealth and honor to win a bride and save his life" (12). But the film's incorporation of the Sun Vow forecloses the performative efficacy of Morgan's acquisition. He presents the horses to the chief, who additionally demands that Morgan, to his chagrin ("I just bought her, didn't I?"), must undergo the initiation. The chief's pronouncement interjects this ordeal into the frame of Johnson's narrative as a substitution for Morgan's "blacking up," overdetermining the spectacle's significance. If Morgan's integration into the village economy by means of his acquisition of horses is read as the transition from slavery to ostensibly free labor, the fact that the bride price is inadequate to grant him access to marriage rights begins to make more sense. What the chief is demanding is a ritual lynching.

The staging of the Sun Vow as pseudo-lynching positions its spectators as witnesses to a public spectacle of the type that Wister's Judge disavows. The set design and lighting reflexively present the medicine lodge in which the ritual takes place as a movie theater. Holes in the roof above the chief and his compatriots produce shafts of light protruding toward the center of the lodge where Morgan stands, his face brightly illuminated (see Figure 2). These rays are clearly reminiscent of those emanating from a projection booth, while the tiered seating arrangement recalls a theater's sloped floor. In this way, spectators are prompted to assume the role of witness to the ceremony, in contradistinction to dominant Western tendencies, as described by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam: "The point-of-view conventions consistently favor the Euro-American protagonists; they are centered in the frame, their desires drive the narrative; the camera pans, tracks, and cranes to accompany their regard." Consequently, "[t]he possibility of sympathetic identifications with the Indians is simply ruled out" (120). The reflexive presentation of indigenous spectatorship would be untenable according to the conventional system of identification, in which the spectator is unmarked by race, gender, or any other identity category. By default, the spectator is presumed to be a white male. This paradox of universality as the property of a specific group lies at the heart of what Sally Robinson calls "the identity politics of the dominant" (3). Advances made by marginalized groups in the 1960s and 1970s tended also to expose and contest white supremacy and patriarchy. In response, white men began to adopt the rhetoric of minoritarian movements, posing themselves as similarly aggrieved while also maintaining their  unique status as universal subject. Such rhetoric amounts to "recentering white masculinity by decentering it. In other words," Robinson continues, "in order for white masculinity to negotiate its position within the field of identity politics, white men must claim a symbolic disenfranchisement, must compete with various others for cultural authority bestowed upon the authentically disempowered, the visibly wounded" (12). In this light, the unorthodox identificatory dynamics of the Sun Vow become comprehensible as an articulation of the structuring contradictions inherent to the ideology of whiteness in the post-Civil Rights era.

As mentioned earlier, Johnson's story ends with the declaration that Morgan's ordeal has shown him to be "the equal of any man on earth" (24). Johnson's line is echoed in the film, in a slightly but tellingly different fashion. Just before the ritual begins, Morgan declares to the assembled crowd, "You are no different from men all over the world!" This statement could be taken as a performative utterance that temporarily bestows whites upon the diegetic audience – they are, after all, attending a lynching. At the same time, it addresses the white male spectator in the theater, allowing him to identify with the Indian and thus to feel that he has experienced disempowerment. From this overdetermined position, he can now fully experience the reinstatement of whiteness embodied in Morgan's suffering.

A Man Called Horse is an early example of what Claire Sisco King has identified as the "sacrificial film," which "deploys images of and narratives about male suffering, death, and redemption as strategies for reconstituting dominant notions of the subject, the nation, and the masculine" (6). Unlike most protagonists of sacrificial films, Morgan does not die, but like them, his sacrifice has a clear Christological inflection. The unsubtle messianic overtones of Morgan's ordeal are again manifested in the peculiar layout of the film's poster (see Figure 1). The image in the center features a spear poking into Morgan's side, which is bound to bring up associations with centuries of pictorial representations of Christ's crucifixion. It also guides the viewer's eye from the lower left to the upper right as it traverses the various tableaux, making the surrounding, smaller images analogous to the Stations of the Cross in a passion play.

The ideological contradiction between white supremacy and its continual disavowal can only be resolved by transfiguring the ritual from a gothic lynching into a cleansing crucifixion. Morgan's denial of the flesh through his endurance of bodily suffering confirms his status as melodramatic victim-hero. His body becomes the site on which white supremacy is reaffirmed in the face of contemporary challenges to its hegemony. The Sun Vow marks the moment in which gothic excess becomes justified by its resolution into the melodramatic frame. This ritual ordeal enacts a process of expiation through which gothic guilt is transformed into melodramatic innocence.



Figure 1


Figure 2



1. For a general analysis of Johnson's role as source author for Western adaptations, see Metz who addresses Liberty Valance and The Hanging Tree (1959), but not A Man Called Horse.

2. I use this term to refer to cinematic representations of Native Americans in Westerns, in order to clearly differentiate cinematic caricatures from human beings. While I normally would use the name of the specific tribe or nation in question, this practice is complicated by the change from Crow captors in Johnson's story to Sioux in the film. Most of the characters' names are likewise changed between the story and screenplay. I have therefore avoided referring to the Indian characters by name, in the interest of consistency and clarity.

3. The design and staging of this ceremony are taken directly from the writings and paintings of George Catlin, a Pennsylvanian who went West in the 1830s to document what he considered to be rapidly vanishing indigenous cultures. Catlin's role as additional source author for this film adaptation is fascinating, but beyond the scope of the current discussion.

4. My thanks to Duncan Faherty for drawing my attention to the layout of this poster.


Works Cited

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Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians. Dover, 1973. 2 vols.

---. O-kee-pa: A Religious Ceremony and Other Customs of the Mandans. Edited by John C. Ewers, Yale UP, 1967.

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A Man Called Horse. Directed by Elliott Silverstein, Cinema Center Films, 1970.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Directed by John Ford, Paramount, 1962.

Metz, Walter C. "'Have You Written a Ford, Lately?': Gender, Genre, and the Film Adaptations of Dorothy Johnson's Western Literature." Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2003, pp. 209-220.

Nachbar, Jack. "They Went Thataway, Old Chap: Movie Images of the English on the American Frontier." In the Eye of the Beholder: Critical Perspectives in Popular Film and Television, edited by Gary R. Edgerton, Michael T. Marsden, and Jack Nachbar, Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1997, pp. 167-177.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard UP, 1982.

Reising, Russell. Loose Ends: Closure and Crisis in the American Social Text. Duke UP, 1996.

The Revenant. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, New Regency Productions, 2015.

Ringe, Donald A. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. UP of Kentucky, 1982.

Roberts, Diane. The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region. Routledge, 1994.

Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. Columbia UP, 2000.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. U of California P, 1996.

The Searchers. Directed by John Ford, Warner Bros., 1956.

Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. Routledge, 1994.

Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization. Atheneum, 1985.

---. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Atheneum, 1992.

---. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Wesleyan UP, 1973.

The Squaw Man. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar C. Apfel, Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1912.

Telotte, J.P. "A Fate Worse Than Death: Racism, Transgresssion, and Westerns." Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 26, no. 3, 1998, pp. 120-127.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. "The Family on the Land: Race and Nationhood in Silent Westerns," The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema, edited by Daniel Bernardi, Rutgers UP, 1996, pp. 129-169.

Williams, Linda. "Melodrama Revised," Refiguring American Film Genres, edited by Nick Browne, U of California P, 1998, pp. 42-88.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. Macmillan, 1902.

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