Driven, wintry clouds scud across rugged, snowbound mountains. The wind moans across an empty plain with a sound like a fluted dirge, till it wheels and whips and rattles about the burial scaffold of an old Cheyenne warrior lying wrapped in a fur shroud. It lifts a corner of the shroud and looks upon the aged face and white hair of its still and silent occupant. Suddenly, an eyelid flutters and opens in surprise.
“Grandfather,” the warrior says, his voice thick with disuse, “can this be the land of the sky people? Where are the grasses and the buffalo? Why are my feet so cold? Grandfather, this is a good joke. But now I would continue my journey to the land of the spirits.” He composes himself once again and closes his eyes.
But continue he does not. “Grandfather,” he queries, “why is it that I cannot walk upon the wind? Free my spirit or free my limbs. But do not leave me in this cold.”
It is then that the Windwalker embarks upon his last and strangest journey, confused and disoriented, once again having to battle the elements and the wild in a body ancient and weak. He finds his son and family where he left them many days before, but all is not well. The son is near death from a run-in with their old enemy, the Crow. The two wives and three children are starving, and the small party of relentless Crow, whom they have once escaped, must find them soon.
Two of the Crow scouting party have separate objectives: old one-eye wants the “white horse of a great warrior”, belonging to the warrior’s son, Smiling Wolf (Nick Ramus). Another wants the youngest and most beautiful of Smiling Wolf’s two wives. But another Crow, who does not seem to belong with this band, wants nothing to do with the cowardly pursuit of this wounded warrior and his women.
The story follows the Cheyenne family’s struggle for life in this harsh and unforgiving land, but gives us an open window to their simple joys and customs. The haunting woodwinds score flows through the scenes with an ethereal longing for the old warrior’s lost Tashina (Serene Hedin), and for a lost son, twin to Smiling Wolf, who was stolen away. Windwalker’s search for that lost son claimed many years of his long life.
As the old man leads his family to a safer, more secure place, the drip, drip, drip of an icicle fills the screen, heralding spring and new life, even as they prepare for battle, perhaps to die. Standing his two little grandsons (9-10 years old) before him, the grandfather prepares them for war.
“Do not fear death,” he tells them. “As spring begins with winter, so death begins with birth. It is only a step in the great circle of life. Fight without fear. You are Cheyenne.”
But in the final battle it is his son who rides, majestic and proud, upon the great white horse to meet his father’s old enemy. Here is that final battle
The old man and his family converse in the Cheyenne language (with subtitles, of course) throughout the movie, with the narration given in English. Each character’s voice, presence, countenance, and poise takes us back to the land of America’s first people, and channels their unique spirit, dignity and grace. All the roles, except Trevor Howard’s, were played by Native Americans. Nick Ramus was Blackfoot.
When researching this movie for the names of the actors and roles, I stumbled across the fact that, though the old man was supposedly narrating through the flashbacks of his life, it was not Trevor Howard’s voice. It was Nick Ramus (Smiling Wolf) dubbing the narration for Howard, who had a distinct British accent. However, according to an online article written for Turner Classic Movies, Howard was tutored in the Cheyenne language, “and was eventually able to deliver his Cheyenne dialogue perfectly”.
There is a lot of interesting background on this 1980 or 1981 movie if you care to check it out. The date of the movie differs according to whose research you read.