Home > Reviews > BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE – George S. Clinton


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been interesting to see how the perception of the Native American, or the American Indian, or however you want to describe them, has changed in Hollywood over the years. At the birth of cinema, movies tended to depict them the same way as the United States as a whole did: troublesome, violent, dirty savages who stood in the way of the white man’s inevitable progress across the American continent, and who had to be eradicated as necessary. By the 1950s, the attitude had softened somewhat: characters like Tonto were portrayed as subservient lackeys to the heroic Lone Rangers of the world, almost as a variation on Stepin Fetchit, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. I don’t know when the perception of native Americans made its most radical shift, but the by the time Dances With Wolves rolled around in 1989, the Indian had become a noble, almost mythic figure: honorable, family-oriented, dependable, spiritual, deeply in touch with the land around him, and bearing all the qualities humanity itself aspires to have. This is certainly the standpoint Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee takes.

Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, first published in 1970, is one of the most important books ever written on the subject. A detailed history of Native Americans in the American West in the late nineteenth century, and their subsequent displacement and slaughter at the hands of the new United States federal government, it outlines the relations of the tribes to the government during the years 1860-1890, beginning with the Navajos and Apaches (who were displaced as California and the surrounding states were settled), and going on to tell the true life stories of such important figures as General Custer, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Chief Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, and their different attempts to save their peoples, by peace, war, or retreat. The later part of the book focuses primarily on the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of the plains, who were among the last to be moved onto reservations, and culminates with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the murders of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and the slaughter of Sioux prisoners at Wounded Knee, South Dakota that is generally considered to be the event which ended the Indian Wars. The film version of this important, epic, expansive tale debuted on HBO in May 2007 under the direction of Canadian Yves Simoneau, and starred Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, Anna Paquin, August Schellenberg, J.K. Simmons, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi and Fred Dalton Thompson.

George S. Clinton has written western-esque music before, with the Morricone homage Dollar for the Dead, and the “urban western” Black Dog, both in 1998, but he has never really tackled anything with this level of sophistication or seriousness in the genre before. Come to think of it, I don’t think Clinton has EVER really tackled anything with this level of sophistication or seriousness before – or if he has, it’s certainly not been this high profile. It’s fortunate that Clinton and Simoneau have a long-developed working relationship – Clinton has scored films such as Mother’s Boys, Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight, Intensity and The 4400 for the director over the years – but Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee would seem to be the high water mark of their collaborations to date.

Clinton’s music is broad, sweeping, and noble, encompassing the magisterial beauty of the then-unspoiled American west, but retaining a sense of intimacy with the men and women of the tribes whose lives helped shape the history of the United States as it is today. Clinton composed two hours of music over a four-week period, 30 minutes of which appears on this commercially unavailable promotional CD, and which shows a largely unseen serious side to Clinton’s musical personality.

Clinton tells his story with a score written for a decent-sized symphony orchestra, and augmented by traditional guest artists – both vocal and instrumental – and percussion items ranging from familiar snares and timpanis to the less familiar bullroarer, an indigenous Australian Aborigine instrument played by swinging a weighted aerofoil around in a broad circle at the end of a long piece of cord, resulting in a unique whooshing, whirring sound. The most prominent guest artist is Oglala Lakota flautist John Two-Hawks, whose evocative, vaguely ethereal tones permeate virtually the entire score, and drench it in the musical traditions of these ancient cultures.

His “Main Title” builds from a soft, moody opening into an unexpected action motif anchored by tremolo strings, powerful brass themes, a large choir, and an effective (if a little anachronistic) synth percussion element. During the course of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee there’s no actual recurring theme to speak of – nothing which stays with you in the same way that, say, John Barry’s theme did – but Clinton nevertheless maintains a generally pleasing orchestral tone throughout the duration of the score, even though it doesn’t linger for long afterwards.

“The Train” features a gorgeous, emotional piano and strings combo, while “Cedar Creek” is darker, at times almost funereal, with its clearly John Barry-inspired snare drums offering a tangible sense of foreboding. Unexpectedly, Clinton nods his head in the direction of Thomas Newman’s piano writing in “Assimilation”, before returning to the lonely-sounding string writing in the mournfully beautiful “Red Cloud”. Elsewhere, Clinton works traditional Native American chants into “The Feather” and “Spotted Eagle Song”, the latter of which was composer by Darryl McDonald, while ambient, slightly ghostly electronics are the order of the day in “Charles”, a cue which seems to have taken part of a leaf out of some of James Horner’s work on scores such as Thunderheart.

The synth percussion element returns at the beginning of the dramatic “White Horse”, which sounds like it could have been written by one of Hans Zimmer’s more talented underlings, before embracing a more spiritual-sounding vocal, which eventually leads into the satisfying finale, “Ears for It/Cross and Feather”, which concludes with both a sorrowful piano refrain and an bittersweet orchestral sweep, both of which seem to be lamenting for the fate of the ‘noble savages’ who were so mercilessly eradicated by the unyielding paleface.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable and worthy score from a composer who very rarely gets the opportunity to tackle a subject with this kind of scope, or importance, and bravo to Clinton for succeeding admirably. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is not a showy score which will capture legions of fans; instead, it is a subtle, sincere piece of music accompanying one of American history’s most darkest chapters. Look for an Emmy nomination heading this way in 2007.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (4:41)
  • The Feather (2:03)
  • The Train/Civilized (3:14)
  • Cedar Creek (1:56)
  • Spotted Eagle Song (written and performed by Daryl McDonald) (1:42)
  • Assimilation (2:22)
  • Red Cloud (2:28)
  • Charles (1:43)
  • What To Believe (2:11)
  • White Horse (3:17)
  • Ears for It/Cross and Feather (4:48)

Running Time: 30 minutes 15 seconds

HBO/Agency Promo (2007)

Music composed and conducted by George S. Clinton. Orchestrations by Rick Giovinazzo. Additional music by John Two-Hawks. Special vocal performances by Daryl McDonald and Michael Spears. Recorded and mixed by Steve Kempster. Edited by Mike Flicker, Matt Friedman and Bryon Rickerson. Album produced by George S. Clinton.

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  1. February 5, 2012 at 11:02 pm

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